Barbara Robertson

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning freelance journalist who lives with her husband and three dogs in Northern California.

Dog's Life: Humane
Wonder Dogs
New jobs tap into their many talents

They’re more than our best friends, they’re our partners. For millennia, dogs have lived and worked at our side, helping us in ways too numerous to count. Even now, the words we use to classify dogs remind us of the tasks we once assigned them: herding, tracking, retrieving, working, companion. Sled dogs provided transportation, St. Bernards and Newfoundlands rescued, Hounds and Terriers hunted, Collies and Shepherds herded and guarded, gun dogs retrieved, and some dogs simply provided companionship.

As people migrated into cities, many of the jobs for dogs disappeared or became scarce, and by the end of the 20th century, most dogs had moved from the barn to the living room couch. Some wondered why we should continue to breed specialized types if a dog’s primary function was as a family companion; perhaps the breeds had lost their reason for being. Others discovered new work for dogs. Today, imaginative and dedicated people are putting dogs to work in jobs that help save the environment, lives and livelihoods.

In the 1970s, following the success of schools that trained guide dogs for the blind, organizations such as NEADS and Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) emerged to train hearing dogs and assistance dogs for those with disabilities. Today, CCI also trains facility dogs —dogs who help calm, motivate and inspire people in stressful occupations and situations. The NEADS program has expanded as well, offering dogs for classroom therapy and ministry. And some schools that train guide dogs for the blind also prepare dogs for new jobs. In 2006, Gloria Gilbert Stoga, president of Puppies Behind Bars in New York, saw how dogs could benefit military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and transitioned the nonprofit organization from training guide dogs to training service dogs for wounded veterans.“We train for physical and psychiatric disabilities, but we focus on the psychiatric disabilities,” she says, “on PTSD and traumatic brain injury.”

The same comfort that the grieving poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously received from her Cocker Spaniel, Flush, nearly 200 years ago is reaching today’s children coping with stressful situations. In FortWorth, for example, a Delta Society Pet Partner named Herbie helped hesitant children find their desks on the first day of school. Throughout the country, in libraries, bookstores and classrooms, dogs help children learn to read through such local efforts as Marin Humane Society’s Share a Book in California, Therapy Dogs United in Pennsylvania and Intermountain’s national READ program, based in Salt Lake City.

“People are realizing the value of animals in our lives,” says JoAnn Turnbull, marketing director for the Delta Society, an organization devoted to improving people’s lives through companion, service and therapy animals. “More doors are starting to open.”

Newfoundlands act as lifeguards on dangerous beaches in Italy. Highly trained Karelian Bear Dogs at the Wind River Bear Institute in Montana help biologists teach bears to avoid campgrounds. Dogs who once scouted for hunters now track animals for environmental studies. Jack Russell Terriers courageously sniff for snakes in cargo headed for Hawaii. A sniffer dog found psyllids (sap-sucking insect pests) in a FedEx package sent from India and saved California’s citrus crop. Other dogs are sniffing cancer and saving people’s lives.

These dogs join an expanding cadre of four-footed professionals eagerly trying new careers each day. Twenty years ago, no one thought to ask dogs if they could warn diabetics when their blood sugar was too high or too low, or to call 911 if their person suffered an epileptic seizure. Now we know they can, and they do. We take for granted that dogs see for the blind, hear for the deaf, help the disabled, identify contraband and find people buried in rubble. So, why do we react with surprise and wonder when we learn that dogs can detect minute traces of peanuts in our food or cancer in our bodies?

“I think we haven’t asked dogs the right questions,” says Sharon Sakson, author of Paws & Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs.“We’ve been slow to figure out what they can do.”

Chemical Reaction
Many of the new jobs for dogs center on tested and affirmed chemical reactions between people and canines. Leslie Horton, a registered nurse and the animal-assisted care coordinator in the rehabilitation center at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., has witnessed stunning examples of this chemistry: therapy dogs bringing people out of comas.

“We see about three or four a month,” she says.“We don’t know why—we don’t have funding to do the research. But it’s totally amazing.” Horton cautions that the dogs don’t wake every person from a coma, and that the patients had responded to at least noxious stimuli already, but she tells achingly lovely stories. Her favorite is of a young man who had been in a coma for two weeks.

“He was responding only to pain, but his therapist said, ‘We know he’s in there.’ It was just before Christmas. We put a dog on his bed. The dog leaned against him and started licking his hand. Usually patients don’t wake up all of a sudden, but he did. We said, ‘Your mom hasn’t left you for two weeks—you need to tell her hello,’ and he mouthed, ‘Hi,Mom.’”

Because the Inova facility allows animal assisted therapy in addition to therapy dog visits, the 22 teams of dogs and handlers under Horton’s care spend time in all four hospitals on campus, always with a physician’s order, and Horton lauds the Delta Society for providing appropriately trained teams for this work. In addition, the center has highly trained personal-assistance, or service, dogs.

“We demonstrate how service animals can help people accomplish activities in their daily lives,” she says, offering herself as an example. “Everyone knows that dogs help the deaf and blind. But I have MS. If I’m having a balance issue, my dog catches me. If I’m dragging my right leg,my dog helps propel me forward.” Horton has trained dogs to provide the same assistance— and more—for children with autism (who often walk on their toes) and people with other mobility issues. “For some autistic children, just having a dog in the environment is enough to help them concentrate better,” she says.

Communication Experts
Dr.Rolanda Maxim, a pediatrician in St. Louis who specializes in developmental behavioral health, agrees. She decided to try recommending dogs after noticing that her dog communicated better than some of the autistic children she assessed.

“He points to what he wants and looks at me,” she says.“I thought, ‘Wow. That’s great communication. What a good way to teach a child with autism to interact.’”

She’s seeing positive results with the children she treats. “I think they find common ground,” she says. “A dog is always ready to play and give positive feedback. Of course, a trained dog can do more, but I encourage all my patients’ parents to get a dog with good social skills for their child. It’s much better to treat a child with a dog than with medication. Even a regular dog interacts with a child so beautifully, I think there’s benefit.”

In Seattle, prosecuting attorney Ellen O’Neill-Stephens was moved to found Courthouse Dogs after she saw the positive effects her son’s service dog, Jeeter —a yellow Lab trained at CCI—had on children in juvenile court. The program, operated in partnership with Celeste Walsen,DVM, is dedicated to providing emotional support through facility dogs for people throughout the criminal justice system, from children to judges.“The analogy I like to use is the Dalmatian in the firehouse,” O’Neill-Stephens says. “But our facility dogs need to be highly trained. We have very high standards. We don’t want to lose this precious tool.”

Jeeter has accompanied a rape victim into the courtroom, relieved the stress of witnesses waiting to describe a murder, and helped a child testify about sexual abuse.“We had the dog between the child and the defense attorney, and the two were petting him during cross examination,” she recalls.

Sensing Trouble
Similarly, social worker Kim Atchley’s dog, Nigel, soothes the stressed children whom she sees in Child Protective Services. Nigel’s main job, though, has nothing to do with social work; he’s a medical alert dog: Atchley is a sleepwalker.

“The clincher was waking up in my car,” she says. “I had driven to a store where I had bought some items. Later, I asked the clerks if they noticed anything strange. They said I was in my pajamas and glassyeyed, but I gave them the right change.”

Her sleep specialist, knowing that dogs alert to seizures, wondered if a dog might stop her from sleepwalking. Atchley consulted with a certified animal behaviorist and researched various breeds for a year and a half before narrowing her choice to a Rhodesian Ridgeback. “I needed a dog big enough to block the door and smart enough to think on his own and troubleshoot,” she says. Nigel’s initial training was simply staying with her 24/7. Three weeks after arriving, he banged on his crate until Atchley woke up. To be certain it was an alert, though, the two entered a sleep study. Monitors at the hospital clinic confirmed that moments before Atchley entered the dream state that led to sleepwalking, Nigel air-scented and alerted.

“I haven’t left the house [in the middle of the night] since I got him,” she says. So that Nigel could stay on the required schedule and accompany her to work, Atchley gave him extensive obedience training and socialization, and Nigel became a certified therapy dog. Still, it took four attorneys to help her convince her employers that he is, in fact, a service dog.

The highly trained dogs who help the blind and disabled obviously provide a service. Nigel’s service is not so obvious, and the same is true for psychiatric service dogs. Joan Esnayra, a biologist and former program officer at the National Academy of Science, is working to open people’s eyes to this more subtle form of service. When she realized her dog alerted to hypomania (an abnormal mood state), she published her findings in a journal of psychiatric services. Then, she founded the Psychiatric Service Dog organization. Now she’s working with the U.S. Department of Defense on what she and research psychologist Craig Love hope will be an 18-month study at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on the use of dogs to help soldiers with PTSD.

“We’ll have psychometric instruments administered by trained clinical psychologists,” she says. “This is real science. I know we’re on the cusp of something big. ”At a military health research conference recently, Love and Esnayra presented the results of a survey of 39 people with PTSD teamed with psychiatric service dogs. Eighty-two percent reported fewer symptoms and 40 percent used fewer medications after getting the dogs.

“Some people think that if a dog initiates a behavior on his own, it’s not disability- related assistance because it’s not related to a command,” Esnayra says. “We have standards. The dogs need obedience training and public access skills. But we approach dogs as beings with perceptive intelligence and independent intellects. I think we don’t yet know what dogs can tell us.”

Find It
It’s possible that, like Nigel, psychiatric service dogs perceive changes through their sense of smell. Indeed, many of the new jobs for dogs center on this extraordinary ability of our four-legged friends to detect and differentiate scents, an ability long employed by the police and military. In fact, to develop its conservation canine program, the University ofWashington’s Center for Conservation Biology began with narcotics-dog trainers.

“Working initially with the Washington State Department of Corrections, we literally started with our dogs working on marijuana,” says Dr. Sam Wasser, the center’s director. “When the trainers would usually shift to heroin, we went to poop of the target species. ”Now, teams of dogs trained at the center track populations of wild animals for environmental studies by air-scenting for scat—moose, caribou and wolves in northeastern Alberta oil fields, endangered northern spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, and orcas in Puget Sound, among other animals. Dogs even track pocket mice the size of golf balls with poop the size of sesame seeds.

Similarly, dogs working closer to home find sewage leaks and mold as well as bedbugs, underground bumblebee nests, termites and other unwelcome creatures. Pepe Peruyero, a former police dog trainer who trains entomological and other scent dogs at his J&K Canine Academy near Gainesville, Fla., has developed a proprietary training method using food rewards.

“Dogs are quick to pick up specific odors,” he says.“The difficulty is applying that in the field and isolating that odor from all others.We never wean them off [the food rewards]. For our dogs, it’s the best way to maintain high accuracy.” At the University of Florida’s entomology department, Peruyero’s dogs achieved a 98 percent accuracy rate and a false-positive of less than 4 percent in clinical trials. To maintain that rate in the field, Scott Umphenour,who handles Kirby, a Beagle trained by Peruyero for Falcon Termite and Pest Control, makes sure Kirby finds these bugs every day, whether he’s on the job or at home.

Because the ability of dogs to precisely distinguish scents is being tested and confirmed, people are thinking of new targets. In Florence, Texas, the Southern Star Ranch has begun training dogs to sniff minute quantities of peanuts in any form: raw, cooked, oil, butter, even dust. And recently, Peruyero has begun working with the University of Florida to train dogs to detect melanomas. If dogs can sniff out mouse poop the size of a sesame seed in a forest, and peanuts in dust, couldn’t they differentiate between normal and abnormal chemical changes in our bodies? The answer is yes, and this probably explains the reactions of alerting dogs.

Diagnostic Dogs
At the Pine Street Foundation in San Anselmo, Calif., teams of highly trained dogs inhale breath captured and frozen in vials to detect molecules of ovarian cancer. In the UK, anecdotal studies published in The Lancet, a medical journal, led to the first clinical trial involving dogs sniffing for bladder cancer. That 2002 trial resulted in a scientific study published in the British Medical Journal in 2004, and the founding of a charity, Cancer and Bio-detection Dogs, in 2008. The charity works with researchers supported by another charity, the Amerderm Research Trust through the Buckinghamshire Hospitals Trust.

Claire Guest, a training and behavior consultant at the organization, is currently involved with a double-blind, yearlong clinical study of the cancerdetecting ability of the dogs. During training and practice, the dogs are achieving an impressive success rate; she rewards the correct answers with clicks and treats. “We’re talking serious detection,” she says. “These are not fluffy dog stories.”

During the double-blind study, the trainers don’t know which samples, if any, are from people with cancer, so the dogs receive no affirmation or reinforcement for correct responses. Still, the success rate is good. “We’re using very bright dogs,” Guest says.“No matter what we try, they know which times they are not going to get rewards.”

In addition to dogs who screen urine samples for bladder cancer, the organization trains dogs to alert diabetes patients to impending hyper- and hypoglycemia. The overriding goal for this group and others like it is to help scientists learn which odors—which complicated patterns of molecules—dogs use to detect disease, so that someday, for example, doctors might have mechanical cancersniffing devices in their offices and people with conditions such as diabetes might wear alert bracelets.

“I think the dogs’ role, really, is to accelerate the research,”Guest says. Recently, one of Guest’s dogs began behaving anxiously around her. “The dog was almost neurotic,” she says. When Guest found a painful spot on her chest, she decided to investigate and discovered that she had breast cancer. “I’m in my 40s, and we don’t get routine mammograms here until we’re in our 50s,” she says.“The consultant said they would never have felt the tumor—it was so far in.”

Fortunately, because of her work, Guest was canny enough to know something might be wrong rather than to think her dog had a behavior problem.

“I’m sure dogs have been picking up on the volatiles coming off our body, our breath and our sweat, but we’ve been totally unaware,” she says. “I can’t be completely sure, but I don’t think they’re observing behavior. They come in, they smell and they alert straight away. I think these things have been staring dogs in the face for a long time. It’s frustrating for me that people would rather spend millions of pounds on research trying to discover what a dog could tell us in a couple of weeks. They could identify anything that causes a biochemical change. And once you can get the odor from a group of people, you can be pretty sure you can warn people of changes.”

If we could read our dogs’ minds, we’d probably hear them thinking something like, “We’ve been trying to tell you what we can do for years. All you have to do is ask. ”Imagine how the world might change if funds became available for research and training—what we might learn, how many lives could be made richer, even saved. Our best friends are ready, willing and able to assist in ways we have only begun to understand. And they ask for little more than the toss of a ball, a pat on the head, a cookie and a smile.

Dog's Life: Humane
Dog Is in the Details
The many sides of temperament testing

In a gathering storm centered on the policies of animal shelters, temperament testing has become a lightning rod. Some resource- and space-starved shelters—which might have once chosen dogs for adoption based on such specious criteria as color, size, age, breed or length of time in the shelter—now use a series of tests that purport to evaluate a dog’s behavior and predict whether the dog will be a good companion for an adopter. Shelters using such tests make several claims for doing so: The dogs they put up for adoption are safer; dogs are selected based on whether they would be good family pets without regard to age or appearance; data gleaned from the tests help shelters find better adoption matches and provide useful information to adopters; and as a result, more people in the community are adopting shelter dogs.

So what’s prompting the firestorm? Several issues. No one advocates putting vicious dogs up for adoption, but many people think good dogs are being declared unadoptable because the tests are unfair and the people administering the tests are not qualified. A common refrain is, “My dog wouldn’t have passed the test.” Further, opponents of temperament testing claim shelters use these tests to hide the truth—that they show low euthanasia rates and high adoption rates by counting only “adoptable” dogs (those that passed the test). This, they believe, deludes a community into believing that there’s no pet over-population problem, and encourages people to drop off an inconvenient dog at a shelter. Detractors also claim that testing tempts shelters to focus on quick resolution rather than spending in-house resources on prevention and utilizing outside resources such as rescue groups.

Central to all these important and intense issues, though, is the fundamental question: Are temperament tests valid? That is, can testing a dog in a stressful shelter environment predict later behavior of the dog?

Most people advocating tests agree that “temperament” tests, in fact, are not valid because a dog’s “temperament” is subjective. Instead, they prefer calling the tests “behavior evaluations,” because behavior can be seen and described objectively. Two such behavior evaluations, Sue Sternberg’s Assess-a-Pet and Dr. Emily Weiss’ SAFER/Meet Your Match, are the ones most likely to be used by shelters because information about these tests is readily available through workshops, seminars, books, and videos as well as from such organizations as the American Humane Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Assess-a-Pet, a step-by-step behavior evaluation that takes about 15 minutes, was developed by Sue Sternberg. Sternberg based the test on her 23 years of dog behavior experience, and has refined it over the past 11 years at the nonprofit shelter she founded in upstate New York, Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption.

“The purpose of the test is to find the gems that don’t often come in gemlike packages,” Sternberg says. “I wanted to develop a test that would reveal what the dog would be like with the average adopter, not with a professional dog trainer.” It begins with hands-off observation in which the tester looks for sociable or nonsociable responses, and progresses to evaluations for play, arousal, resource guarding, behavior with cats and mental sensitivity. The test uses the infamous Assess-a-Hand, an artificial hand on a stick that allows someone testing for resource guarding to safely approach, pet and then try to pull a food dish or chew toy away from a dog. Among other recommendations, Sternberg advises shelters to wait two to four days before testing and have two trained people perform the test.

Assess-a-Pet is not a simple pass/fail test; in most parts of the evaluation, the tester selects among a range of responses and also adds observations. For example, the four responses to a test during which the tester strokes the back of the dog are: moves toward tester in at least two out of three strokes, stays in same spot, moves away from tester, or freezes and becomes more aroused. Although some dogs have extreme responses, most responses land in a gray area.

“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.”

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.

Once her numbers were crunched, she concluded that none of the individual test items were 100 percent predictive; each test only indicated tendencies. She also determined that the ability of any test to predict behavior changed over time. “The dogs change in two directions, an increase in behavior or decrease in behavior,” she says, and recommends that other information, such as intake profiles and the behavior of the dog in the shelter, also guide predictions and triage decisions.

With this in mind and looking at the broad picture, Dr. Marder’s analysis shows that if a dog growled, snapped or bit during any test in the shelter evaluation, the dog was more likely than not to exhibit one of these behaviors again after adoption. But, importantly, by digging deeper into the numbers, she saw that growling during any test at the shelter did not predict snapping or biting after adoption.

When considering categories of behavior, she found three for which positive tests were moderately predictive: possessive aggression, protective behavior and mouthing. That is, if a dog lifted a lip, growled, snapped or bit over food, rawhide or a bed during the test, the dog was likely to show some form of possessive aggression after adoption. Similarly, dogs who lifted a lip, growled, barked, snapped or bit when approached or threatened by a stranger (protective behavior) were likely to show territorial behavior after adoption. And dogs that mouthed during the test were likely to mouth after adoption.

Somewhat predictive were positive responses in categories having to do with aggression to children (dogs were tested with a toddler doll), interdog aggression and separation anxiety. And if a dog showed cage aggression in the shelter, it was somewhat likely to exhibit territorial behavior after adoption.

Of course, what the dog doesn’t do during an evaluation is also important. For example, dogs who did not show possessive aggression, separation anxiety or fear of people during the test were not likely to have these behaviors pop up after adoption, either. And a dog’s friendliness, or lack thereof, in the shelter tended to be the same after adoption. The number crunching continues as she readies the data for publication.

Testing Assess-a-Pet
In addition to Weiss and Marder, two researchers who have been compiling data for behavior assessments based on Sue Sternberg’s test—Janet Smith at the Capital Area Humane Society in Lansing, Michigan, and Kelley Bollen, a behaviorist with the Massachusetts SPCA—are about to release their findings.

For her first study, Smith tracked 839 behaviorally assessed dogs adopted over a two-year period. The results, which she’s planning to present at the HSUS/Animal Care Expo in March, show that dogs put into a level-one category (no restrictions) after the behavior assessment stayed in the shelter an average of six days, level-two dogs (restrictions such as homes with older children) stayed an average of nine days, and level-three dogs (more difficult issues) stayed 14 days. Some of the level-one dogs were returned and adopted out again, but none were euthanized. On the other hand, 3 percent of the level-two dogs and 7 percent of the level-three dogs were returned and euthanized (or euthanized elsewhere) for behavior problems. “Our return rate has decreased since implementing an assessment process,” she says. “We are making better matches and our euthanasia rate has not increased.” Smith believes that because of temperament testing, the shelter is putting safer dogs up for adoption.

Bollen tracked 2,017 dogs that she tested personally with Assess-a-Pet using follow-up calls at six months for every dog and at one year for random dogs. “I tried to do as many components of the test as I could, whether or not the dog was aggressive during the test,” she says. Bollen, who hopes to have her results published in a peer-reviewed journal, was unwilling to release actual statistics at this time, but did share some general results.

“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.”


Editor's Note: This article won the 2004 ASPCA Humane Special Award for Dog Writing.

Culture: DogPatch
Tintin and Snowy
Snowy, a digital Wire Fox Terrier, stars in the animated feature The Adventures of Tintin

The star of the enormously popular comic book series “The Adventures of Tintin,” by Hergé (Belgian artist Georges Rémi), is a young reporter named Tintin. But it’s Tintin’s constant companion, the spunky Wire Fox Terrier Snowy, who sparks the stories. Snowy provides comic relief, rescues Tintin from danger, butts into everyone’s business and noses out important clues, often accidentally.

So it’s fitting that Snowy helped make possible the animated feature film The Adventures of Tintin. Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor and director of Weta Digital (Wellington, NZ), which has won five Oscars for creating digital characters and effects in the Lord of the Rings series, King Kong and Avatar, tells the story.

“We were just finishing the third Lord of the Rings film when Kathleen Kennedy, who produced Tintin along with Steven Spielberg, asked if we were interested in creating Snowy for the film,” Letteri says. “At the time, the idea was to make a live-action film and they wanted to be sure we could create a realistic digital white dog.”

Weta’s artists accepted the challenge and created a digital Snowy. Then, for the test shot, Letteri had the idea of putting Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson in Captain Haddock’s costume. “We had Peter [Jackson] telling Steven [Spielberg] how he’d make a good Haddock,” Letteri says, “and we had Snowy steal the scene from Peter.”

The test shot convinced Spielberg that he could make the film—and that he wanted to work with Jackson. As the two directors talked about Tintin, though, they realized they wanted to make the world of Hergé, not a liveaction film.

Technology developed on director James Cameron’s Avatar helped make that possible. Spielberg and Jackson tried the system Cameron had used to create the Na’vi in Avatar and realized they could use the same process for Tintin; that is, put actors playing the comic book characters into motion-capture suits and use the data obtained from their performances to help animate a digital Tintin, Haddock and other characters. And that’s how they and Weta Digital created the film. Snowy, however, was hand-animated.

“We tried putting a Lycra suit with tracking markers, little balls, on a dog,” says Jamie Beard, animation supervisor at Weta Digital. “But what we got was motion data of a dog trying to eat the balls off his legs.”

Some of the captured data provided reference for how a dog moves. But more often, the animators relied on their own research. “We had dogs under our desks,” Beard says. “And we went to dog clubs to see dogs running around and interacting. When you have a dog, other dog owners welcome you with open arms, even if your dog is a digital dog.”

The dog in the animated film isn’t exactly realistic in appearance; he’s a caricature. But he acts like a real terrier just as he does in the comic books. “Hergé researched the breed,” Beard says. “These dogs were bred for hunting and independent thought, so Tintin has the same pains as anyone with this type of a dog. He has to keep Snowy interested. In the comics, if the story isn’t engaging, Snowy will find his own adventure. He’s always in trouble.”

Does that mean he steals scenes as he did in the test? It sure does. “Snowy would steal every scene he was in,” Letteri says. “Steven [Spielberg] had to remind the animators that some scenes should be Tintin’s.”

Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures’ The Adventures of Tintin opened December 21 2011 in stereo 3D. Directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy and John Williams, the film stars Jamie Bell (Tintin), Andy Serkis (Captain Haddock) and Daniel Craig (Red Rackham). us.movie.tintin.com/

Culture: Reviews
Pixar’s Up
The new animated film is brimming with dogs

When cranky old Carl Fredricksen a widower and former balloon salesman, lifts his house with a thousand helium-filled balloons and soars off on a long-anticipated quest, the last thing on his mind is a kid or a dog. So, that’s exactly what directors Pete Docter and  Bob Peterson give him in Up, Pixar Animation Studio’s latest feature film. 

“When Carl goes on his adventure, we give him a new family,” Peterson says. “A grandchild, essentially, and a dog. Because everyone has to have a dog.”

Carl and his stowaway, eight-year-old Russell, meet the Golden Retriever/Lab mix in a South American jungle. When the dog, tongue hanging out, tail wagging, jumps up on Carl, we hear, “Hi there. My name is Dug. My master made me this collar so that I may talk.” Dug suddenly whips his head to the left, says “Squirrel!” and freezes for a beat before turning back to Carl, who is not amused.

Three other dogs star alongside Dug in Up: Alpha, a Doberman, who leads the pack of hunting dogs; Beta, a Rottweiler; and Gamma, an English Bulldog. They are all caricatures, of course, but they act more like canines than cartoons.

“Dogs are so smart and emotional,” Peterson says. “They really do talk to you, but you still want to know what they’re thinking. It was our fantasy to put their thoughts on the screen and keep their natural dog behavior.”

Since having dogs lip-synching to human dialogue is hardly natural, the thought-translating collar gave Pixar the best of both worlds. “We could have a dog yelling while scratching his ear,” Peterson says. “And that dichotomy is funny.”

To help the artists and animators dig into dog and pack behavior, Pixar brought in behaviorist Ian Dunbar. “He gave us great knowledge about how dogs communicate and give signals,” Peterson says.

But the squirrel gag comes from Peterson’s own dogs; that is, from a game he plays with his German Shepherd and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. “They’re sitting around, relaxed and panting,” he says. “I sit next to them and pant with them. And then I suddenly stop and look in another direction and they do, too. When I relax, they relax with me. Then we do it again. Dogs have great senses of humor.”

So, did Peterson’s Dug wag a smile out of cranky Carl? No spoilers, but we will say we wish a tail-wagging dog could adopt every grumpy old guy.