"That dog failed his temperament test!" These are words that make every SAFER 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.
A Holistic View of SAFER
SAFER is an aggression assessment, not a pass/fail test. It offers a look at the probability of future aggression — and that doesn't mean 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 towards a positive live outcome.
Any assessment consisting of a battery of items performed at one time is really just a piece of the puzzle because it's 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?
Was the dog was picked up by your animal control officers? If so, their input is very important. 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 would some behavior modification is needed around veterinary-type handling be helpful?
Do you have a log to collect behavioral information? Input from your staff and volunteers about this dog's behavior on walks and in the kennel can be important. 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?
Understanding SAFER Results
When assessing a dog for aggression (or in testing any hypothesis) there are four possible results:
1. The dog shows aggression during the assessment, and the dog also shows aggression in similar real life situations (a true positive, in science-geek speak.)
2. The dog doesn't show aggression during the assessment and the dog does not show aggression in similar real life situations (a true negative result.)
3. The dog does not show aggression during the assessment, yet the dog does show aggression in similar real life situations (a false negative, or type II error.)
4. The dog shows aggression during the assessment, but does not show aggression in similar real life situations (a false positive, or type I error.)
The first two correct results are what we're hoping to uncover with SAFER, but behavior is not always such a tidy thing to predict, and incorrect handling can make false negative and false positive results more likely. How can having more information about each dog in your care help you avoid false negatives and false positives?
If you are not looking at all of these pieces of the puzzle, you may end up with false negatives, and incorrectly assume that dog has a low probability of displaying aggression when she actually has triggers that SAFER can't uncover (such as predatory aggression toward cats.) False negatives might also occur, for example, if a food guarding dog was too stressed (or full) to eat on the day you assessed her. If you are getting a full behavioral picture from many sources, you may find out that both the original owner and your kennel staff have seen this dog guard her food bowl. This is a "behavior that can be modified and shouldn't come as a surprise to the adopter."
You may also get false positives for aggression during a SAFER assessment. These may be caused by handler error (a classic mistake involves not giving dogs enough choice to move away if they want to.) Dogs can be stressed in a shelter situation, and may show behavior that they don't show in other contexts. Perhaps a dog growled at the helper dog during his assessment, but in taking a history you find out that he lived with several dogs peacefully in his old home, and your walkers say that play-bows and wags at other dogs while out on walks. Knowing this history may help you decide if he'd be successfully placed with another dog.
Don't Stop at SAFER
If you carefully consider all of the pieces of each dog's behavioral puzzle, you will be in a great position to make the best possible placement decisions for the dogs in your care. Have other questions? Check out the SAFER FAQs to find out more.