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Dog Is in the Details

“I found that if a dog showed overt aggression that caused it to fail one part of the test, it was likely to show overt aggression in other parts of the test,” she says. And, of the dogs she deemed adoptable, a high majority showed no aggression after adoption. “My results show that the temperament test does identify dogs that have a tendency to exhibit aggression in certain situations. Performing the test reduces returns because we reduce the number of aggressive dogs who are placed back into the community, and it allows us to make better placements. And, lastly, borderline dogs, the ones that showed behaviors of concern during the temperament test but were adopted out, were more likely to exhibit behavior problems or aggression post-adoption.”

The results sound encouraging; however, canine behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, who is on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, casts a skeptical eye on temperament testing and the data being presented. “I think Amy Marder’s work has a lot of potential because she’s asking about probability, about how consistent the dog’s behavior is over time,” she says. “I’m a scientist. Before I can look at findings, the test has to be repeatable and reliable and there has to be objective criteria. We have to codify the behavior … where the dog’s ears are, if there’s vocalization, and if so, whether it starts low and goes up or goes down, where the feet are, what the hair is doing. And context matters. The people who use the Assess-a-Hand do so to have a safe way to reach toward the animal, but the first set of conditions is whether your test instrument is valid. This test object doesn’t mirror the real world, so the answer has to be no. So, don’t tell me a dog growled.

“I’m not saying there aren’t factors in these tests that will be predictive, but they may not predict what people think,” Overall adds. “When I review the tests, I see spurious correlations.”

Dr. Overall isn’t alone among behaviorists in questioning the tests. “We do our damnedest to find appropriate placements,” says Reid. “The test gives us just one snapshot of behavior. We’ve had dogs that aren’t good on the evaluation but were fine with the people who were walking them and cleaning the cages. So we take that into consideration.”

Reid joins her colleagues in calling for more research. “The two things that are missing are, first, more studies and greater numbers,” she says. “And second, we need information about dogs that fail an evaluation in some way, undergo rehabilitation and get adopted out. We need to know whether the behaviors resurface.”

Adds Donaldson, “The anti-testing people are so incredibly well-meaning. I know where they’re coming from. You run a test, adopt the dog anyway, and the dog is fine. Clearly there are problems with the tests, but it could be that some tests are valid, that some parts of the tests may have good predictive value. The preliminary results from tests by Emily [Weiss] and Amy [Marder] have value and are a tantalizing reinforcement for some things, but we have to get funding for more research. Before we can save all the dogs, we have to triage; we have to save the maximum number of dogs in a way that makes sense. If testing is not the way, if it turns out that there is no way to test that’s adequately valid, then we’ll need to stop banging our heads on the testing wall. But then what will we go on?”

Implicit in the work these researchers and behaviorists are doing and in the worries people inside and outside the shelter system have about temperament testing is their concern for the community and for the dogs. Pete Miller, a shelter supervisor at Santa Barbara County Animal Services and a 20-year veteran of the shelter system who believes temperament tests are a necessary part of good sheltering practice, perhaps puts this best: “When a dog dies in an animal shelter, it almost doesn’t matter whether the dog was an old favorite or a hopeless case of a violent animal that never had a chance; the dog was alive one second, and literally gone the next. Everything it ever was and every possibility for what it would have been and done—gone in a second. It’s the actual fact of the real loss and what it means to kill that needs to weigh most and is the reason there should never be a formula that tries to remove the responsibility from a person or dim the reality of what it means to take away a life.”


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