Is This Dog Dangerous? Shelters Struggle with Testing “Aggressive” Dogs

For decades, animal shelters have evaluated whether a dog was dangerously aggressive by poking a rubber hand attached to a pole into a dog’s food bowl while he was eating — then pulling the bowl away from him. If the dog lunged or bit at the rubber hand, he was determined to have “failed” the “aggression” testing. The shelter could deem the dog too dangerous to be placed with a family and — depending on how crowded the shelter was — the results could mean the dog would be euthanized as a “behavior risk.”

Fortunately, thinking has been changing about how to evaluate a dog’s personality or temperament, especially in the stressful, unfamiliar shelter environment. [I’d be so bold as to say that if any of us at home were to stick a weird looking/smelling rubber hand into our own nice dog’s bowl during her dinner, and tried to remove the bowl, there’s a chance her natural instincts would kick in and she would not look kindly on this intrusion!]

Even some of the behaviorists who were involved in developing the rubber hand test are now realizing that the test results are not good predictors of whether a dog will be aggressive out in the world or in an adoptive home. Shelters are struggling to decide whether to abandon behavior testing altogether in their work to match dogs with adopters, while still trying to determine which dogs might turn out not to be safe pets.

As this New York Times article pointed out,” these tests were an attempt to standardize measurements of a dog’s behavior. But evaluations often became culling tools. With overcrowding a severe problem and euthanasia the starkest solution, shelter workers saw testing as an objective way to make heartbreaking decisions. Testing seemed to offer shelters both a shield from liability and a “cloak of moral responsibility.” The Times article then quoted Aimee Sadler, a leader in innovative thinking in the shelter world [who happens to have been my first dog trainer — and whose first training client was my adopted Weimaraner, Lulu!].

As the article pointed out, “We thought we had the magic bullet,” said Aimee Sadler, a shelter consultant. “‘Let’s let Lassie live and let Cujo go.’ From a human perspective, what a relief.” That quote may sound sincere when taken out of context, but knowing Aimee as I do, I recognize this was a sardonic comment, indicating her belief there is a fundamental flaw in the thinking behind this behavior testing. Listen to my radio interview with Aimee Sadler last year on DOG TALK® (and Kitties, Too!) which centered on her unique training program, Dogs Playing For Life, that she brings to shelters around the country, bringing that shelter’s dogs out to play together in carefully chosen playgroups.

All of this is important food for thought — take it as further encouragement to adopt from shelters, with the understanding that we need to cut some slack for dogs while they are in the shelter, and realize that much of their behavior is influenced by the unfortunate circumstances in which they find themselves.

–Tracie Hotchner

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photo credit: Mike Sinko _MG_1054 via photopin (license).