Behavior and Training · Behavior Assessments · Science

Beware the Straw Man

Many animal shelters regularly use standardized tests to assess the behavior of dogs and to determine adoption suitability. However, while the use of these tests has become ubiquitous, there is a distinct lack of research demonstrating their reliability or validity. In other words, while testing a dog’s degree of friendliness, aggression and fear prior to adoption makes intuitive sense and feels like a good idea, we do not actually know whether or not it actually works. This is an important question to raise (and I am by no means the first to be raising it), because when these tests are administered as a method for predicting a dog’s future behavior, the dog’s performance on the test often determines whether or not he has a future.

Murder(Sometimes…..literally)

My previous blog,  “This test you keep using…..” reviewed a study that examined the predictive value of a single subtest of a standard behavior test, the fake hand as a test for food aggression (1).  That paper’s results are important because it brought the fake hand test under needed scientific scrutiny and because it brought additional attention to the need for the scientific validation of all behavior tests that are used with shelter and rescue dogs.

Though still limited, these studies are being conducted and published. For example, an Australian behaviorist, Kate Mornement, has been studying behavior assessments used by animal shelters for the last several years as part of her PhD research at Monash University (2,3). Most recently, she and her research team examined the effectiveness of a behavior assessment program called the BARK protocol (4).

katehome

Kate Mornement, Pets Behaving Badly

The study: Kate and her research team first worked with a focus panel of nine canine experts to develop a standardized 12-subtest behavior assessment that was labeled the Behavioural Assessment for Rehoming K-9s (BARK) program. The BARK battery of tests was designed to assess five primary behavior traits: anxiety, compliance, fear, friendliness, and activity level. Following development, the BARK test’s reliability and validity were studied in a shelter setting over a 12-month period. Several measures of its effectiveness were examined: inter-rater reliability (the degree to which different evaluators agreed when assessing the same dog), test-retest (the degree to which a dog’s score was stable over time; in this case dogs were retested 24 hours following their initial assessment), and predictive validity (the accuracy with which in-shelter test results predicted a dog’s in-home behavior). Predictive validity was assessed by surveying adoptive owners several months following adoption regarding their dog’s degree of anxiety, fear, friendliness, compliance, and activity level.

testing test

 Results: Several results of this study are of value to shelter professionals and dog folks:

  1. Inter-rater reliability: Scoring for the five behavior categories showed statistically significant and moderate agreement between evaluators when testing the same dog. This means that two evaluators (who in this study were highly experienced researchers) generally rated dogs similarly. Some associations were stronger than others, with the assessment for fearful behavior showing the strongest correlation between scorers.
  2. Test-retest reliability: The test-retest reliability was significant for some traits and non-significant for others, resulting in overall weak reliability for the entire group of subtests. This means that a dog’s scores were not always consistent (stable) over time (in this case, just 24 hours) while in the shelter environment. Similar to inter-rater reliability scoring, the tests that reflected a dog’s degree of fear had the strongest correlations.
  3. Predictive validity:  A group of 67 dogs who had been adopted into homes were subsequently assessed via owner interviews. Owner assessments were compared with the dogs’ in-shelter BARK scores. Overall, the predictive value of the BARK test was found to be poor. Only two of the five behavior categories had statistically significant correlations between in-home behavior and BARK test scores; fear and friendliness. However, even these associations were not strong (r = 0.42 and r = 0.49, respectively).  There were no correlations between in-home reports of anxiety, compliance, and activity level with in-shelter BARK scores.

Take Away for Dog Folks: These results suggest that a standardized behavior test, administered to shelter dogs in a shelter environment, may not be a reliable indicator of a dog’s future behavior.   

soapbox

Soapbox time: These results (and those of Marder et al) raise several questions. Perhaps single-session tests designed to measure major behavior categories can work and all that is needed is additional attention to designing the right types of subtests. Or, perhaps it is more important to examine differences among shelters in terms of staff experience, time availability, adoption standards, and the number of animals that are cared for and attempt to design behavior assessments that can be modified to fit individual shelter’s needs. Or, perhaps it is time to rethink the entire use of these tests and to consider not using them at all.Elephant

Because these tests have become so entrenched in shelter and rescue dog culture, it is this last suggestion that is not only often overlooked, but also that has the potential to raise much ire. Typically, responses to this suggestion center around three objections, all of which qualify in one way or another as straw man arguments and which can effectively function to derail thoughtful discourse.

strawman-full

 These are:

  1. If we stopped using the [insert branded test name here] behavior test, we would not have a way to assess dogs’ behavior prior to putting them up for adoption. [Setting up a false dichotomy: It is not an either/or issue. There are other, potentially better, approaches to monitoring and assessing shelter dog behavior than single-session standardized tests. Not using the [***] test, does not require you to use nothing at all to assess behavior].
  2. I have seen the tests work with my own eyes; if it prevents a single dog who is aggressive from going up for adoption from my shelter, it is worth using. [False proposition: For example, Marder’s data show that yes, some dogs are correctly identified as food aggressive. However, others are missed, and some  dogs who are not aggressive are misidentified as such. A poor diagnostic test that gets one right once in a while cannot be defended as a valid diagnostic test].
  3. But, what about the children? We cannot risk adopting out a dog who might bite a child!!?! (This last is typically uttered with raising voice and a hint of hysteria) [Classic Strawman: Redefining the argument to imply that those who question the use of the beloved test advocate the release of baby-killing canines into communities. This is misdirection at its best as invoking the emotional “save the children” chant works to derail discourse every time. First, no one denies that it is important to ensure that only dogs who are safe are placed into homes with children. Second, the fact that it is important to identify dogs who may be aggressive to children is not the same issue as whether or not one continues to use tests that appear to be unreliable. In other words, an inaccurate test would not help you to save those children that you are so concerned about… ]

Strawman-light

Strawman arguments, in addition to being logically invalid, function to keep people from paying attention to the evidence, and from admitting that there may be a problem with the use of behavior tests to assess shelter dogs. If we can keep these at bay and instead encourage discussion of where the science seems to be leading us, we may find that there are potential alternatives to the current standardized, single-session behavior tests. Improved design of the tests is one, as is custom-designing tests to meet shelters’ needs, as is developing an approach that is more longitudinal in nature – for example, having shelter staff note simple behaviors once or twice a day during feeding/cleaning/exercising dogs to provide a longer-term and cumulative record of the dog’s behavior. Longitudinal data, like single-session behavior tests, would require validation through scientific testing. Conversely, to continue to champion a battery of tests that have not yet held up under scientific scrutiny and have been shown to be significantly deficient in at least some areas, seems to be helping no one, least of all the dogs who are tested……..and fail.

References Cited:

  1. Marder AR, Shabelansky A, Patronek GJ, Dowling-Guyer S, D’Arpino SS. Food-related aggression in shelter dogs: A comparison of behavior identified by a behavior evaluation in the shelter and owner reports after adoption. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2013; 148:150-156.
  2. Mornement K, Toukhsati S, Coleman G, et al. Reliability, validity and feasibility of existing tests of canine behavior. AIAM Annual Conference on Urban Animal Management, Proceedings. 2009;11-18.
  3. Mornement KM, Coleman GJ, Toukhsati S, Bennett PC. A review of behavioural assessment protocols used by Australian animal shelters to determinae adoption suitability of dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2010; 13:314-329.
  4. Mornement KM, Coleman GJ, Toukhsati S, Bennett PC. Development of the behavioural assessment for re-homing K9’s (B.A.R.K.) protocol. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2013; Article in Press. Abstract

 

54 thoughts on “Beware the Straw Man

  1. On the subject of the “think of the children” argument, my family actually raised a dog that bit a small child. Apparently the family in question had picked up a small German Shephard/Irish Wolfhound mixed dog, left her in the back seat of their car with their child, and when they child started playing roughly with her she nipped him hard enough to draw blood. At this point one of the adults became so overwrought by what had happened that they threw the dog out of the car window while the car was still moving. At the time my father was working nearby, saw what had happened, and rescued the dog from the street. Later on when the owners came back for her and explained what had happened he effectively told them to sod off and brought her home.

    From that day on she exhibited no excessive or unwarranted territoriality or aggression, she never drew blood except by accident (and then very rarely) when engaged in rough play, and she never went out of her way to hurt anything. She didn’t even engage in hunting any of the local animals like some of our other dogs did, and we had dogs that would routinely go after rabbits and moles. In fact this dog was so far from an animal that needed to be put down “for the sake of the children” that she, along with one of our other dogs, brought home a very young puppy someone had abandoned in the woods near our home.

    I’m not going to say that such a case isn’t atypical, nor am I going to suggest that there isn’t a difference between youthful exuberance from a puppy and ingrained (re)actions from an older dog. I simply find the argument to be highly questionable at best when someone could have used it to try to justify putting her down with the immediate result being her death and the long term result being the death of the puppy she wouldn’t have later rescued as well.

    Like

  2. I will be off kilter here somewhat regarding scientific measurements which I know this is about and you and many others on here love, I would like to point out that evals practiced in our local shelter are misleading and also can be accurate for some dogs….Let me explain, for those that have the “soft” temperament even under the stress/distress the shelter environment brings will be considered adoptable. On the other hand, a fearful, stressed/distressed dog taken out of that environment I have seen (I know anecdotal) many times exhibits a “whole new side”.( change the environment, get a different emotion/behavior). I know that if a dog does not have a personal advocate in our area and is not one of those with the “soft” personality, he’ll probably not make it out alive. They are sentient beings, which I think the scientific community has acknowledged, but has only concentrated on the negative emotional part of it. Dogs in shelters experience emotions while being eval’ed and there are a 100 reasons that the dog did not solicit attention from the human evaluator, but in many shelters that is cause for being deemed unadoptable. Is it accurate to say that the dog is unsociable? Only at that given time and place. What I would like to see is for the science community to fill the gaps that the current evals today have the allowance for positive and negative emotions. In the study of human behavior, allowances are made with different interchangeable models, tests are given that double check the first answer that was given. With the study of behavior progressing it would be interesting to see a study on a whole new approach of observation and freely interacting in many contexts.Bet that would be preditctive, how about a grant for a study such as that?

    Like

    1. Hi Melissa – Thanks for your well-considered and passionate comment. I completely agree with your points. I often use the analogy that using a single-session test to determine if a shelter-housed dog is “friendly, safe, adoptable, etc.” is like throwing you into a prison, not telling you why you are there or if you will ever again see freedom, housing you in a room that houses many other people who are also terrified and have no understanding of why they are imprisoned, and then subjecting you to a 15-minute test that will be used to evaluate your personality and to determine if you are “friendly enough” to be let back out into the free world. I think we could all agree that most of us would not be at our best or able to show our true nature under such stressful circumstances. I also agree with you that we need studies that look at different types of longitudinal assessments of dogs in shelters – something as simple as having staff members record a dog’s position in the kennel, body postures, response to treats, on a DAILY basis (rather than a single-shot test that attempts to provoke dramatic responses). The fact that there IS evidence of the unreliability of these single-session tests and very little evidence of their efficacy tells us that something needs to change if we are truly advocating for dogs. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment. Linda

      Like

      1. These dogs need to be office fostered, or fostered, or at least need need a more extensive look, if resources are limited. Fairness is paramount, unless it is a shelter that takes in 5 dogs for every adoption or redemption. Then education of the community is the only answer.

        Like

      2. Hi Tricia – I completely agree that fostering (even office fostering, if in-home is not available) is the very best way to go. Unfortunately, many shelters simply do not have enough foster homes or staff people available (and many, many thanks to all of you who do foster for all that you do to help and advocate for dogs). Your statement “fairness is paramount” speaks volumes. Thanks for your comment.

        Like

  3. Behavior is never static nor black and white. There are too many people conducting assessments that don’t read dogs well. There is art to the task. In the real world, dogs often deteriorate with long shelter stays. In the real world, in many shelters, intake can often outpace outgo. In order to maintain a humane and healthy population level, some criteria often needs to utilized. It is not a perfect world. Until there are fewer homeless animals, shelters need to do what they can. It sucks for sure.

    Like

  4. The other elephant I see is the lack of follow up from shelters that don’t test, that have a 98% live release rate. I hear much anecdote about adopters returning dogs after heartbreak with outcome. Data is missing from all fronts I think.

    Like

    1. Hi Tricia, If you have data that show this, please share the citation. Regardless, it is unclear how using a test that does not demonstrate strong predictive value could help to reduce return-to-shelter rates.

      Like

      1. As I said, there is no data on this. Anecdote is not data. Follow up is limited. We don’t really know about predictive value of assessments. Those that are euthanized produce truncated data. No ability to know if the prediction was accurate or not.

        Like

  5. Transition from shelter to home is not irrelevant. If a dog can’t cope in a shelter, deal with inconsistent handling, stress and chaotic environment, chances of attracting adopters are slight. They are homeless and dealing with a hard life. There is generally not a magic bullet that creates adopters that want projects.

    Like

    1. Hi Tricia – Agreed that the transition is an important consideration. However, if you are saying that an adoptable dog is only that dog who can “cope” with the stress of a shelter environment, I strongly disagree. This is akin to stating that only stable humans are those who can readily cope with imprisonment without justified cause (since dogs are not aware of WHY they are in a shelter). The issue here is NOT whether or not standardized behavior tests accurately reflect the response of a highly stressed dog living in a difficult environment. Rather the issue is that these tests are being used to make decisions about dogs’ adoptability and to predict dogs’ future, in-home behavior. In this regard, these tests have not been sufficiently studied, and the studies that have been published are demonstrating some very concerning deficiencies when the tests are used as a tool for decision-making. Linda Case

      Like

      1. Thank you Linda. This was exactly my feelings on reading Tricia’s post.

        Because in general, I suspect that the best ‘family dogs’ don’t really cope well with a shelter/pound situation at all well.

        Like

  6. I’m curious if you looked at the ASPCA’s SAFER assessment? The SAFER assessment is just that: an assessment, not a test. There is no Pass/Fail, it’s a tool used to gather information about how a dog does during handling, and what resources will be needed to aid that dog. Unlike many “temperament tests” that shelters use, SAFER does have research and data to support its validity, and it is evaluating the behavior of the dog (which can be changed), not the temperament (which is innate).

    I agree that many shelters using temperament tests put too much weight on them for making life and death decisions about the dogs in their care. That is why the ASPCA advocates that SAFER is to be used as just one piece of the puzzle when making decisions about dogs, and that people using the SAFER assessment become Certified Evaluators so that there is consistency across the board with handling, terminology, and understanding of human and dog body language, and that everyone who is Certified is following the same guidelines.

    To my knowledge, as of right now, there are no ethical/humane ways to assess/evaluate how a dog will do with an unknown child or cat at this point. Not to mention, assessing how a dog will do with a cat or another dog in the shelter is not predictive of how they’ll do in a home with different animals. There are simply too many variables.

    Just some food for thought.

    Like

    1. Hello “anonymous” – It is not the purpose of this particular blog to examine behavior tests, but rather to review published studies. I am familiar with the ASPCA’s SAFER test, and am not aware of any research that has been published in a peer-reviewed journal that evaluated SAFER’s reliability and validity as a behavior test for shelter animals. If you have a citation for such a study, please post it here and I would be happy to read it. Linda Case

      Like

      1. Investigating behavior assessment instruments to predict aggression
        in dogs (Bennett et al, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2012) attempted to validate SAFER and Assess-a-Pet. It found that AaP was valid (but with low predictive power) but not SAFER. The ASPCA seems to claim that SAFER is valid, and I’m hunting for references to support that but failing to find them!

        Like

      2. Hi Jessica – Thanks for your post and for the paper. It looks really interesting – I may use it for a follow-up essay on this piece. If you do find anything that was published for SAFER, please let me know. Like you, I have not yet found anything that was published in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal. Appreciate the input! Linda

        Like

  7. Linda does a really good job above of discussing what you have to look for in a test to measure how worthwhile it is: validity, inter-observer reliability and test-retest reliability. Why don’t you go to the website and give it a try. The link is above and it is currently opened to the public for free. The C-BARQ has met all of those measure for statistical significance and has been retested by other researchers and agencies who then obtained the same results (Hsu & Serpell 2003, Duffy 2008, van den Berg 2010). This includes studies in other countries to account for environmental effects (Nagasawa 2011). The test has met all scientific measures for validity and reliability. The question, of course, is how do we use the information that this tool provides effectively? It is just one of many measures/tools….

    Like

    1. Hi Leslie – Thanks for your comments. I am glad that you mention the C-BARQ program as it is a great project and I am happy to encourage dog folks to enter their dogs into its data base. I entered our oldest Golden a while back and just revisited to enter Cooper, our youngest Golden. I will add in our Brittany and Toller as well! I actually have several of the published papers that used C-BARQ data on my “pile” of papers to review as blog pieces. There are several that would make great blogs, but the one that I may write about soon is the JAVMA article of May 2013, entitled “Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders”. I need to read the entire paper, but the abstract shows that it contains some interesting results. (BTW, my consulting company’s survey research tool, The Dog Talk Project, includes acquisition source data and we have a very low number coming from pet stores, so cannot analyze that as a source. However, approximately 1/3 of dogs in our database come from breeders and about 40+ percent come from shelters/rescue groups, so we have been doing some comparisons of those two sources. There might be an opportunity for C-BARQ and DTP to collaborate in some way – let me know if you are interested in discussing!). Regardless – Thanks for your thoughtful comments regarding behavior tests and for sharing the C-BARQ information. Happy New Year! Linda

      Like

      1. It is always a pleasure to read thoughtful and thought provoking commentary on current issues, articles and research. Don’t know where you find the time, but kudos for the effort! Collaboration always tends to yield bigger and better results. It would be absolutely fascinating to try to look at some side by side comparisons of shelter/rescue dogs vs. hobby breeder sourced animals vs. commercial producers. I have read the paper you are talking about and there were some significant differences in behavior. Those differences were not always what you would imagine, but they were there. This is something that fascinates me because almost all of the dogs I see in my practice are identified by their owners as “rescue dogs”. How much impact does the source of origin and the environment have on observed behavior and can you modify that impact after the fact? It will be an interesting year ahead and I look forward to seeing what additional information we uncover.
        Keep in touch and best wishes for the New Year! Leslie

        Like

    2. Leslie, one issue with C-BARQ is that it doesn’t seem to allow you to print your responses. My dog was flagged and double-flagged in a few unexpected areas and I have no way to go back and see what that may correspond to. So I don’t know if it was my mistake, or your interpretation. For instance, he’s in a low percentile for attachment/attention-seeking with two red flags. Are they saying that he’s not affectionate enough? I do understand why you would not want people to edit their answers, but printing would be useful.

      Also, on breeds, a single breed is rather restrictive. While DNA shows about 6 significant breed components, his appearance and behavior relates to two breeds, which I feel is common, so how should I choose between a Cattle Dog and an Amstaff?

      Like

  8. Interesting discussion for sure….and one that is needed. Keep in mind, however, that these tests do provide us with info, but you have to know exactly WHAT info they are providing and use them appropriately. For example, Dr. Marder’s study did indicate that food-related aggression in the shelter often dissipates, is not a problem for properly educated adopters and/or may not manifest itself in the home environment. What the test does clearly show is that IF THERE IS NO FOOD AGGRESSION IN THE SHELTER IT WILL NOT OCCUR IN THE HOME. This is useful and potentially important information. Tests for aggression do not reveal territorial, predatory or inter-dog aggression, but do reveal fear-based aggression (Christensen 2007). In addition, one particular behavior test is statistically effective in screening for aggressive behavior especially when used in conjunction with in-house observation and history (Bennett, 2012). We have a survey instrument, C-BARQ, that is scientifically validated but not necessarily practical for in shelter use: http://vetapps.vet.upenn.edu/cbarq/
    My point would be, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. I agree that more research is desperately need but would argue that here is value in some screening tests when used appropriately!

    Like

    1. I suppose that the biggest problems with these ‘tests’ is that there can be enormous differences in how, when and where these are adminitstered, as well as an enormous degree of subjectivity in the ‘results’.

      Like

    2. http://www.guidedogs.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/cbarq-assessment.pdf

      I found the C-BARQ questionnaire — and feel that it is still every bit as subjecting as the Canine Good Citizen tests I have been involved with.

      Two different assessor can vary significantly on their evaluation of the same behaviour.

      Then let’s consider Q 20.
      When strangers walk past your home while your dog is in the yard.
      No aggression, No visible signs of aggression, Moderate aggression, growling/barking—baring teeth, Serious aggression,Snaps, bites or attempts to bite.

      Now WHAT is a ‘visible sign of aggression’? Barking? Yet barking can be a welcome or simply happily excited. And I’ve known dogs who will bite with no noise whatsoever! No growling, no curled lip, no bark. Just a certain stillness which many many people fail to see.
      Nowhere in this questionnaire have i seen any reference to a stillness, or a freeze or even stiff-leggedness — which is to mefar more worrying than barking and growling!

      Like

  9. Thank you so much for this blog. I work with a rescue shelter in a remote area in Australia and have been asked to help with temperment testing. I always felt that the tests used were not really showing “real world” behaviours. Love the idea of asking shelter staff to write down simple behaviours they see in a day.

    Like

  10. i like this article as it points out the inconsistency in any test. I do feel getting an assessment from an experienced handler can be a lifesaver. Over the years of using our BARC protocol we’ve used it to save more dogs than destroy. The author states, “having shelter staff note simple behaviors once or twice a day during feeding/cleaning/exercising dogs to provide a longer-term and cumulative record of the dog’s behavior” this would be awesome IF and that’s a big word, you could get the employees to take notes. In large municipal shelters this doesn’t happen. Using an “assessment” guide gives us a snapshot into the dogs personality and an indication of how we can best help the dog while in the shelter. I absolutely agree that it is not a predictive tool for a dog’s future behaviors. Most any behavior of a dog can be modified with proper training.

    Like

    1. Hello “Bound Angels” – Hmmm……Can we perhaps clone you and provide one of you to every shelter in the nation? 🙂 It is absolutely refreshing to hear from someone who is using one of the standardized tests as a tool to gather a bit of additional information about a dog in a setting that does not always allow longer term assessments, AND that recognizes the snap-shot nature and limitations of such a test, AND who is not using the test as a predictor of future behavior for that dog. One of the primary issues that I was trying to raise with this piece and the one before it was to question the use of single-session behavior assessments as diagnostic tools (which many shelters definitely are doing) for adoption potential and the development of unrealistic reliance upon them within shelter culture as a measure of behavior. Proponents continue to say that “any test will not be 100 percent accurate” and of course that is true. The problem with the current use of behavior assessments is that the results that a dog shows, often when repeatedly provoked, are used to make decisions about a dog’s future when in effect, the tests’ ability to do just that has never been adequately demonstrated. Regardless – you clearly “get this” issue and view these tools as a way to help dogs rather than to label them behaviorally or to make snap decisions about their fate. Thanks for all that you are doing for the dogs in your care. I know this work is tremendously difficult and often heart wrenching and am completely grateful for you and others like you who soldier on and continue to get dogs into their forever homes.

      Like

      1. I’m familiar with the good work by Robert Cabral at Bound Angels, and cloning him would indeed be nice. Recently, my local large municipal (ABQ) actually has started gathering notes from shelter staff into a central database, so there is some hope for that. They also standardized on SAFER, getting each tester certified so there’s now consistency. However, I find that people learning any assessment method tend to both strongly defend their approach, and fail to recognize the limits and errors inherent in any singular approach. I also suspect we are limited in how much improvement can be made for a singular test sequence, limited by both the available time and the limitations of the people involved. For instance, all dogs who fail on food aggression receive the same classification, but further tests could quickly show both the intensity of the reaction and the learning rate, separating those dogs who require weeks of work from those who can be changed in days or even hours. The same holding true of other areas. A more tree-oriented approach would be needed, where failed components would then branch you to additional tests, which I have been doing for years in rehabilitation programs on some of their failures.

        In demonstrating some predictive assessment methods I find that few people have the ability and interest to hone their observation skills enough to handle more complex cases, and those who locally learned SAFER are not interested in any such attempts. But, even with that, their move to a standard approach has saved many dogs. I just wish there was more data available on SAFER.

        Like

    1. Hi Natasha – I have been waiting to hear from a teacher who has been forced in recent years to “teach to the tests”. In researching this piece, I came across numerous illustrations and cartoons for standardized testing, almost all pertaining to the craziness of large-scale standard tests used to assess schools’ and teachers’ competency and childhood education programs. Thanks for posting.

      Like

  11. PS The Handler with the little dog did not at any time speak to the dog or interact with her in any way.
    Oh I could weep for that little dog and other good dogs who get judged by such inappropriate tests.

    Like

  12. I have watched, on TV, the RSPCA here doing temperament tests.
    I was horrified by what they interpretted as ‘indications of unreliability’.

    I seriously felt that these workers knew very little about ‘dog behaviour’ ;-(

    I have always taught my dogs to retreat behind me if they are worried about anything.

    But the RSPCA showed a little Staffie, sitting on damp bitumen in a gloomy tennis course, beside a ‘hander who was sitting on a chair. Then another person came in with a stiff plastic ‘toddler doll’ — she was bending right over the doll and bopping it along the ground — I suppose to make it look as though it was walking, but to me and I’m sure to the dog it looked nothing at all like a real child.

    As this woman and doll approached closer to the handler and dog, the dog got up and moved behind the chair. “Good!” thinks I, “what a well behaved and trained dog!”

    No! The official decision was that because the dog was obviously scared of the doll she was probably scared of children and if she was scared of children she just MIGHT bite one — so she was led away to be destroyed.

    So I bought a lot of ‘real sized’ dolls to use in my classes to help the dogs learn that there was nothing scary about a doll 🙂 And the fake hand, and a broom stick and people behaving strangely. (Though never quite as strange as the woman on the tennis court.)

    Like

    1. Thank you Linda for bringing this study to the forefront and providing a needed reminder that there is always room for improvement. The current standardize tests are unfair to the animals we profess to love so much. The complacent acceptance of them are not unlike the complacency in the current sheltering system where the status quo of both of them are proving to be outdated. For the many who follow science based training, now is the time to follow the science in doing an evaluation (how about observation and interaction with different environmental factors in place) and realizing they are not always predictors of future behavior. A dog can exhibit any behavior that is physically possible when under extreme stress with high cortisol levels and given their limited ways to communicate to us does not help. I don’t accept the notion that because a behavior is exhibited under these conditions that it would be probable when the dog is in a home environment after a fair amount of time to adjust. We put such high expectations on these creatures to perform a certain way in doing these evals and there is such a bureaucracy and dependency surrounding them. Time to keep this in mind before handing down a death sentence and follow what the science is beginning to indicate regarding these ‘tests’.

      Like

      1. Hi Melissa – I love the analogy that you make between science-based training (which so many have happily signed on for these days! 🙂 ), and the need to now also “follow the science” with respect to these behavior tests. I also completely agree about the need for simple observation and interaction in different settings. And your final statement says so much – we expect so, so much, and from animals who, usually by no fault of their own, end up abandoned and afraid. Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments.

        Like

    2. Evelyn, a very good point and I’ve seen that in my local municipal which uses SAFER. Even my own dog backed away, and he’s trained and tested with young children. But once people adopt any method, many don’t want to question it.

      Like

  13. Thank you for sharing this insightful study. I’ve been in animal rescue for more than a dozen years and have always questioned this type of testing. Shelters are so stressful for the animal and make it difficult to see and assess their true nature. If someone stuck a fake hand into my bowl of food, I would bite it too.

    Like

    1. Thanks for your comment – I agree that the stress that shelter dogs are under is an important, if not the most important, factor that can lead to unreliable results. The fake hand test takes the most criticism (I think because it is a provocative test and can so easily abused), but Mornement’s work suggest that even tests for compliance (trainability), anxiety, and activity level are not reliable.

      Like

  14. Another thoughtful and insightful post Ms Science Dog. In your research, have you uncovered any shelters or rescue organizations that have seen these flaws and acted to attempt other methods of evaluation? I would love to hear their experiences. It would also be very interesting for someone to actually study their methods as Mornement did?

    On another note, I believe in a very unpopular means of “protecting the children”. Don’t adopt shelter dogs to families with children below a certain age. I’m generalizing here, but I have found that most families do not have the time or skill set to manage dogs around children. In my opinion, proper household management is the key to a rescue dog surviving in a new home. By giving them time to adjust to other animals, children, etc, in a non-threatening way, you set them up for success. In my experience, most homes do not do this well.

    I know, I know…no research to back up my assumptions here. But in the absence of research, rely on common sense and experience, and hope someone smarter than yourself comes along to prove you are right. And if they prove you wrong, hope you are a big enough person to believe it. 🙂

    Like

    1. Hi April, Thanks for your comment! To my knowledge, the use of different forms of behavior tests at shelters has not been surveyed, but would make an important study (and would be relatively easy to do, given the easy access to on-line survey tools these days). One point that I think needs to be made, since there seems to be a lot of emphasis on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of these tests. I made this in the first piece (“This test that you keep using….”), but it may have been lost in this second piece. This is that the overwhelming acceptance and use of these tests (they are on Animal Planet, for heavens sake!), leads to a false sense of their importance and reliability. My personal point is that they are being used as a diagnostic test (pass/fail) for determining adoption suitability, and as such, take on a lot of importance in the minds of those who administer them. If they are not reliable, this is a big problem. Personally, I think that any test is going to have flaws, and this is why (again, my opinion), I think that changing the entire paradigm is the way to go, rather than just trying to make a better test. Behavior changes constantly, is always influenced by environment (as you so articulately state with your excellent approach to integrating a new dog into a home), and finally, its assessment is by nature subjective, not objective. So, relying on a “test” that takes 20 minutes to administer to reflect who a dog is (and is going to be!), seems to me to be an untenable premise overall. It may not be so much that the tests need to be discarded altogether, as that the reliance upon them for decision-making needs to be stopped. (And yes, if a study comes along that is controlled and that shows these tests are highly predictive of dogs’ future behavior in homes, and is published in a peer-reviewed journal, I will report it! 🙂

      Like

  15. I have just assessed a rescue dog that not passes his assessment with the shelter, the couple also had another dog trainer friend assess the dog as well.
    Everything went well and the dog passes with flying colors.
    When the couple brought home their new dog the dog became ill and turned out he had the flu, a unknown broken rib and many other health issues that cost the family thousands of dollars. Once the dog came home and started to heal his true colors came out. The dog was very mouthy, no bite inhibition what so ever. And a resource guarder as well. Very dangerouse situation for novice dog owners that also wanted to start a family.
    They returned the dog to the shelter heart broken.

    Like

    1. Hi Brae, Thanks for your comment. It is very interesting to read of a “false positive”, as more typically we hear about dogs who were provoked to the point of a reaction and then are classified as failing. In your case a dog who should not have passed, actually passing because he was ill and injured when the test was administered. It is heartbreaking – for the dog and for the people who adopted him and fell in love with him. There are no easy solutions, certainly, but more work needs to be done to find more reliable means of assessing dogs.

      Like

  16. I’ve been questioning the validity of these behavior tests in shelters for almost a decade now. Having worked as a volunteer in a shelter for several years, a shelter that did not use the fake hand test until after I left, and then watching the tests being administered on several shows on Animal Planet, it was quite apparent that the dogs tested were under severe stress and, frequently, the workers performing the tests would push, push, push the dog until they provoked a reaction, even if it took extreme provocation. There is an answer out there but these tests need further work.

    Like

    1. Hi Alicia, Thanks for your comment. It is very disturbing to read that staff who perform these tests may push the dog to the point of a reaction. Even more disturbing is that this behavior is recorded and broadcast on Animal Planet as entertainment. IMHO, what the recent two studies show is that these tests do need more work, or the entire paradigm of single-session (snapshot) behavior tests needs to be discarded and replaced with something that is more effective.

      Like

      1. Exactly. The test is supposed to evaluate a dog’s propensity to bite, not to push the animal into reacting. I think you’re right about the testing needing to be more about continuing patterns of behavior rather than single instance surveys.

        Like

  17. WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN!?!? Lol.

    Great post. Dog folks, like everyone else, often get mired in their own anecdotal evidence and biases. Even dogs sometimes choose sub optimally due to biases though, so I try not to feel too bad about it. We all need to practice our critical thinking skills!

    Like

Have a comment? Feel welcome to participate!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s