SAFER: Just One Piece of the Puzzle, Part 1
The first installment of this two-part series by the ASPCA’s Trish McMillan Loehr, MSc, CPDT, Director, Applied Research and Behavior, looks at questions to ask when building a full behavioral profile for any dog in your care.
“That dog failed his temperament test!”
These are words that make every ASPCA SAFER®-certified assessor shudder. Dictionary.com defines temperament as “the combination of mental, physical, and emotional traits of a person; natural predisposition.” Temperament in dogs is not something that can be determined in a short assessment in a shelter situation, and no assessment should have a pass/fail result, especially when failing may mean euthanasia.
SAFER is an aggression assessment, not a pass/fail test, and its focus is the probability of future aggression. That isn’t to say that a dog who displays aggression during the assessment will definitely aggress in the future; it simply means that this dog shows a higher probability of aggressing in the future. The scores in SAFER are not set up as pass/fail but instead are meant to help shelters decide what resources are needed to support each dog toward a positive live outcome.
Any assessment consisting of a battery of items performed at one time is really just one piece of the puzzle; a snapshot of one dog’s behavior at that moment. In order to place dogs appropriately, we should consider as many pieces of the puzzle as possible.
Here are a few tips to consider when building a full behavioral profile for any dog in your care:
- Are you collecting a good behavioral history? The best predictor of future behavior in a home is past behavior in a home. If you are not collecting this information from the person relinquishing a dog, you may be missing some valuable information. Has this dog lived peacefully with cats, dogs or children? What motivates him? Treats, toys, attention? What is he reactive to? Bicycles? Other dogs? What does that behavior look like?
- If this dog was picked up by your animal control officers, their input is very important, too. Was she in a yard with other animals? An abandoned structure alone? What was her behavior like outside of the shelter? Did she approach the officers with soft, loose body language? Did she display aggression? What did that behavior look like? These details may give you clues about her future behavior.
- Have you asked for input from your medical staff? Was the dog calm and relaxed during the initial exam? Or perhaps some behavior modification is needed around veterinary type handling.
- Are you logging behavioral information from your staff and volunteers about this dog’s behavior on walks and in the kennel? Does this dog walk calmly on leash or does he pull? Does he lunge and bark at other dogs on the street or does he wiggle and play-bow at them? Does he have favorite spots to be scratched? Favorite toys?
What others questions are you asking about the dogs in your care?
Stay tuned for Part 2: False positives? Negatives? What do SAFER results mean? And if you’re interested in implementing a standardized assessment at your shelter, sign up for session one of our SAFER Canine Assessment webinar series with Dr. Emily Weiss.