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January 25, 2018 – Dog behavior ranges from the understandable, such as barking at strangers, to the baffling, such as an obsessive need to eat socks. For owners, their dog’s behavior typically falls into two categories: cute (a puppy’s first reaction to snow) or bad (jumping on houseguests). And the consequences of “bad” behavior for a dog can be serious. Behavior problems are one of the most common reasons dogs are relinquished to shelters or rescue groups. 

Dr. James Serpell, Professor of Animal Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania, has long been interested in finding methods to objectively measure canine behavior. The result of his labors was the development of the C-BARQ© (Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire), a tool for dog owners, behaviorists and veterinarians to evaluate a dog’s behavior and temperament. 

Dr. Serpell, a Morris Animal Foundation-grant recipient, also played a key role in the development of the questionnaire used in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, the Foundation’s own research following the medical history and lifestyle (including behavior) of the 3,000+ golden retrievers enrolled in the study. 

We recently had a chance to sit down with Dr. Serpell and ask him a few questions about his interest in behavior.

Can you tell us a bit about the history behind the development of C-BARQ©?

When I first started to get interested in dog behavior and behavior problems, I examined the literature and most of the information that was out there was based on clinical cases; cases that were sufficiently extreme they were referred to an expert. It was very difficult to get a sense of how widespread these problems were in the dog population. In order to try to get an estimate of that, I needed a comprehensive survey that could go out to large numbers of dog owners. 

I got my ideas on how to do this from the child development literature. Human psychologists developed questionnaires that could be completed by the parents of children, and could give the psychologists a sense of how individual kids were doing in terms of a number of temperament dimensions. I basically adapted that methodology to the dog.

Can you give us some more detail on how you used this template to develop C-BARQ©?

We did a massive literature review and tried to identify every possible area in which dogs develop behavioral problems. We converted each of those problems into specific questions about how the dog responds to different commonly occurring events and situations in its environment. We sent it out to a group of dog owners, and analyzed the responses. We threw some questions out, and grouped others.

We then labeled those groupings; for example, a non-social fear trait which meant the dog was afraid of sudden noises, or inanimate objects but wasn’t necessarily frightened of people or animals. It took years of study, and we finished with 14 different subscales, covering various types of aggression, fear, excitability and trainability, most of what you can imagine in terms of generalized temperament traits in dogs.

How have you, and others, used the C-BARQ© test?

The test has been online since 2006, gathering data from dog owners ever since. The test has had a large uptake from working dog organizations, both national and international, who use it to evaluate their dogs when they’re living with puppy raisers. We have a separate database for working dogs, and it’s almost as large as the pet dog database. 

We did an early study in an animal shelter to see if the C-BARQ© was of any value as a way of screening dogs being relinquished for their behavior. The results suggested that what the owners reported as their reasons for relinquishment were fairly accurate, but they weren’t being totally honest in reporting some behaviors, particularly aggression toward people living in the household. I suspect they were worried that the dog would just be euthanized, rather than adopted.

We published the results, but later decided to do a bigger study using at a shortened version of the questionnaire in more shelters. Morris Animal Foundation funded the study that involved three different shelters. When we got the results back, there was no evidence that people were biasing their results, and there was a good correspondence between what the owners were reporting on the C-BARQ© regarding behavior and what the shelter staff noted. 

We also followed some of those dogs that were relinquished right through to the adopting home, and C-BARQ’ed them again several months later. What was rather encouraging was that most of these dogs did not show the same behavior problems in the second home. That suggests that many of the behavior problems dogs develop are due to the environment in which they live, and if you take them out of that environment, they can lose those behaviors. I found that a very encouraging result for shelter adoption.

Tell us about your involvement with the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study 

As part of the study’s steering committee, I recommended we use the C-BARQ© to assess behavior in the study participants. However, I feel a little sorry for the study participant’s owners, since they have to fill out this long questionnaire every year! But the information is incredibly valuable because nobody has collected this type of serial information on behavioral characteristics of dogs previously. The owners of these dogs are acting as citizen scientists by adding to the body of knowledge on behavior and other issues that will almost certainly help other dogs and their owners in the long term.

Is there any area that particularly interests you regarding the C-BARQ© results from the study?

One of my strong interests is how stress affects health in dogs. The golden retriever breed, although notoriously sociable and friendly, does have relatively high levels of anxiety as a breed. I know that from the very large number of golden retrievers in the C-BARQ© database, they show this quite frequently. I thought the golden retriever would be a particularly appropriate dog for looking at the relationship between stress sensitivity and physical health. 

There is some data out there showing links between fear and mortality in dogs in general. There was a relationship between dogs with high scores on C-BARQ© fear scales and a variety of health problems. I thought it would be great to look at one breed, and see what sorts of associations there are between behavior and health.

We know that animals that are chronically stressed are more susceptible to all kinds of disease states, including things like cancer. Cancer is one of the major foci of the study, so I really thought it was important to get the behavior questions into the study.

Of course, the findings the study is going to generate will go way beyond just cancer. There are endless possibilities, arising just from the fact that we’re collecting this type of data in a routine way in this cohort of dogs over their lifetimes.

Why is studying canine behavior important?

Sadly, behavior as a discipline is struggling to maintain its status in the veterinary community. We’ve seen several behavior clinics disappear in recent years, often the victims of budget cuts. The reality is that behavior clinics don’t make much money, because it takes a lot of time and effort to treat behavior problems.

 I think that’s a tragedy; the importance of having behavior experts around is not the money they generate but the impact they have on students in helping them understand the importance of animal behavior as a component of animal health and welfare. 

The importance of understanding animal behavior is getting some recognition, but it isn’t getting enough. I don’t think people understand how many animals die prematurely because of behavior problems. Some people refer to it as the number one cause of premature death, particularly in young dogs, and I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that.

Where has Morris Animal Foundation funding made an impact in behavior studies?

For me, understanding behavior and the relationship between behavior and an animal’s emotional well-being and its health are all part of the same package. I think this is where Morris Animal Foundation is making an impact, by recognizing and valuing that connection as a research area, and funding research, including the Golden retriever Lifetime Study, which looks at this interaction.

If you wish to learn more about C-BARQ©, or take the test on behalf of your dog, you can check out Dr. Serpell’s website. You can find even more information in the latest edition of Dr. Serpell’s book “The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People (2017; Cambridge University Press). Visit the Morris Animal Foundation website to learn more about the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, early behavior results from the study, and all of our animal health studies.