Assess-A-Hands and Toddler Dolls
I watched a recent episode of DogTown last night. One of the scenes in the show featured staff doing a temperament test on a dog with a bite history. The dog was shown reacting well to several different handling exercises including restraint and looming.
After the dog passed the handling exercises it was “tested” (and I use the term very loosely here – a more apt term might be “tortured”) by having a large, bizarre looking toddler doll forced on it. The doll was presented to the dog by rocking it back and forth so that it moved like a miniature version of the Stay-Puft marshmallow man - AND NOT AT ALL LIKE A REAL HUMAN BEING. The doll was pushed toward the dog face first – a posture that most dogs will interpret as a threatening approach when confronted by an alien being. Understandably – the dog reacted to the “utterly freakish thing looks like a baby but isn’t a baby and came at me head on in a stiff, jerky, threatening manner” apparation by drawing back and growling.
After being freaked out by the evil Stay-Puft toddler, a bowl of food was put in front of the dog. The testers waited until the dog was busy eating the food, then began to poke annoyingly at its face with a fake hand on a stick. He reacted – in a COMPLETELY understandable way – by growling.
This constituted failing the test.
Now in their defense – and unlike most other shelters that use these tests, the staff at Best Friends used the results they got to decide what additional training the dog would get – not to decide whether or not to euthanize it.
But I’m confused. Maybe I’m just utterly stoopid – but this kind of testing makes no sense to me whatsoever. As my friend Heather posted in her blog yesterday – dogs absolutely know the difference between real people and bizarre-looking monsters. And – quite understandably - they don’t tend to react to monsters the same way they do to real human beings.
In far too many shelters today, good dogs get killed by bad testing. Their ability to tell the difference between a cheap manikin and a real person is being underestimated in a fatally unfortunate way. Dogs die because human beings can’t – or won’t admit that they can tell the difference between a real hand and a plastic one on a stick.
Before you fly off the handle and dare me to use my own hands to test potentially aggressive dogs let me point out that: a) I do regularly handle aggressive dogs; and b) I believe that there are better ways to test a dog’s willingness to bite in resource guarding than poking a shelter-stressed dog in the face with a stick.
Most people don’t realize this, but space is a valuable resource to dogs. Like other social animals, dogs use space, or yielding, as a way to express rank and claim ownership of resources. When one dog seeks to claim a resource from another, he will often place his body between that dog and the resource – usually facing the other dog as he does so. This movement/posture is doglish for “back off buddy, this is MINE!”
Using this kind of body language yourself with a resource guarding dog – asking him to yield the space around the valued resource to you – will usually elicit an aggressive response from him. If you do this kind of exercise with the dog safely back-tied so that he can’t reach you - in my opinion – it’s safer than poking him in the face with a stick while he’s eating. And because you’re gauging the dog’s reaction to a real human – not a bizarrely frightening artificial one - asking him to yield constitutes a much fairer test.
Before you rush out and start using this “method” to test dogs, I strongly suggest that you read this excellent article by Dick Russell on yielding and incorporate it successfully into your own training program for several months before trying it on a strange dog with a questionable disposition. Yielding is a powerful tool for communication with and between dogs. It’s an important part of my training program. But trying to force an aggressive dog to yield can (and likely will) get you bitten if you’re inexperienced and if you don’t take the right kinds of precautions.
In the interest of balance I’ll add that I saw one thing on the DogTown episode that I really liked. The dogs at the facility were often filmed while they interacted at liberty in large groups. Most shelters keep dogs in kennels and runs where they are either entirely sequestered from each other or occasionally allowed to interact in a limited way with just one or two other dogs. Keeping them separated from each other not only adds to the sense of loneliness and isolation dogs experience in a shelter, it also cuts them off from those who are, in many ways, in the best position to help them. The ‘people’ who know best how to teach dogs to be sane - are other dogs. Dogs teaching dogs how to be dogs is very good therapy. They make sense to each other.
There’s a small shelter a few hours north of us. I’ve had the pleasure to meet four dogs adopted from that shelter in the last three yars. All four of them are great dogs. Social, agreeable – quietly comfortable in their own furry skins. This shelter keeps their dogs in a couple of large, communal runs for much of the day. I suspect that these communal runs is part of the reason that so many of the dogs that come out of that shelter manage to do so with their psyches intact.
Testing and evaluating shelter dogs is a difficult and often heart-breaking job. No test is fool-proof, but most agree that some kind of testing is necessary to limit risks to the people who adopt shelter dogs. Its a dangerous, dirty – largely thankless task and I’ll admit I don’t have all the answers on how to best accomplish the job.
Hat tip to Linda Kaim who provided these links to a couple of very good articles on how to evaluate an assessment program. If you work in a shelter / rescue environment or have an interest in doing so. I strongly recommend you read both articles. There’s excellent information and advice in both of them.