Friday, May 7, 2004

Dogs In Canada, May 2004

"I am not a dog person, although I have owned dogs. I heard on the
news a couple of months ago about an elderly woman near Los Angeles
having both arms amputated by her great-grandson's pitbull. Shortly
before this I read of three large, powerful dogs killing a child in
New Brunswick. My neighbour's dog growled and barked at my husband
when he poked hs head over the fence this weekend. These incidents
seem to be on the rise. With all due respect, what are you dog
people doing about it?"

This is an explosive topic, but an interesting one. The interest
lies in how differently the reality is from the public perception of
how dangerous dogs are to people and whether this is worsening.
Meaningful discussion about dogs and public health is retarded by:
1) the lumping of routine dog threat behaviour and non-damaging
bites together with the extraordinarily rare events of fatalities
and serious maulings (this is like lumping human arguments and
office politics together with aggravated assault and murder); and 2)
the stupendously exaggerated estimation of one's own risk of serious
dog attack based on the prevalence of stories about them in the

Dogs are, compared to other 'hazards' we accept without question in
our society, fantastically safe. My friend and colleague, Janis
Bradley, has been researching this issue for an upcoming book on the
subject and has compared dogs to everything from kitchen utensils
and water buckets to strollers, Christmas trees, balloons and
marbles. To these items they compare favourably. They compare even
more favourably to things like swimming pools, bicycles and
playground equipment. And, when it comes to the heavy duty
statistic-makers in our society, she writes, "dogs can never compete
as hazards with fathers or mothers or sisters or brothers or aunts
or uncles or friends..."

Bradley underscored her point about how vanishingly rare fatal dog
attacks are by comparing them to the universal cliché of being
struck by lighting. We are each "five times as likely to be killed
by a bolt of lighting - not just struck by one, mind you - killed"
than to be killed by a dog or dogs. Considering that less than 20
per cent of lightning strikes are fatal, this makes being struck by
lightning 25 times more likely than being the victim of a fatal dog
mauling. If the risk by exposure is then considered - there is one
dog for every four or five people in the United States for instance,
and most of these dogs encounter several people every day of their
lives - dogs are almost incalculably safe.

And, contrary to the shrieking newspaper headlines, dog-related
deaths are not trending upwards. The rate has remained
astonishingly steady over all the decades that records have been
kept. Bradley surmises that this may indicate that the floor has
been reached - i.e., that the rate is as low as it could conceivably
get. In fact, she cautions that well-meant swells to "do more"
after every headline-grabbing incident might not only do nothing
(except rob resources from elsewhere), but rock a boat that is
currently at rock bottom: "Basic systems theory teaches us that it
is perilous to change the system to eradicate the exception, and dog
bite deaths are about as exceptional as it gets. It is perilous
because when you change large scale situations to prevent extremely
rare events, you cannot even begin to predict what other aberrant,
or even widespread, events may pop up."

When it comes to bites at the kitchen-injury level, however, dog
bites are relatively frequent. What do I mean by "kitchen-injury"
level? Injuries are classified on a scale from one to six, with
level one being defined as a quick recovery with no lasting
impairment and six defined as likely fatal. Ninety-nine per cent of
all treated dog bites fall into the "one" category. For comparison
purposes, Bradley discusses falls, the most common type of injury,
which average a four rating, defined as requiring weeks or months
for full healing or some lasting minor impairment.

So what about frequency? Based on inferences from the available
research, for instance, it is often quoted that half of all children
will be bitten by dogs at some point and that every human who lives
to the age of 60 will be bitten at least once. This qualifies low-
level dog bites as mundane events. Absurdly mundane, according to
Bradley, who points out that a huge proportion of adults will also
nick themselves with paring knives countless times during their
lives, and that "something close to 100% of kids will fall off of
their bikes multiple times with out injury." What's amazing about
dog bites is that we are grimly trying to count them: "There is no
other such phenomenon that anyone even attempts to study when it
doesn't produce physical harm." In other words, no one talks about
the paper-cut epidemic, the chef's-knife-injury epidemic or the
falling-in-bathtub epidemic. Why do dogs get to have "an epidemic"
when five-gallon buckets, which are more dangerous, don't?

Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern
California and author of The Culture of Fear, points to the
disproportional media coverage given to certain kinds of events
relative to the "near invisibility" of other kinds of injury that
seriously hurt and kill people. Dogs meet criteria for what
Glassner calls "cultural scapegoating." Bradley puts it well when
she notes that dogs (or perhaps their "irresponsible owners") might
qualify as "unambiguous villains that allow us to distance ourselves
from the responsibility for the real problems in our society."

Another reason for humans' exaggerated fear of dog bites is our
evolutionary heritage. Just as we inherited a craving for fat and
sugar that served us well in our distant past amidst dietary
scarcity and now is maladaptive, we inherited a preparedness for
fearing certain environmental elements, such as animals with big
teeth. These were genuine and prevalent concerns back then. Now
they are not, but we can't shake the feeling (nor replace it with
one that would be more adaptive, such as, say, motor vehicles at
high speed).

Rational discussions about routine dog bites and especially about
serious dog attacks can get derailed when they raise the hackles of
dog-bite victims and their advocates who feel their suffering is
being minimized. I dread seeing Janis misunderstood and attacked on
Larry King Live or in print, which I fear is her destiny. But I
hope that cooler heads will ultimately prevail.

Thursday, May 6, 2004

Article Comparing the Temperment Testers

Dog Is In The Details by Barbara Robertson (Bark Magazine)

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

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

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

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

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

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-

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

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."