News: Karen B. London
Behavior of Canine Abuse Victims
Do abused dogs have traits in common?

Animal abuse happens all too often in oh so many situation and cultures, yet little research has been devoted to the problem. An interesting study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS) titled “Behavioral and Psychological Characteristics of Canine Victims of Abuse” compared dogs who have been (or have most likely been) abused with dogs who have not been abused.

Not surprisingly, behavioral differences were found between the abused dogs and other dogs. Dogs with a history of abuse were rated by their guardians as more excitable and performed more attachment and attention-seeking behavior than their counterparts. They also displayed more fear and aggression towards unfamiliar people and unfamiliar dogs. They rolled in feces more often, exhibited more fearfulness on stairs, showed higher levels of hyperactivity, were more persistent barkers and had a greater frequency of “bizarre, strange, or repetitive behaviors.” That last category includes actions such as hoarding shoes, digging deep holes, sucking on pillows and being unable to stop, and circling when anxious.

The researchers discuss possible interpretations of the results of their study. They point out that fearfulness towards strangers (dogs and people) and aggression towards them are highly correlated in a number of studies, suggesting that much of the aggression seen in the abused dogs could be motivated by fear. They also point out that abuse could cause fearfulness that leads to aggression through a conditioned response, but that aggression could also be a result of genetic predisposition, poor socialization, brain injury and other injuries that could cause aggression motivated by pain.

The researchers went through several steps to identify abused dogs for inclusion in their study. Magazines sent to members of Best Friends Animal Society included a notice requesting anyone who suspected their dog had been abused to consider participating in a study about canine abuse. Over 1100 respondents were given a link to SurveyMonkey, which asked about reasons for suspecting abuse. From that sample, 149 were chosen for the next phase of the study because the cases of those dogs were considered “more likely than not to involve substantiated abuse.”

Five experts were then given the dogs’ historical information and physical reports of injuries, but no behavioral information. (Behavioral information was not included because that was the subject of the study.) If at least four of the experts evaluated the information and concluded that it was probable that the dog had been abused, the dog was included in the study. Only dogs who were still alive at the time of the study were included in order to avoid problems with memory or biased recall.

Of the 149 selected in the first phase of the study, only 69 proceeded to the next stage. Their guardians were instructed to fill out the highly detailed Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), which was designed to measure a number of behavioral characteristics in dogs. The C-BARQ has become a standard research tool used to compare the behavior of different groups of dogs. In this study, the abused dogs were compared to 5239 dogs from the C-BARQ database who matched the abused dogs in age range now and at the time of acquisition and the source of the dogs.<

Studies of abuse, in both children and animals, have limitations because abuse is often done secretly, and because of incomplete information about the victims. Rarely is there much information about their personality and behavior before being abused. This study, as the researchers note, suffers from these limitations as well as others.

Another limitation of this study is that it correlates behavior with a history of abuse, but is unable to show whether that abuse plays a causal role in the behavior of abused animals. While it is hard to imagine that abuse does not affect behavior, correlational studies are not designed to elucidate any such claims. The researchers caution that the differences they found between abused dogs and other dogs does not mean that the abuse CAUSED these differences. It is also possible that some of these behavioral characteristics are risk factors for abuse, meaning that they made abuse more likely, or that the abusive environment, rather than the abuse itself, played a casual role.

The researchers recommend that future studies investigate which behavioral differences are caused by abuse, which are risk factors for abuse and which are both. (For example, aggression in human children is known to be both a risk factor for abuse and a result of abuse.) They would also like to investigate which types of abuse are the most damaging. Again comparisons to humans are inevitable, and it is known that emotional abuse is often more damaging and harder to recover from than physical abuse. Finally, they want to know more about how the age at which dogs are abused affects outcomes.

Like many people, it makes me physically ill when I think about abuse of people or of animals, but I’m grateful that it is being studied. The more we know about abuse—its causes and its effects—the better we are able to help those who have suffered and to prevent additional instances of abuse.

News: Guest Posts
Dogs Don't Remember Yesterday, Claims Psychologist
Ample data show dogs and other animals remember the past and plan for the future

A few days ago a colleague asked me if I'd seen an essay called "Dogs Don't Remember," published by Dr. Ira Hyman. I hadn't, and then, as I was doing an interview, a similar question about mental time travel by animals came up so I decided to pen a few comments about Dr. Hyman's claims that "Dogs don't remember what happened yesterday and don't plan for tomorrow" and "Even if they can't describe their memories,chimps may engage in mental time travel. My dogs, however, are stuck in an eternal present."

In his essay, Dr. Hyman also writes, "If I walk into the backyard, the dogs are overjoyed to see me and act like they haven't seen me for days. If I stay in the backyard, they quickly become bored with me. If I go inside and return after 10-15 minutes, my dogs are overjoyed to see me and act like they haven't seen me in days. They don't remember that I was in the backyard just a few minutes ago."

I don't see that dogs or other nonhuman animals (animals) greeting a friend(s) after a short absence says much about whether or not they remember that an individual(s) had just been there. Many animals engage in repeated and effusive greeting ceremonies when first seeing a friend and shortly thereafter. So too do humans.

What about future planning?

Given his interests in mental time travel, Dr. Hyman also writes, "Dogs don't plan for particular future events although they have a general expectation of when dinner will appear." He may be correct here. I don't know of any studies that show that dogs "plan for particular future events" but, for example, I have seen dogs and wild coyotes very cautiously approach an area where unfriendly individuals live and often have felt they were planning for possible combat. Nonetheless, I'll grant for now that it is difficult to differentiate planning for a particular event and having a general expectation that something might occur. However, I wouldn't be so sure that dogs don't do both until the proper studies are conducted.

Studies on nonhuman primates, birds, and other animals show, in fact, that they do remember the past and plan for the future. In an essay I wrote called "What Makes Us Uniquely Human?" that was concerned with mental time travel, I noted that the prominent primatologists Christophe and Hedwige Boesch-Ackerman wrote in their book The Chimpanzees of the Tai Forest that "A hunting chimpanzee 'not only has to anticipate the direction in which the prey will flee (recorded as a half anticipation), but also the speed of the prey so as to synchronize his movements to reach the correct height in the tree before the prey enters it (recorded as a full anticipation) . ... We also recorded a double anticipation when a hunter not only anticipates the actions of the prey, but also the effect the action of other chimpanzees will have on the future movements of the colobus, that is he does not anticipate what he sees (the escaping colobus), but how a future chimpanzee tactic will further influence the escaping monkeys." And, even birds remember the past and plan for the future (see, for example, "Can animals recall the past and plan for the future?" and for numerous examples of more recent research on a wide variety of animals please see). 

There's no evidence that dogs are stuck in "an eternal present"

So, all in all, unless others and I are missing something, dogs do remember yesterday. If Dr. Hyman literally means by "yesterday" the preceding day—24 hours ago—perhaps he's correct. To the best of my knowledge, no animals other than humans look at or wear watches or use calendars. However, it doesn't seem that Dr. Hyman literally means yesterday, but rather, more generally, "the past," given the example he uses about dogs greeting him repeatedly even if he's only been absent for a short while.

There are many examples of dogs and other animals "remembering yesterday." Think of dogs and other animals who have been severely abused and who suffer from severe fear or depression for years on end, and also, for example, think of dogs who remember where they and others peed and pooped, dogs who remember where their friends and foes live, dogs who change their behavior based on what they learned in various sorts of learning experiments, and dogs who remember where they're fed and where they've cached food and other objects. The list goes on and on.

From an evolutionary point of view it would be somewhat odd and exceptional if mammals such as dogs and many other animals didn't remember yesterday and plan accordingly. Mental time travel truly is a very exciting field of research and I look forward to more studies that speak to the questions of how past experiences inform future behavior. And, as I mentioned above, there already are many detailed studies that show that mental time travel back to the past and ahead toward the future is not uniquely human.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. 

This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.

News: Karen B. London
Chemical Enhancement of Social Information
Oxytocin improves dog performance

A new study in the journal Animal Cognition that reports that oxytocin increases canine responses to human social cues adds to the large number of known effects of this chemical. The more that oxytocin is studied, the more influential it seem to be.

All the articles that refer to oxytocin as “the love hormone” are simplifying to the point of distortion. Sure, levels of this chemical rise in the early stages of romantic love, but that’s just a small part of its role in our lives. Oxytocin is a biologically occurring molecule made of a short chain of nine amino acid acids that has strong effects on the body and on social behavior. Ever since a study roughly 20 years ago showed that it played a key role in the choice of a lifelong mate in the famously monogamous prairie vole, a series of studies have shown its key role in a number of species in trust and social interactions, including bonding. New human parents of babies show a rise in oxytocin, for example.

On the other hand, the moms out there experience other effects of oxytocin related to parenting, and those aren’t all so sweet and glorious. The same chemical that helps us love our babies also helps our babies enter the world and thrive in it. That’s because oxytocin is important for the production of contractions during childbirth and also for lactation to feed our infants.

>To make matters more complicated, oxytocin can make memories of negative social interactions more intense. So, again, “the love hormone” is really not a fair and complete way to describe its social function. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it focuses our attention on social information and gives us the ability to understand it at a deeper level. The recent study. “Oxytocin enhances the appropriate use of human social cues by the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) in an object choice task ” supports this view of this powerful biochemical.

The researchers who conducted this study investigated the effects of oxytocin on canine performance in an object choice test (OCT). In an OCT, a person gives a non-verbal, social cue to a dog to indicate the location of a piece of hidden food. Based on the dog’s response, it is possible to learn what cues are meaningful to dogs and which ones they can correctly interpret. Two common cues in OCT studies are pointing and gazing in the direction of the food. In this study, dogs and their guardians came to the test center twice, 5 to 15 days apart for a set of 40 OCT trials, 20 for each cue—gazing or pointing. On one visit, the dog was given an intranasal dose of oxytocin prior to the study and on the other visit, an intranasal saline control was given. The order of these two treatments varied between dogs.

The dogs who were given oxytocin first performed better in their first session than those dogs given saline during the first visit to the testing center. Effects were not as obvious in the trials involving gazing. In gazing trials, the dogs given oxytocin performed no better than if they guessed randomly where the food was hidden, while the dogs given saline first did even worse. Since previous studies have suggested that dogs actively choose to avoid locations that humans have gazed at, this research suggests the possibility that oxytocin counteracts that negative interpretation by dogs, and that they simply guess.

vious OCT studies, dogs have shown no improvement over time. Since learning occurred no matter which treatment dogs received first, it does not appear as though the oxytocin was responsible.

Maybe it’s the science geek in me who has always been fascinated by social behavior, but I’m just as thrilled with the idea of oxytocin as “the social information enhancer and clarifier chemical” as I ever was by the term “the love hormone.”

News: Karen B. London
Are You Special To Your Dog?
New research confirms that you are

Does your dog recognize you, the guardian, as unique in his life? Naturally, you consider him the most important, best, most special dog in the world, but does your dog view you as a unique treasure, or just as any old tall-two-legs capable of feeding him, putting on the leash, opening the door and playing with him?

A recent study in the journal Behavioural Processes titled “Dogs and their human companions: The effect of familiarity on dog–human interactions” investigated questions like these. Specifically, the scientists wanted to know whether dogs interacting with guardians, other people they know well and strangers behaved differently depending on how well they knew the person. With a series of tests on 20 dogs who were well socialized with some training experience, the researchers concluded that:

1. Dogs responded differently to the guardian and the stranger in most situations.  That is, if your dog is like the family dogs in this study, you matter more to your dog than a stranger does. (Whew!)

2. Dogs acted differently when they were with their guardians and when they were with a familiar person when the situation involved playfulness, fear or anxiety, or physical contact.

3. Dogs reacted similarly to their own guardian and people that they knew well when the task involved responding to obedience cues.

Understanding the effects of the guardian on dog behavior is important because it informs us about the attachment between humans and dogs. It also matters because it shows that behavioral research is affected by which humans, if any, are present during experiments.

News: Karen B. London
Your Dog Feels You
More evidence that dogs attend to human emotions

Science is subject to trendiness, just like fashion, language and entertainment are. So, just as we are all facing an abundance of mid-calf boots, abbreviations and post-apocalyptic films, there is no shortage of studies on the influence of human emotions on our dogs. One of the latest studies, Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behaviour, in the journal Animal Cognition, is just one of many recent works to explore this topic.

The purpose of this study was to address two questions: 1) Can dogs discriminate between human expressions that indicate happiness, disgust, and neutrality? 2) Do dogs prefer objects eliciting the more positive human emotion in the owner?

In this experiment, dogs had to choose between two bottles, each of which was associated with a human emotional expression of happiness, one of disgust or a neutral expression. The bottle associated with a more positive expression had food inside it while the other one contained a stone. (Though this is potentially a problem in the experimental design—the objects are not identical, meaning that the contents of the bottle as well as the guardian’s expression could be influencing the dog’s decision—the researchers conducted some control trials in an attempt to eliminate this potential glitch.)

The researchers measured dogs’ choices in two ways. They recorded which bottle the dog approached first and which they retrieved. They argued that positive emotions in humans may be linked with a corresponding emotion in the dog because what people feel positively towards—going for a walk, starting to play or dinnertime—may also trigger positive feelings in the dog. On the other hand, negative emotions in people may not correspond to the dog’s response to something. That is, when humans express disgust, it may be related to objects that dogs find appealing such as trash or poop. That’s why, in this study, the experimenters looked at a task (fetching) rather than just an approach to an object.  They wanted to see how dogs responded to human requests rather than simply making a choice based on their own preference. The goal was to get a better measure of dogs’ responses to human emotions.

The overall findings of this study are that yes, just like in so many other studies recently, dogs are attuned to the emotions of their guardians. They preferentially retrieve the object associated with a more positive human emotion. So, when their guardian expressed happiness over one bottle and disgust or neutrality over the other bottle, they were significantly more likely to retrieve the bottle associated with happiness. Similarly, if their guardian expressed disgust over one bottle but was emotionally neutral about the other, the dog was more likely to retrieve the neutral bottle.

What I find most interesting in this study is that dogs preferentially retrieved the object associated with a more positive emotion even though they didn’t necessarily show a preference when measured as first approach. In other words, they acted according to human preference when told to do something—“Fetch!”— even though it was sometimes in contrast to their preference about which object to approach. We all know that dogs find many things appealing that revolt us. I’m personally thinking of how often I had to bathe my dog after he rolled in fox poop when I lived on a farm. I found it disgusting but it was clearly very appealing to him even with the threat of a bath hanging in the balance.

If the researchers had only looked at approach, they might have concluded that dogs could not discriminate between the various human expressions of emotion. Their more complex design provides evidence that dogs can do so, but that they don’t always behave accordingly.

News: Karen B. London
Emotional Contagion
Dogs affected by state of their guardians

Emotional contagion is the trigger of an emotional response due to perceiving a similar emotional state in another individual. Emotional contagion has been studied extensively in birds, primates and dogs, among other animals. It is generally more pronounced between individuals who know each other than between strangers.

Emotional contagion occur between dogs and people. There is evidence that dogs are sensitive to their guardians’ emotions and that dogs’ behavior is influenced by the emotional expression of those guardians. It has been suggested that dogs have “affective empathy” towards people. That is, dogs can actually feel the emotional experiences of humans, including stress.

Stress has an interesting influence on memory in both humans and non-humans. The effect of stress on memory follows an inverted U-shaped curve. This means that as stress goes up to moderate levels, tasks that rely on memory improve, but as stress increases further, memory tasks are impaired.

In the recent study Emotional contagion in dogs as measured by change in cognitive task performance published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, researchers investigated the role of stress and emotional contagion between dogs and people on performance in memory-related tasks.

Each dog was randomly assigned to one of three groups—stressed guardian, non-stressed guardian or stressed dog. The direct manipulation of canine stress levels allowed researchers to compare whether stress by emotional contagion had a similar affect as direct stress on the dogs’ performances. Dogs’ stress levels were increased by briefly separating them from their guardians.

Researchers experimentally manipulated the anxiety levels of people and then recorded their responses to a word list memory task. Stress levels were manipulated by giving the person mainly positive or mostly negative feedback during the experiment. Researchers recorded changes in dogs’ responses to memory tasks after guardians were stressed or not stressed as well as after directly manipulating dogs’ stress levels.

Stressed guardians performed better in the memory task than non-stressed guardians. Dogs improved their performance on memory tasks after they were stressed and after their guardians were stressed. Dogs in the non-stressed guardian group showed no such improvement. This study shows that guardian anxiety affects by and has a positive affect on dogs’ ability to perform well on a memory-related task.

Wellness: Healthy Living
Sleeps with Dogs

A snoring spouse, sirens and glowing electronic screens can all make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. Research from the Mayo Clinic finds that pets can be part of the problem, too.

Patients at the Mayo Center for Sleep Medicine were asked about causes of interrupted sleep in 2002, and only 1 percent mentioned their pets as an issue, though 22 percent had pets sharing their beds. When patients were asked similar questions in 2013, 10 percent reported that their pets disturbed their sleep.

Dr. Lois Krahn, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, says, “Dogs disturbed sleep by wanting to sleep in a particular place on the bed (where the sleeper would prefer to place their feet, under the covers, on the pillow), needing attention and creating sounds [such as] whimpering during dreaming.”

One benefit of having a dog is having a warm body to snuggle up with at the end of a long day. But sometimes, what you love gets in the way of what you need. In a 2009 survey done by Kansas State University, Dr. Kate Stenske found that more than half of dog owners allow their dogs to sleep in their beds.

How can you reconcile your need for solid sleep with the comfort of your canine companion?

First, take an honest look at how well you sleep. Do you fall asleep quickly, or do you spend a long time tossing and turning? Are you up in the night, for your own needs or to take care of something else? In the morning, are you energized or do you rely on coffee to get going?

If your dog is getting in the way of your falling or staying asleep, it’s time to make some changes. Try moving her from your bed to her own bed in the same room; create a comfortable space near you but on the floor. This is a hard habit to break, so plan to work on it. You’ll have to keep moving her back to her bed when she climbs up with you, but be patient and offer lots of praise.

What about doggie sleep sounds? If you don’t want to use earplugs, try white noise from a fan or other appliance with a constant humming sound.

Once you take back your sleeping space, you may realize that the dog wasn’t the problem. Dr. J. Todd Arnedt of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan has tips for what he calls good “sleep hygiene.”

• Avoid evening exercise.
• Keep the bedroom dark, quiet and comfortable: reduce external light sources, turn off the TV and find your best sleeping temperature.
• No caffeine after mid-afternoon, and no alcohol in the evening.
• Make the bedroom a place for intimacy and sleep only; leave work outside.
• Establish an evening wind-down time. Lower the lights, do quiet activities, have a light carbohydrate snack.

If you make these changes and insomnia is still stalking you, it’s time to talk to a professional for more in-depth study.

Most dog owners can continue to enjoy the comfort and companionship of their furriest family member through the night. But if sleep is evasive, you may want to take a closer look at what’s keeping you up at night.

News: Karen B. London
Loving Dogs and Children
Similarities and differences in brain response

If you’ve read the headlines recently saying that science has proven that we love our dogs just like we love our kids, then you have only gotten part of the story. Yes, we love our dogs and consider them our children, and yes, a new research paper gives details about the similarities in the way our brains view these important individuals. However, there are nuances to the way our brains react to the world around us, and as is usually the case with scientific studies, it’s not that simple.

A study called “Patterns of Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study” found both similarities and differences in mothers’ responses to dogs and children. Researchers evaluated brain function patterns in women when they saw pictures of their children and their dogs, as well as pictures of unfamiliar children and dogs. The study focused on areas of the brain that are involved in social bonding.

Mothers had similar activation patterns in some parts of the brain when they viewed photos of their children and photos of their dogs. These patterns differed from their responses to pictures of unfamiliar children and unfamiliar dogs. One region that responds similarly to these two types of images is relevant in rewards, emotion and affiliation. Another region of the brain involved in affiliation and reward was activated by images of mothers’ own children but not by images of their own dogs. An area of the brain that is critical to the processing of facial features was activated far more by images of mothers’ dogs than by images of their children.

According to the authors, “These results demonstrate that the mother-child and mother-dog bond share aspects of emotional experience and patterns of brain function, but there are also brain-behavior differences that may reflect the distinct evolutionary underpinning of these relationships.”

If you are a parent to both humans and dogs, do you feel both similarities and differences in those relationships?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Testing Behavior Tests
Just how accurate are behavioral assessments?

It’s an almost impossible situation. Shelters need to avoid putting an aggressive dog up for adoption, but how can they discover that dog’s true behavior? Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, they have no information about the dog’s behavior in a home environment, or in any other environment, for that matter. Too often, overworked and undertrained staff members are left to make a decision after interacting with a dog for less than an hour. A mistake in one direction can mean that a new adopter is bitten, perhaps badly. A mistake in the other can mean that a good dog doesn’t get a home or, even worse, is needlessly euthanized.

In an effort to improve the odds, many shelters use behavioral assessment protocols, tests that place a dog in a series of situations that are meant to simulate challenges he might encounter in a home: pinching his flank to mimic harassment by a child, introducing a person in a funny hat to test his tolerance for a wide range of human appearances, exposing him to another dog to see if he is aggressive to his own species.

These tests are, of course, a series of approximations of actual situations. We don’t know if these approximations— no matter how carefully designed— successfully trigger aggressive behavior in truly aggressive dogs, or if they successfully avoid triggering aggressive behavior in safe dogs. But that’s what science is for, right? Testing the world to see if our predictions are correct? And in fact, interest in shelter research has taken off over the past decade. As a consequence, shelter behavior researchers are coming to grips with a pressing question: can these tests be relied upon?

The two most widely used behavioral assessment tools in the United States today are SAFER (developed by Emily Weiss, PhD, of the ASPCA) and Assess-a-Pet (developed by Sue Sternberg of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption). In 2012, Sara Bennett, DVM—at the time, a resident in a shelter behavior program—asked whether these two tests, applied to pet dogs with known behavioral problems, could successfully categorize safe and unsafe dogs. (Bennett et al. 2012) Her goal was to validate the two assessments, to prove that their results mean what we think they mean. In other words, if they say a dog is safe, the dog actually is safe. And, on the flip side, if they say a dog is not safe, then that dog is indeed not safe.

To do this, Bennett recruited dogs from the veterinary clinic where she worked, including dogs with known behavior problems. In order to compare SAFER and Assess-a-Pet to an assessment tool she could trust, she asked all the owners to complete a Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). This questionnaire, a widely used method for determining a dog’s temperament, is based on information from the person who knows the dog best: the owner. C-BARQ’s ability to predict a dog’s temperament has previously been validated. (Hsu and Serpell 2003)

Bennett asked: are SAFER and Assess-a-Pet as good as this validated questionnaire at detecting unsafe dogs —are the associations between these tests’ scores and the C-BARQ scores better than chance? And if so, is the association strong enough that these tests can be trusted to consistently give accurate answers?

She found that the answer to all these questions was clearly “no.” On the one hand, Assess-a-Pet and C-BARQ agreed 73 percent of the time when they classified a dog as aggressive. Assuming that C-BARQ was correct and these were truly unsafe dogs, that’s not a bad success rate. However, the test didn’t do so well in the other direction: Assess-a-Pet incorrectly classified 41 percent of nonaggressive dogs as aggressive.

This high rate of finding aggression where it probably didn’t exist is concerning because, in a shelter environment, it could lead to euthanasia of animals who are, in reality, safe to place in a home. Technically, Assess-a-Pet was validated by this study because its agreement with the C-BARQ was better than random chance. But it didn’t do very much better than chance, so its utility in making life-or-death decisions is questionable. A test that gives you a 60/40 rather than 50/50 chance of making the right choice would seem to be of marginal value.

SAFER did even worse. Its agreement with the C-BARQ was so close to chance that this assessment was determined to be not valid. When the C-BARQ found a dog to be aggressive, SAFER agreed only 60 percent of the time. And when the C-BARQ found a dog to be not aggressive, SAFER agreed only 50 percent of the time; there was a 50/50 chance that a safe dog would be recognized as such.

These are pretty chilling results. They could be interpreted to mean that the two most widely used behavioral assessments in the United States are not doing even a passable job of predicting aggression, and that shelters are not doing much more than flipping a coin when they use an assessment to decide whether a dog will be put on the adoption floor or, potentially, euthanized.

While this study gave us some compelling information, it isn’t the last word in whether these two tests actually work in shelters. Remember that while behavioral assessment tests are intended to be used on dogs who have been in a shelter environment for days, weeks or months, Bennett’s study tested owned animals. It may not be realistic to extrapolate these assessments’ performance when applied to shelter dogs, most of whom have been living in incredibly stressful environments for extended periods of time.

This may sound like a finicky point, but a dog’s reaction to any sort of stimulus can be exquisitely responsive to the situation he’s in. I don’t think this study provides a final answer on whether these tests work or don’t work. I do think, however, that it gives us some very important information that should be taken seriously, and that it demands follow-up studies.

How Hard Is It to Test a Test?
Testing a test is hard because duplicating real-world situations in a research environment is hard. Bennett’s study was well designed, but it was inevitably limited by some realities. It is surprisingly difficult to design a study that truly tests whether a given behavioral assessment succeeds at predicting dog behavior.

Ideally, such a study would incorporate a large number of dogs as they come into a shelter. This group would then go to the adoption floor in its entirety; dogs whom the shelter suspected of being aggressive would not be removed from the group. Once the dogs were adopted, their new owners would participate in multiple interviews over a long period of time. Such a study would allow us to really get at the question of how many dogs the assessment correctly assigned to the categories of safe and unsafe, and how many it assigned incorrectly.

Of course, actually running a study like this presents a number of problems, the biggest being ethical. If you suspect that an animal is aggressive, can you ethically place it into a household? Of course you can’t. But without doing that, how can you know whether your suspicions of aggression will be borne out? This problem—the importance of not endangering adopters—represents the core difficulty in evaluating the accuracy of behavioral assessments.

There are plenty of practical problems, too. Shelters have their hands full dealing with normal day-to-day matters; supporting large-scale studies can be asking too much of an overburdened system. And owners are hard to pin down for follow-up interviews. They don’t really like to answer survey questions, which are annoying and boring and always seem to come at inconvenient times. Then there are those who adopt dogs but no longer have them; it’s an uncomfortable situation and they can be particularly difficult to get information from, yet they can potentially offer the most important insights.

Some researchers, hoping to do better, have designed new studies from scratch. Shortly after the SAFER/ Assess-a-Pet validation study was published, Kate Mornement, a practicing behaviorist studying behavioral testing as part of her PhD program, described the Behavioural Assessment for Rehoming K9’s, or B.A.R.K. (Mornement et al. 2014) Whereas SAFER and Assessa- Pet were created before the upsurge in shelter research studies, B.A.R.K. was developed with input from nine experts on canine behavior, people familiar with the problems encountered by other assessment designs.

To determine if B.A.R.K. was more successful than the older tools in assessing behavior, 102 shelter dogs were tested. Then, two to eight months after adoption, owners were asked general questions about their new dogs: how anxious, fearful, friendly, active and compliant were they? Unfortunately, there was little correlation between their responses and the dogs’ B.A.R.K. scores. The test just didn’t do a very good job of predicting how these animals would act in a home.

As Mornement recognized, this study was deeply hampered by the selection of dogs who were tested. Safety concerns excluded from the study dogs with known aggression issues. As a result, B.A.R.K. was applied to a group of dogs who were very likely to be non-aggressive. So, while it’s hard to tell how this test does at specifically predicting aggression, its difficulty predicting fear and anxiety is concerning, and provides reason to doubt that any assessment can do the job well.

Ultimately, we don’t really know which factors make a test succeed or fail in predicting canine aggression. The previously discussed studies all take the results of the entire test battery as a single score; none attempts to understand the individual components of that score. However, each sub-test in the test battery is intended to get at a different part of the dog’s temperament, and it’s possible that some of these subtests succeed while others fail. Perhaps, for example, a test battery successfully predicts food aggression (one sub-test) but fails to predict dog-dog aggression (a different sub-test).

Recent studies have started looking at these individual sub-tests. Researchers at the ASPCA (Mohan-Gibbons et al. 2012) specifically assessed one of the most controversial sub-tests, food guarding. In this test, a fake hand is used to touch the dog’s bowl while he is eating, and then to take the food bowl away. Problematic reactions range from freezing and a hard stare to growling or biting the fake hand. In this study, 96 dogs determined by the SAFER assessment to have food-guarding issues were adopted out. Adopters were given information on how to manage and modify the dogs’ behavior.

When adopters were contacted up to three months after adoption, only six reported any aggression over food, and that aggression was transient. Even more interesting, adopters reported that they had essentially ignored the management and modification techniques recommended by the shelter. They had felt free to touch their dogs while the dogs were eating, and to take the dogs’ food away. They had not been bitten.

This was a really stunning revelation: of 96 dogs who had tested positive for food aggression, only six displayed it in their new homes. This raised more interesting questions: Is it possible that dogs are showing food aggression in the shelter due to stress? Is food-aggression testing completely useless?

A follow-up study performed at the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston, Mass., dug deeper into the question. (Marder et al. 2013) It followed dogs who did and did not test as food aggressive in the shelter, and followed them longer than the ASPCA study. The analysis in this study is really fascinating. They asked the new owners if their dogs were food aggressive and, overwhelmingly, were told no. Then they asked more specific questions, such as, “Does your dog growl when you pick up his food?” Well, yes, the adopters said, but that wasn’t a big deal. This study, in other words, found that while the test may be successfully predicting foodguarding behavior, that behavior seems to very rarely escalate into true aggression, and isn’t considered a problem by the vast majority of adopters.

Asking Better Questions
Research into shelter behavioral assessments seems to have finally found its footing with these recent studies. This new approach—investigating specific behaviors and asking adopters what kinds of behavioral problems really matter to them—may aid in designing more effective tests. Or maybe they’ll just help us better interpret the behavioral assessments we already have. Either way, behavioral assessment researchers have a clear path to follow.

In the meantime, how should we interpret existing behavioral assessments? Here are two cautionary tales about extreme ends of the spectrum; they come from time I spent in two different shelters during my shelter medicine veterinary internship. In one shelter, I was handling a young mixedbreed dog who ripped open the fake hand that was used to take her food bowl away. If that had been my hand, I would have been in the emergency room. Despite my reservations about the validity of behavioral assessments, I took that particular act of aggression very seriously.

In another shelter, I observed a behavioral assessment in which a dog was repeatedly harassed with a fake hand because the shelter staff had a suspicion that he would bite. As the tester continued to provoke him long after this sub-test would normally have ended, the dog froze, then growled, then finally bit the hand, but not hard enough to damage it. Despite his restraint in the face of persistent harassment, he was labeled as aggressive by the shelter staff. In both instances, the dogs were euthanized.

Not all cases are as clear as these two, but I think there’s something to be learned from them. Shelter behavioral assessments can give us useful insights into the behavior of our charges, but they are not the final word. Even those who design behavioral assessments caution against taking these tests as blackand- white answers to the question of whether or not to put a dog up for adoption, and we must be very careful to abide by that recommendation.

Even in the chaotic world of a shelter, time must be taken to consider all of the information available about a dog. We must do so generously, giving the dog every chance to succeed, and cautiously, providing prospective adopters with all the information we can.

In the world of shelter research, we must continue to ask more, and more detailed, questions about these tests. Not just, do they succeed or fail at predicting aggression, but why they succeed or fail, how they work, what they test. We also need to determine what adopters actually want from their pets, not what we think they want.

There is a lot of work to do.

News: Karen B. London
Who Is That Gorgeous Dog?
Seeing themselves in the mirror

Peanut bounded up the stairs fully of puppy pep and sporting an expression of extreme happiness. She had never been to our house and loves to explore new places. Her light-hearted mood would likely have continued if not for the mirrors all along our closet doors. When she saw her reflection, her entire affect changed. She stiffened and barked, then charged at the mirror.

I have no idea how this dog vs mirror scenario would have played out if Lucy (another of the dogs in Peanut’s household) hadn’t come in and barked at Peanut. The puppy became more interested in Lucy than in her reflection, and came with the older dog out of the room and back down the stairs. Because Peanut seemed distressed by seeing her own image in the mirror, we closed the door to that room to keep her out.

There has been a lot of research on how animals react to seeing themselves in the mirror because it can tell us a lot about their cognitive abilities. If they recognize that the reflection is their own image, it provides evidence that they have a sense of self-awareness. If they don’t appear to do so, the results can be hard to interpret. One of the ways that this idea is explored experimentally is to expose animals to mirrors until they are familiar with them. The next step is to put a mark of paint on the animals and then give them the opportunity to look in a mirror again. If they see the reflection and attempt to touch or remove the spot of paint on their own body, scientists conclude that they are self-aware.

Much work in this area has been done on primates with great apes, but not monkeys, typically showing signs of self-awareness. Dolphins, elephants, and magpies have also “passed” this test. Dogs have not generally done well at the mirror test, though some people, including Marc Bekoff, have argued that dogs are more olfactory than visual so a scent test is more appropriate for investigating whether they are self aware. Bekoff studied his male dog’s reactions to his own urine and to the urine of other dogs and found some evidence that his dog recognizes his own urine. This concept of “mineness”—belonging to me—suggests self-awareness, but it is certainly not conclusive. The research was published in the article “Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.” The method has come to be known as the “Yellow Snow Test.”

We have to be careful not to assume that a failure to recognize a reflection in the mirror as oneself means a lack of a self-awareness. In addition to vision not being the proper sense to use in such a test, sometimes the problem is that the animal is too young. For example, humans generally pass this test, but babies under 18-months are confused by it.

Have you had the opportunity to observe your own dog’s response to looking in a mirror?