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Dog Is in the Details

“Mostly, the tests give us information that helps us determine who we can put the dog with,” says Trish King, director of behavior and training at the Marin Humane Society (in northern California), which bases their behavior evaluations on the Assess-a-Pet test. “If a dog is problematic in one area but fantastic in others, we will go out of our way to place that dog because we have the room and the training facility. Unfortunately, other places don’t.” At the Marin Humane Society, virtually all dogs are held for three to four days before any testing, walked outside in a lawn area to relieve themselves first and tested in a quiet room away from the kennels by two people (one of whom has gone through a full apprenticeship program). Any dog that fails—about 5 percent according to King—is retested at least once within three days, and all dogs who show health problems are tested again once they’re healthy.
 

SAFER/Meet Your Match
Emily Weiss, PhD, divides behavior evaluation into two parts, the SAFER (Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming) test, and the Meet Your Match program, both developed at the request of the Kansas Humane Society. SAFER, a six-part test designed to evaluate aggression quickly (in about six minutes), also uses Sternberg’s Assess-a-Hand for food guarding. In this evaluation, a dog is given an A, B, C, D or F in each part. For example, during the sensitivity test, in which the handler kneads and squeezes large handfuls of skin from the dog’s ears to its tail, if the dog accepts the touch, it gets an A; if it quickly turns toward the handler’s hand and mouths with little to moderate pressure, a C; if it growls or tries to bite, an F. Weiss recommends that all the tests be conducted by two people and video-taped. As with Sternberg’s test, each shelter determines, based on its resources, what combination of grades determines adopt-ability. After a dog is SAFER tested, the shelter might then use Weiss’s Meet Your Match program to evaluate the needs of individual dogs and gather information from potential adopters to find compatible homes.

The ASPCA in New York, which receives dogs from their humane law enforcement officers, from the NYC Animal Care & Control, and from owner surrenders, uses the SAFER test to determine whether to accept owner-surrendered dogs. “The ACC dogs that we take have already been evaluated,” says Pamela Reid, PhD, director of the Animal Behavior Center. “But for the owner surrenders, we use the SAFER test to get a quick assessment. We’ve raised the bar on which of these dogs we’re willing to accept because we already get a lot of problem dogs from humane law enforcement.” Once a dog has been in the shelter a few days, it’s given a full evaluation using parts of a 140-test-item behavior evaluation developed by Dr. Amy Marder, a veterinarian now with the Animal Rescue League of Boston. “The full test took an hour-and-a-half,” says Reid. “So, we’re using a pared-down version based on her research that includes only the parts that are predictive of behavior in the home.”
 

San Francisco SPCA
The San Francisco SPCA began developing its own behavior evaluation test when Jean Donaldson, PhD, joined the shelter in 1999. “Sue [Sternberg] is a pioneer, and using her test is a better way of choosing dogs than deciding to keep the ones that have been in the shelter the longest or shortest time,” she says, “but we need tests that are scientifically proven to be reliable and valid. We couldn’t get Sue’s test past the reliability issue, and four of her five unadoptable dogs did fine. We adopted out three and did behavior modification on one.”

So, the SF/SPCA devised its own test. “We sat down with all our trainers, decided what we were going to accept or not going to accept, defined our terms, and created a test with objective scoring,” Donaldson says. “We’ve got to have an objective test or our data becomes junk.”

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