Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
Dr. Emily Weiss explains again why we recommend stopping the food guarding assessment—and sending those dogs home!
He stiffened. You could see every muscle become tense, the commissure of his lips shortened and his eyes widened. The bites came quick and furious, multiple bites all the way up the hand. The decision was clear (or so we thought): The dog was unsafe with food—period.
So went many years of food guarding assessments of all types all over this and other countries. Then, several years ago while working with the Wisconsin Humane Society, we met a puppy named Bobbi. Bobbi was a lovely young boy—all soft and wiggly—but when fed he turned into a growly, biting, stiff little turkey. We decided to try to modify Bobbi’s behavior and put him on a free feeding program (providing access to food 24 hours a day) along with some simple behavior modification. Bobbi grew a bit (both up and out), and his behavior over the bowl shifted to relaxed and able to acquiesce. He remained food enthusiastic, but not aggressive. He went home and did not display food guarding behavior in his home.
Bobbi pushed us to examine the power of free feeding more, and we conducted a study focused on the use of free feeding in shelter for dogs who exhibit food guarding behavior in an assessment. What we found was pretty exciting—the vast majority of study dogs who showed food guarding in shelter and were free fed did not display the behavior in the home.
We published that research and began communicating the results to the field. And during that time, Dr. Amy Marder added more research, noting that the assessment produced a high percentage of false positives and negatives. Dogs who did not food guard in shelter food guarded in the home, while dogs who guarded in shelter did not guard in the home. While some organizations embraced the simple shift to free feed and send food guarders home, there were significant concerns from many agencies about safety, liability and resources. We continued to communicate the importance of simply free feeding and sending home.
Then, at a workshop, someone asked me the hard question—“if the assessment is not a good predictor of food aggression, why do it?” Thank goodness for hard questions!
When we look at the overall value of assessments like SAFER, for which there is some research to support some efficacy, we look at the tool as a whole as opposed to piecing out each assessment item. And given the research noted above, we have concluded that the food guarding assessment simply should not be conducted. As the information (in this case, a dog food guards or does not food guard) has a very high likelihood of being a false positive or negative, so the best approach to food guarding, a natural, normal behavior, is to simply communicate the possibility of food guarding to all adopters.
Even with this information, making any shifts—even a shift to free feeding or shifting the weight of the assessment item—has been tenuous. Even us behaviorists who are neck-deep in the data (Heather Mohan-Gibbons and Doctors Pam Reid, Amy Marder and myself), when talking of the elimination of the assessment, have each caught ourselves saying, “But I still want to know what he does during the assessment…” This is typically followed by some unintelligible mumbling, followed by some paraphrase of “I know it is not logical and does not make sense, but…”
In several recent calls and consults with some of you in the field, I have heard a similar push to continue an assessment even when faced with no good answer as to why. It is not for liability or safety, because the high percentage of false positives and negatives would logically point to a decreased safety, as we are making assumptions of safety for those who do not guard food. It is not to gather more information to help the dog in his new home, as what we see has a significant probability of not being what is seen in the home. It is very likely not to increase safety in the shelter, as to date we see no increase in shelter bite incidence when the assessment is removed, so—why?
The evidence seems so clear in a food guarding assessment—some dogs bite, some dogs don’t. And that is actually observable behavior. It is what that behavior means that we need to acknowledge. We know some dogs who guard in shelter don’t guard at home, and we know that some dogs who don’t guard in shelter do guard in home. We also know that many dogs who show food guarding in shelter who are then free fed in the shelter do not show food guarding in the home. From a liability and safety perspective, it makes much more sense to assume any dog may food guard in the home (remember, it is a normal behavior) and arm your adopters with information about the behavior and how to manage the behavior should they see it.
I am looking forward to the final results of the food guarding pilot that Heather Mohan-Gibbons is leading here at the ASPCA—and looking forward to conversations with you as to how to best move forward with the elimination of the food guarding assessment from your assessment tool box.