Assess-A-Hands and Toddler Dolls

September 13, 2008 at 10:31 pm 6 comments

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.

Audie bites a hand - but NOT the one that feeds him.

Audie chews on a hand - but NOT the one that feeds him.

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.

Entry filed under: dog training, dogs, rescue. Tags: .

Homemade Laundry Soap Recipe It’s COOL to Know Your Food

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Diana L Guerrero  |  September 17, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    Susan Sternberg began using fake arms and hands to test shelter dogs in the 1990s. Seemed a bit odd to me.

    I come from a wild animal training background where using flight distance and animal spacial distance is used to manage animals.

    It is funny how the terms differ between animal types. So, yielding is the same technique I’ve seen for years just under a groovy moniker.

  • 2. Carol  |  September 18, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    I just had this same argument with someone — I tried to explain that dogs most definitely can tell the difference between a real hand and a plastic one, and the shelter person emphatically stated that “The experts say this WORKS”, as their only answer. And this is a kill shelter. The worker told me casually that they have “something like 60% dangerous dogs” on a regular basis, hence the beginning of the argument.

  • 3. Val Masters, CPDT, CDBC  |  September 19, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    I am a certified trainer and behavior consultant, and the behavior specialist at our shelter. We do use the fake hand during our evaluation process, and feel it is necessary to use in order to keep our staff members safe. However, there are some specific things to do and not do with it. I agree it should not be used over and over to push and poke the dog. We have our testers rest the hand on the dog’s cheek, and gently push the dog away from the bowl, saying something like “Let me have it.” All the dog is feeling is the pressure of the hand without actually seeing it. Dogs that growl or snarl in response are sometimes put up for adoption, and those that snap or bite generally are not. Time and time again, we’ve seen dogs show aggressive behavior during the evaluation using the fake hand, but do not respond aggressively to the hand once the resource the dog was guarding is removed. So, it’s not the hand the dog is responding to. It’s moving the dog away, and taking over the space, which is part of every day life with our dogs, and why it is part of the evaluation. There will be several times in a dog’s lifetime when he will have something that is unsafe for him (i.e., sharp objects, chicken bones, toxic items, etc.), and the person must be able to get the item from the dog in order to keep the dog safe. This is real life folks. Even a growl or snarl will upset the average pet owner (which is who is walking through our shelter’s doors), and they don’t want a dog that behaves this way. If the dog behaves aggressively toward a neighbor, particularly a neighbor’s child, you’re looking at possible legal issues as well. Dogs that respond aggressively toward other dogs over a resource may not do so toward humans with the same resource, and vice versa. The two are separate issues, and should be evaluated as such. It is not uncommon for dogs that guard something like a rawhide, to also guard other things. This could include his bed, your bed, toys, people, other dogs, or even paper or tin foil! So, when we see a dog fail the resource evaluation with a pig’s ear or rawhide, we cannot know what other things the dog may or may not guard. We have been keeping track of fail rates for 7 years, and approximately 22-24% of dogs, on average, fail because of either food possession, resource posession, or both combined. I would say that this is a pretty low percentage, and given the concern and responsibility we need to have for the safety and welfare of people (who should come first), the reputation of the shelter that adopts dogs out, and that there are more dogs than homes available, makes behavior evaluations important to continue. Staff should be trained and supervised carefully prior to allowing them to be evaluators. While a shelter is not an ideal place to evaluate dogs, it’s what we have. If we didn’t evaluate any dogs, we would be randomly selecting which dogs to put up for adoption. At least with an evaluation, we will have a sense of the dog’s behavioral responses, including aggressive behavior, when a stimulus is introduced. I will say I’m in agreement about the “fake toddler.” It doesn’t give us a true assessment of how a dog will respond toward children. Most dogs probably do view it as a scary monster thing!

  • 4. Rosemary Rodd  |  September 24, 2008 at 9:53 am

    A lot of the problem is that shelters have to accept that most of the time they’re adopting to owners who are not awfully skilled or knowledgeable about animals. We’ve several times been very distressed to find that dogs our staff and volunteers could handle perfectly safely ended up having to be put down because none of the homes we placed them in could cope with them.

    Sometimes it’s possible to find owners who are capable of managing dogs like these, but the majority of “ordinary decent pet owners” can only cope with very easy dogs.

  • 5. Pai  |  October 1, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    I always thought it was idiotic how a shelter would take a dog that only a few weeks before was starving to death, put food in front of it, then try to take it away and declare the dog FAILED and was ‘food aggressive because it reacted the way ANYONE who had only recently been starving to death would behave towards that action. It makes not sense!

    The fact that dogs DIE because of such ridiculous ‘tests’ is tragic.

  • 6. carrie b.  |  December 26, 2011 at 10:13 am

    I found this blog while watching DogTown, and I Google Assess-A-Hand, mainly because I think that it is one stupid tool to assess temperament.

    I have a 10 year old lab, of course he’s the sweetest dog you will ever meet – he’s been with me all his life and he is wonderful with kids, people and pets.

    I tried the Assess-A-Hand test with him after seeing it on TV a while back, and my wonderful, lovely dog chewed up the hand like he would a bone! Why? Because he knows that it’s a piece of plastic. He would never attack a real human hand or other body part, I can leave my hand in his bowl while he’s eating, and there will be no growling or complaining from his side.

    It scares me to think that my dog would not pass the 5 minute temperament test, although he has passed a 10 year real life test with NO aggression ever.

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