Here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the ASPCA SAFER® Assessment. Click a link below to jump to the FAQs for that topic.
Q: Why do you recommend waiting 72 hours before assessing dogs admitted to the shelter?
A: The shelter environment is likely more stressful for dogs than a home environment. We recommend that you provide enrichment opportunities for dogs as soon as they are placed in their kennel, and keep them available during the entire stay. Research has found that cortisol (stress hormone) levels significantly decrease at approximately 72 hours after intake, which may change the behavior of the dog and may allow for a more predictive assessment. If possible, wait 72 hours after intake before assessing. If your resources don’t permit waiting, strive to assess all dogs of assessment age within 24 to 72 hours.
Q: What is the minimum age for assessing dogs using SAFER?
A: Six months.
Q: How long should the assessment take?
A: The average assessment should take approximately 10 minutes depending on your room setup and where the helper dog is located.
Q: If an Assessor is interrupted (someone walks in the room) during assessment, should he or she start again?
A: The structure and sequence of the SAFER assessment is key to predictability of the results. Because of this, if interrupted during assessment, you should return the dog to the kennel and then assess the dog from the beginning the next day.
Q: Who should get the dog out of the kennel and bring him or her to the assessment room?
A: The Assessor should always remove the dog from his kennel for the assessment, take him outside to urinate/defecate, and bring him to the assessment room.
Q: Can the Assessor have contact with a dog prior to assessing him?
A: It is best if the dog is assessed by someone who has not had previous contact with him. Whenever possible the Assessor should have no previous contact with the dog during intake, veterinary exams, feeding, walking, giving treats, or training.
Q: How do we handle dogs in heat, pregnant, lactating, or with a litter?
A: Behavior can be less predictive with dogs that are in heat, lactating, with a litter or are pregnant. Ideally, we recommend that these dogs be fostered until they are no longer in those stressful physical conditions. You can conduct an initial SAFER assessment on these dogs to assess safety for a foster home. However, if the dog behaves with some aggression potential, we recommend that no euthanasia decision be made for a dog that is in heat, lactating or with a litter. The only exception to this is if the dog has a history of aggression outside the context of being in that condition, and the issues are beyond what your shelter has the resources to modify.
Q: How do we decide when to assess an injured dog?
A: Ideally the dog should be treated and fully recover from the injury prior to the assessment. You may get false positives or false negatives with dogs who are injured when they arrive at the shelter. They may react more aggressively or their behavior may be inhibited because of the pain, which makes it difficult to obtain accurate assessment results. If the dog can be stabilized enough to be assessed (e.g. a splint or cast on an injured leg) you might attempt the assessment if it does not interfere with the injury. Take the dog’s prior behavior into account (if you have information on this) as well as your shelter’s resources. Be sure to then reassess once the dog is healed.
Q: We are a limited-admission facility, and some of our dogs remain with us for long periods. Should we reassess these dogs during their stay to see if their behavior has changed?
A: The SAFER Assessment should be only one of the tools you use to assess behavior. As a limited-admission facility, you are likely working closely with your dogs every day during walks, play time, and enrichment activity. We suggest that you use observations during those times as indicators of behavior change. If you keep a daily interaction log for each dog, you can readily see if behavior is improving or degrading and be able to quickly develop an intervention when needed.
Q: Do you make allowances for breed tendencies in the SAFER assessment?
A: Canine communication spans all breeds, so if the dog shows aggression or precursors to aggression during the assessment, he is more likely to aggress in the home without conducting behavior modification. Having a good network of breed-specific rescues and a behavior modification program can help you provide support for challenging behaviors you might see with specific breeds.
Q: What kind of flooring should we use in the assessment room to prevent dogs from slipping during assessment?
A: Many shelters use vinyl, tile, or wood flooring in their assessment rooms, and have not experienced many problems with slipping. Another option is to install rubber-like flooring, which can be quickly and easily cleaned.
Q: Can the assessment room have windows?
A: Ideally, the room should not have windows because they can be a source of distraction to the dogs. If this is not possible, cover the windows with shades that prevent a dog from seeing outside the room.
Q: What other characteristics of the assessment environment affect the assessment?
A: Your assessment room must be free from ringing phones, barking dogs, foot and car traffic and visual distractions from windows or doors. Do not house animals in your assessment room. Distractions can change behavior and put the shelter and the dogs at risk by not predicting behaviors accurately. Distractions may lead to false positives and set dogs up for failure. A quiet, distraction-free room increases the likelihood that the assessment is predictive.
Q: How does satiation affect the food assessment?
A: Satiation (how full an animal is) may affect the dog’s interest in eating during the food assessment. We recommend that dogs not have access to food for two hours before assessment. Do not withhold food for more than 8 hours, however. You can conduct the Food Behavior Item (followed by the Toy Behavior Item) of the assessment again at a later time if the dog is not interested in food during the initial assessment. Please note that this is the only time when the assessment can be conducted out of the normal order of assessment items.
Q: What should we do if the dog doesn’t show any interest in the food bowl during the Food Behavior Item?
A: If the dog will not eat, try adding a couple of tablespoons of palatable food to the bowl such as more canned dog or cat food. If you have tried increasing the value of the food bowl and the dog still will not eat, move onto the rest of the assessment and reassess just the Food and Toy Behavior Items in 24 hours, and remove access to food no more than 8 hours prior to assessing. Please note that this is the only time when the assessment can be conducted out of the normal order of assessment items.
Q: How should Assessors handle a dog that is obviously underweight?
A: Dogs who are underweight will be more likely to guard the food bowl as it is perceived as a limited resource. If the dog needs to be assessed prior to him gaining weight and a vet check reveals no other underlying medical issue, free feeding (allowing constant access to food) the dog for a couple of days will help curb food aggression motivated by hunger. Many of these dogs will no longer display food guarding behavior once they return to a normal, healthy weight.
Q: Do we need to use a rubber hand to assess food aggression?
A: Using the rubber hand is the safest way to assess for food aggression. In the SAFER Assessment, the Assessor uses the Assess-A-Hand in only three or four approaches. We do not advocate continuous interaction or repeated use. After more than three or four approaches, dogs learn to behave in a manner that they wouldn’t have before. When a dog shows the potential for food aggression, behavior modification can be very successful in modifying this behavior to ensure the safety of the adoptive family.
Q: Does SAFER take into account nervous behavior?
A: Many of the scores on the SAFER worksheet describe “nervous” or fearful behavior. When a dog exhibits those behaviors, score him or her accordingly. If a dog is so stressed or fearful that he or she is challenging to assess, we recommend that you allow the dog a few more days to settle in before you conduct the assessment again.
Q: How should we assess for scenarios when dogs choose to bite for reasons that aren’t assessed in SAFER?
A: While SAFER does predict a wide variety of behaviors, it is limited in focus. We do not assess aggression toward cats or small animals, and we are unable to predict some triggers. However, we recognize that SAFER, like all assessments, does not fully predict future behavior.
Q: What do we do if the dog will not get into position for an assessment item?
A: One of the skills you’ll need as an Assessor is the ability to gently lure or persuade a dog to get into the positions you need for each part of the assessment without using any force at all. Observe experienced Assessors and you will see a wide range of techniques, clapping hands, repositioning their own body, luring the dog forward with a hand motion, in order to get themselves or the dog into the right position. Find the techniques that work for you, and remember that repositioning your own body or chair is always an option.
Q: What do we do if the dog lies down and doesn’t move during the assessment?
A: Many of the SAFER assessments can be conducted with a dog sitting (Look, Sensitivity, Squeeze), but the dog cannot lie down for these items. Use your body language and voice to coax the dog back into a standing or sitting position. Avoid pushing or pulling the dog into place with your hands and leash and giving the dog verbal cues. If the dog chooses not to move during Tag, you can continue to move about the remove attempting to engage the dog; however, it is not necessary that the dog moves with you. If the dog is extremely fearful, put him back in the kennel and try again in 24 hours. Dogs who need a bit more time even after providing them 24 additional hours to adjust may be great candidates for an office foster program or home foster with an experienced foster parent.
Q: How do we assess a dog who has no idea what a leash is?
A: Before assessment, help the dog make positive associations with the leash. An easy way to do this is to clip the leash on the dog’s collar and place the dog in the kennel. The dog can drag the leash around while doing something positive, such as searching for treats or eating his or her meal.
Q: During the Dog-to-Dog Behavior item why is it required that the helper dog is the same sex as the dog being assessed?
A: Many dogs, especially if they are not yet spayed or neutered, will display pre-copulatory behaviors with an opposite sex dog. If you use a same-sex dog, sexual behavior is less likely to interfere with the assessment, and you will get a better picture of a dog’s likelihood of having generalized dog aggression issues.
Q: How do you know if the dog ‘settles’ in your hands during the Look Item?
A: All you need for a “settle” is a brief pause in the dog’s movement. The dog does not have to look into your eyes or settle for the whole 3 seconds – that is just one of the possible responses. If the dog does not stop moving at all, or pulls out rather than settling, attempt the item up to three times, then score the behavior you observe and move on to the Sensitivity Item.
Q: What if I have a question about a behavior I see during an assessment?
A: The glossary of behavior is a great tool to help define commonly observed behaviors during a SAFER assessment.
Q: What is the reason for using two toys during the toy behavior item? Wouldn’t a dog who is going to guard one guard both?
A: If you observe a guarding response with one toy, you have the information you need. However, the first toy offered may not elicit the guarding response. If you get a reaction from the first toy, you do not need to go on to the second.
Q: During the rawhide Item, why shouldn’t we use a basted rawhide or pig’s ear?
A: The rawhide item can give us more information about the dog’s behavior around higher value toys. A basted rawhide or a pig’s ear are high value items that are likely to be perceived by the dog as a food item. The unbasted rawhide will allow the Assessor to observe the dog’s behavior around an item slightly more valuable than a toy that he is likely to receive in the home for enrichment. If an Assessor sees aggression only around the rawhide, it would be wise to try a few more toys to help determine if the dog is aggressive around non-edible toys.
Q: How should we get the rawhide away from a dog who won’t let go?
A: If the assessment is over, you can let the dog take the rawhide back to the kennel. You can also see if the dog will “trade up” for canned food, or for a bunch of treats tossed on the floor.
Q: How many times can you attempt to remove the toy during the Toy Behavior Item?
A: An Assessor can attempt up to three times to remove the toy; however, it’s not often necessary to make that many attempts. If the dog shows interest in the toy immediately, one or two attempts to remove the toy is sufficient in observing behavior.
Q: During the SAFER assessment, do you recommend assessing a dog with different size dogs?
A: We recommend that your helper dog weigh within 20 pounds of the dog being assessed and be of the same sex. If you are selecting play groups or doing a dog introduction for a home placement you may find it helpful to use more than one dog. However, for SAFER assessment, use a helper dog who fits the recommendations as closely as possible.
Q: How long do we keep trying to get in the three tags during the Tag item if we have a dog that is very excited?
A: With some dogs, Tag can be a real workout! You will need to continue to position yourself to conduct three tags while observing other behaviors such as body tension, tail posture, and whether the dog’s mouth is open or closed. For many dogs, Tag is fun. In these cases you will note a soft body and open mouth. Continue for the third tag. If you note that a dog continues to turn his body and you are not comfortable reaching for the third tag, it might be wise to review the video to look for the significant behaviors for this item, such as spinning, stiffening, and head flips. If those behaviors are not observed in the video, fully reassess the dog either later that day or the next morning.
Q: How do we assess dogs that are reactive toward certain people (i.e. men, or people of a specific race?)
A: Before assuming that a dog has aggression toward a certain type of person, try having the person soften their body language – try squatting down outside the kennel, turning sideways, avoiding eye contact, and removing large jackets and hats. If a dog is extremely fearful of a certain person, he can be assessed by someone else, and should the behavior should be noted and shared with adopters. If possible, a behavior modification program and/or foster care can be used in order to reduce his reactivity prior to placement.
Q: If we have someone who is newly trained on SAFER, should this person be the Observer or the Assessor?
A: One responsibility of the Observer is to keep the Assessor safe. New partners might best begin by observing a seasoned Observer-Assessor team and then move into the role of Observer. Reviewing tapes will help new Assessors gain confidence in what they are seeing and scoring.
Q: Is it appropriate to have established Assessor-Observer teams who always work together?
A: Yes, because they are likely to develop a good rhythm and can support each other. However, it is also important to make sure teams do not get complacent. A neutral party should observe and evaluate your teams from time to time.
Q: What if I am unable to kneel on the ground to assess smaller dogs?
A: If an Assessor is unable to kneel, another Assessor should conduct the assessments when kneeling is necessary. Assessors should regularly evaluate their physical abilities to assess any sized dog to ensure safety. If an Assessor is unable to kneel, he/she can be the Observer.
Q: How should we use the information gathered during the SAFER assessment?
A: Shelter staff who feel they have the time and resources to support behaviorally at-risk dogs can implement behavior modification and management programs for many of the identified aggressive behaviors. For other shelters, the assessment results aid in helping decide which dogs in the facility are adoption candidates. It is important to remember that you should not use the SAFER Assessment as your only criterion in determining which dogs can be adopted into the community. Nor should it be the sole criterion in making a decision in regards to euthanasia of a particular dog. Use additional information, such as the relinquishment profile and behavior reported from shelter staff, in the decision-making process. Because no assessment is 100% reliable, it is vital to use all available information when determining which dogs can be adopted.
Q: How should shelters handle dogs that score 4s or 5s?
A: First, you want to make sure that the assessment was performed accurately and that the behavior was identified correctly. (For example, during Tag, the Assessor was not looming over the dog in a manner that would cause the dog to display behavior that is not predictive of future aggression.) Review the videotape, preferably with another certified Assessor in order to rule out such errors. SAFER is not intended to be the only tool used to decipher a dog’s probability for aggression – it is a snapshot of their behavior at that moment. The dog’s history and behavior at other times (in the kennel, on walks, in his previous home) also need to be taken into account. Some shelters have the resources to provide behavioral support for dogs who display 4 or 5 behavior during the assessment. Please see our other behavior modification protocols.
Q: Should we provide a dog’s assessment information to adopters?
A: Many agencies do not use SAFER worksheets as adopter documents because some of the technical aspects of the worksheet may not be relevant to the adopter’s needs. However, there are no secrets in SAFER, and some adopters may find the information interesting and useful. Meet Your Match Canine-ality, by contrast, is designed to be used with adopters to address issues such as sociability, manners, motivation, and play style. It is certainly important and appropriate to share behavior modification protocols you used with a dog as a result of assessment so that adopters can best support the desired behaviors when the dog is in his or her new home.
Q: How do you manage a dog who scores 1s and 2s on his SAFER assessment, but who lunges and barks at people walking by his kennel?
A: The protocol for working with such dogs is here. Dogs who continue lunging and barking at visitors are unlikely to be adopted from a kennel situation, and may discourage people from visiting shelters. Dogs displaying this sort of stress may continue to deteriorate the longer they are kept in a kennel situation. If you do not have the resources to do behavior modification, and if the dog does not show this behavior in a different environment, you might consider placing the dog instead through a foster home. Another alternative is to put a picture of the dog in the lobby, and bring the dog to visit interested adopters in a space other than the kennels.
Q: What kind of assessment is SAFER?
A: The SAFER Assessment is designed to assess the probability of future aggression in dogs age six months and older. The assessment does not measure the dog’s temperament or internal character. The assessment uses researched items that elicit responses that are predictive of future behavior. It is intended to be one tool used to help identify the risk of future aggression and the individual behavioral support needed before adoption for each dog in a shelter.
Q: What was the population of the dogs assessed during the initial research?
A: The sample size for the original research consisted of 141 dogs: 66 were in the assessed group and 75 were in the control group. Riverside County Animal Services replicated the research and had similar results. Their sample included 100 dogs: 50 in the assessed group and 50 in the control group. Breeds and breed mixes were a representation of those in the shelter at the time.
Q: Are there more extensive assessments available, such as those involving children, cats, brushing, and behavior on a leash?
A: There is limited data on the use of a Toddler Doll being predictive of future aggression towards children and there is no data yet that supports the ability to predict aggression towards cats.The Sensitivity Item in the current SAFER assessment can be predictive of sensitivity to touch, which may include brushing.
Q: After attending a SAFER workshop, can I use shelter dogs to practice my assessment technique before my submission for certification?
A: We strongly recommend that you practice using known, safe dogs who have no known history of aggression or biting. Dogs with reliable, stable behavior who belong to friends, family or colleagues are great candidates for practicing assessment technique. Shelters dogs might not be the best choice for practice. If possible, practice with many different dogs. Practicing the assessment multiple times on one or two dogs can teach them the assessment. This may cause the dogs to use inappropriate behavior if they find something unpleasant during the assessment and learn to anticipate it.
Q: When we submit video of staff assessments for SAFER certification, can we include assessments for more than one staffer on the DVD?
A: Yes. You can submit one electronic video clip or DVD showing the assessments for multiple staffers and dogs. However, please be sure to clearly identify the location of the assessments for each person and dog on the electronic video clip or DVD so that we can match them up with the certification paperwork. For example: First Evaluator: Sandy Martin. Dogs Assessed by Sandy, in order: Scout (black Lab), Chauncey (Yorkie), Harper (brindle Pit Bull mix). Second Evaluator: Alison Smith. Dogs Assessed by Alison, in order: Suki (yellow Lab mix), Henry (chocolate Doxie), Becky (St. Bernard).
Q: If a dog becomes aggressive during an assessment we are recording for certification, should we send in that assessment, or does each person need to assess three dogs from start to finish?
A: Include the incomplete assessment with two full assessments of other dogs. It’s acceptable to have one dog with whom you have to stop the assessment. This demonstrates to the reviewers that you know when it’s appropriate to stop an assessment for your safety.
Q: Does the Observer need to be certified and/or trained to assist with SAFER assessments?
A: It is best if both the Assessor and the Observer are certified and understand the assessment, as they will be working together to determine the score on each item. The Observer’s role is to observe behavior; therefore, it is crucial that the Observer is proficient in canine behavior to appropriately score and keep the Assessor safe.
Q: Do Assessors need to be perfect on the assessment for certification?
A: When you submit your video for certification, none of the assessments should contain any mistakes that you are aware of.
Q: When we prepare our videos for SAFER certification, can we assess dogs we know?
A: No. While you practice SAFER assessments in preparation for attempting certification it is important to start with dogs who are known to be safe. As you near being ready for certification, you should assess dogs who are unknown to you. When you submit for certification, the assessments conducted must be on dogs that are unknown to you as previous knowledge and interactions with the dog can bias your behavior observations and change the way you handle.
If you have additional questions that are not addressed in this FAQ, please contact us at SAFER@aspca.org.