Instead of asking if a dog is friendly, for example, they ask if the dog approached a handler within X number of seconds; if it growled for three seconds when a stimulus was within six feet on the right side; and, as the stimulus came closer, did the dog snap or continue to growl. “We’re checking boxes and at the end we can see if the dog is above or below our criteria for an adoptable dog,” says Donaldson, who notes that dogs often pass the test with suggestions for behavior modification. “Because the criteria were agreed upon by all people in the shelter, and the result is the same whether I test, you test, the test happens this week or next week, no one is forced into a god position.”
To determine reliability, they tested their method in two ways: The dog was retested (without behavior modification) a week later by the original tester and the results were com-pared; and three to five testers tested the dog independently and those results were compared. Because results were the same, the test was deemed reliable.
As for valid? “We keep records on all the dogs, but what has to happen and has not happened is the follow-up,” Donaldson says. “The issue with our test and with all the evaluations is that we haven’t crunched enough follow-up numbers. We have to say we really don’t know.”
Some data on temperament tests is slowly becoming available, though.
Testing the Tests
Weiss, for example, followed two groups of dogs at the Kansas Humane Society through adoption or euthanasia. One group was given the SAFER test; the other given health checks but not a behavior evaluation. Of the 141 dogs, 12 were euthanized for behavior reasons and of those, only four were in the SAFER tested group. A follow-up phone survey three weeks after the dogs were adopted determined that 36 dogs from the untested group showed aggression compared to eight from the SAFER-tested group. “We repeated the test about six months later and got similar results,” says Weiss. “After that, they were not comfortable putting dogs up for adoption that hadn’t been tested.”
She has also begun evaluating dogs in boarding kennels to see whether the tests are as valid for dogs with homes as for dogs in shelters. “On dogs already in loving homes, SAFER is proving to be predictive of aggression and nonaggression,” she says. “While we are still collecting and analyzing the data, early reports indicate a strong predictability.”
In a separate study, Dr. Marder has been looking at the results of follow-up phone surveys for 70 adopted dogs that were assessed at the ASPCA using her 140-test-item behavioral evaluation. “I was seeing dogs put to sleep that were like dogs in my private practice,” she says. “The owners were working on the problems and the dogs were doing fine. So, I wanted to find out which tests in the behavioral evaluation were predictive of behaviors in the home.”
Each test-item in the evaluation called for objective observations: Evaluators described the placement of a dog’s ears, for example, rather than classifying a dog as “happy.” And, the evaluation as a whole was tested and determined to be reliable: results were the same regardless of who did the testing.
To organize the study, Dr. Marder grouped the test items into such categories as possessive behavior, handling, protective behavior, cage behavior and response to fearful stimuli. The dogs’ responses were also categorized by such behavior as aggressive, friendly and fearful. The phone surveys made one, two, three and six months after adoption asked about these categories.
In “Pick of the Shelter,” (Bark, Fall ’03) Patricia McConnell, PhD, wrote, “It is impossible to perfectly predict the behavior of a dog in one context when you’re doing the evaluation in another. Period. End of sentence. Impossible.” Dr. Marder’s results show that this statement is true.
Rather than trying to draw a perfect correlation between a shelter test and behavior in the home, Dr. Marder decided to look at how well (how perfectly) a test predicted behavior, in the same way, for example, that results of an SAT test predict academic success or failure.