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Testing Behavior Tests
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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.

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Jessica Hekman, DVM, MS, completed a specialty internship in shelter medicine and now studies the genomics of dog behavior at the University of Illinois, Urbana.

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Photography by Susan Sabo

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