Missing the Point

Dogs are talented observers of human body language. Dog folks attest to this via boatloads of anecdotal stories and home videos that we are happy to share (and over-share) with others. But more importantly for the purposes of The Science Dog, it is the results of an additional boatload of controlled research studies that support our belief that dogs are paying attention to us.

Getting the Point: Human pointing gestures have emerged as a research litmus test for measuring the dog’s ability to understand human communication signals. To date, there are more than 50 published papers that report about this talent in dogs. Researchers have compared pointing comprehension between dogs and socialized and unsocialized wolves, between dogs living as pets and those living in shelters, among puppies and dogs of different ages, using various types of pointing (hand, eyes, body position) and when the pointing person is either familiar or unfamiliar to the dog. Though results vary and there are a number of nuanced points (literally) to be made, there is no longer any doubt.

Dogs are good at this pointing stuff. We point to something, they will look there.

Which of course, begs the question, how do dogs attain this very special talent in the first place? Are they born with it or is it primarily a learned phenomenon? Two general hypotheses have been put forward. The first emphasizes the importance of genetic preparedness and domestication while the second leans more heavily upon the influence of an individual dog’s life experiences:

  • Domestication Hypothesis: This explanation focuses on the genetic basis of social cognition and posits that the processes of domestication plus natural and artificial selection have resulted in a species that is genetically predisposed to attend to and comprehend human behavior and communication cues. Studies showing that dogs out-performed socialized wolves in  cue-following tasks and unsolvable problem paradigms provide support for this theory.
  • Two-Stage Hypothesis: This hypothesis posits that a dog’s relationship with his or her human companions and opportunities to learn about human communication signals are essential for cue-following success. While followers of this theory agree that dogs have a genetic predisposition for bonding with humans, they maintain that the ability to understand and respond to our communication signals is gained primarily through living with and learning from human caretakers. Studies showing that some highly socialized wolves actually outperform some dogs in their ability to understand our signals support this view.

One of the biggest challenges in parsing the influences of domestication/selection and ontogeny/learning on the dog’s social cognition skills is finding truly representative samples (groups of dogs). For example, studies that have compared shelter dogs with dogs living in homes have been used to examine the influences of socialization and learning. The supposition is that shelter dogs are less socialized and have had few opportunities to learn from humans and so represent a group in which genetic influences would prevail. However, the background of shelter dogs is often unknown and a substantial number may have lived in homes and have had previous training. Similarly, a dog who lives in a home may receive widely varying degrees of human interaction and opportunities to learn social cues. These difficulties are probably responsible, at least in part, for the inconsistent results that studies comparing social cognition in shelter dogs and pet dogs have produced.

Representative samples: A newly published study by Biagio D’Aniello’s team at the University of Naples controlled for this particular problem by studying a group of dogs who were exclusively kennel-raised and who had experienced very limited opportunity to learn from human caretakers. (For more information about the importance of representative samples see “Your Face is Gonna Freeze Like That“).

The Study: Two groups of dogs were studied. The first included 11 Labrador and Golden Retrievers living at the FOOF kennel in Naples, Italy (kennel dogs). Although well cared for and socialized with other dogs, the dogs had very limited social interactions with people, no training and no daily opportunities to learn from humans. Each of these dogs was age-, sex- and breed-matched with a dog who had lived with a family in a home from puppyhood (pet dogs). During the pre-test period, all of the dogs learned to anticipate the presence of a food morsel in a small bowl. During the test phase, an experimenter pointed to one of two possible bowls while either kneeling close to the bowl (proximal test) or standing approximately 2 feet away from the bowls (distal test). The study used dynamic pointing, which means that the experimenter continued to hold the pointing gesture after the dog was released and allowed to make a choice of one of the two bowls. Trials were repeated 16 times with an additional 8 control trials. Dogs were scored as either correct (choosing the bowl that the experimenter was pointing to), incorrect (choosing the other bowl), or no-choice (not approaching either bowl).

Results: The pet dog group greatly outperformed the kennel dog group in their ability to understand both types of pointing gesture:

  • 10 of 11 (91 %) of the pet dogs performed at greater than chance levels (i.e. chose correctly more than chance would predict) when the experimenter was in either position (kneeling and close or standing and further away).
  • In contrast, only 1 kennel dog (9 %) performed greater than chance when the experimenter was close to the bowls and none of the kennel dogs were successful when the pointer was standing further away.
  • A relatively high number of “no-choice” responses were observed, with these occurring at a much higher rate in kennel dogs than in pet dogs.  When a separate analysis was conducted that removed “no choice” responses from the data, the success differences between the two groups of dogs were maintained, although a smaller number of trials were analyzed.
  • Comparisons between the two groups of dogs in overall success at understanding human pointing gestures showed that the pet dogs were significantly more successful at understanding both types of pointing (proximal and distal) than the kennel dogs.

Conclusions: These results support the hypothesis that human socialization and learning are necessary for dogs to comprehend human pointing gestures. Very low degrees of human  socialization, even in dogs who are well-cared for and socialized to other dogs, results in dogs who do not understand or respond to pointing gestures. The authors conclude that while the influence of domestication on the dog’s ability to understand our communication cues is not insignificant, socialization and having opportunities to learn from human caretakers is essential.


Take Away for Dog Folks

It is the dogs who missed the point that I want to talk about.

Here’s why: Consider how frequently during a given day that you communicate with your dog via gestures and pointing signals that are not formally trained cues. These body language cues function in daily life to provide your dog with information (“Look Ally, you missed that piece of muffin on the floor“), communicate direction (“Chippy, we are going to the car, not out to the pool”) or about current plans (“Com’on Vinny, time to cuddle on the couch”). These cues are informal and often times completely unconscious on our part, but our dogs pay attention to them, understand what they mean and respond appropriately. These are our dogs – the dogs who “get the point”. We all co-develop a common language with our dogs that is made up of pointing gestures, body cues, facial expressions and key phrases. Take a moment to think about these and identify a few that you know that you use often in your home and that your dog readily responds to. There are bunches.

Now, consider dogs living in shelters: Some shelter dogs will definitely “get the point” if they had prior opportunities to bond with people and learn about the significance of human body language. Others, however, may lack this background and will miss the point. I would venture that the previous group are going to fare better in adoptive homes than the latter group.  A shelter dog who has learned that human communication signals are worth paying attention to is likely to be perceived positively by his or her new owner because the dog will be aware of the significance of human body language, gestures and non-verbal communication cues. Subsequently, the new owner is likely to perceive such behaviors as a dog who is being sensitive to the family dynamics, is bonding well, and is trainable. End result – a good match and dog stays in home.

Conversely, the shelter dog who has not had an opportunity to learn about human communication cues will be at real disadvantage when he enters his new home. He will be less likely to attend to his new human’s gestures and body language cues simply because he has never learned that such gestures are worth paying attention to. While the new dog owner may not think of this in terms of his dog “attending” to his body language or communication cues per se, he will most likely notice that his dog is not paying much attention to him or responding to him. Subsequently, the new owner may perceive this as his new dog being too independent, not loving enough, aloof, or even untrainable. End result – the dog may not stay long.

If the direction that these data are pointing is correct and dogs need opportunities to learn about human communication skills (i.e. they are not purely a by-product of domestication), then it is quite possible that the benefits of shelter socialization and training programs go well beyond producing better mannered dogs who sit or lie down on command (not that there is anything wrong with those things, of course). I would expect that these less tangible benefits of shelter training and socialization programs, specifically dogs learning the significance of paying attention to human communication cues, may be more important for dogs in the long run than the more obvious benefits of teaching dogs manners and responses to cues.

So, to those of you who are working with shelter dogs to improve their lives and their chances of adoption, Keep on Keepin’ on – Science is behind you.

SHELTER DOG TRAINING – BENEFITS TO SOCIAL COGNITION SKILLS? (Photo courtesy of the Center for Shelter Dogs, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University)

Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Alterisio A, Scandurra A, Petremolo E, Iommelli MR, Aria M. What’s the point? Golden and Labrador retrievers living in kennels do not understand human pointing gestures. Animal Cognition 2017; May 15. doi: 10.1007/s10071-017-1098-2.




Ailurophile? (Or not)

All four of our dogs like cats and are especially smitten with our current cat, Pete. They play with Pete, go for walks with him and sleep with him.


Lucky for us, (and for Pete), our dogs would definitely fall within the category of ailurophile (cat lover).


But, of course, this is not true of all dogs. Many are not fans of the feline race.

Some dogs are afraid of cats.

Others hate cats.

And some are conflicted.

Where a particular dog falls on the cat-loving to cat-hating scale is an important consideration for shelter staff and rescue folks who are attempting to place dogs into suitable homes. In many cases, they have no way to know whether or not a particular dog is safe with cats. While there are several behavior assessment protocols available, none include a validated test that predicts how a dog behaves towards cats.  Since this can vary dramatically and because aggressive or predatory behavior towards cats can have fatal consequences, this is important information to know.  Recently, Dr. Christy Hoffman and the Canine Research Team at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, studied cat-loving and cat-hating dogs to determine what behavioral cues might be helpful in developing a reliable test for ailurophilia (or its opposite) in dogs.

The Study: They hypothesized that dogs who had a history of having either harmed or killed cats or other small animals would be more attentive to visual, auditory and visual cat cues than would dogs who had no such history. They also speculated that, given the dog’s highly refined senses of smell and hearing, dogs would generally be highly sensitive to cat sounds and cat smells. They examined the reactions of 69 adult dogs of varying breeds and breed-mixes to a visual cue (animated white kitty toy), an auditory cue (recordings of cat meows and growls), and an olfactory/visual cue (a tube of cat urine placed inside the cat toy). Each of these experimental conditions was paired with a control  (white pillow case containing a motorized ball, recording of coins falling, and urine tube placed inside pillow case, respectively). The study design involved exposing dogs to each stimulus and its paired control (for example, the animated cat toy and the animate pillow case) and recording responses.

Results: The dogs reacted differently to the various types of cat stimuli, and dogs who were not fond of cats behaved somewhat differently than those who liked (and lived with) cats:

  • Altogether, dogs were more sensitive to cat vocalizations than they were to the sight of a cat (or at least to the sight of a mobile toy that looks like a cat).
  • Reactions to smell were a bit more complicated. Interestingly, dogs did not spend more time investigating and sniffing the cat toy when it was baited with the smell of cat urine than they did when investigating the pee-free kitty. (Makes one wonder if the dogs were thinking……”Huh. Why did this kitty wet himself?”). Rather, the dogs spent more time sniffing the visual control (pillow case) when it was laced with cat pee than when it was pee-free. The authors suggest that there may have been a “surprise” effect occurring. Because dogs do not normally expect to smell cat pee on a pillow case (well, not in most homes, anyway), they may have spent more time investigating something that they found to be incongruent with their past experiences. There is evidence for this type of response in other circumstances with dogs in previous studies.
  • Last, dogs with a history of killing or injuring cats or other small animals spent significantly more time orienting to the sound of a cat meowing or growling that did dogs without such a history. These dogs did not show enhanced interest in the sight or smell of a cat, however. Although not statistically significant, dogs with a history of predation tended to orient more strongly to the control sounds also, suggesting that dogs who are not safe with cats may be hypersensitive to auditory stimuli in general.

Take Away for Dog Folks

There are several interesting things that we can learn from this study. The first is that dogs attend to cat vocalizations and may be more sensitive to cat sounds than to the sight or smell of a cat.  The results with dogs who had a history of predation (either towards cats or other small animals) support the inclusion of various types of cat vocalizations when developing shelter tests that assess a dog’s reactivity to cats. While such tests require refinement and validation, it appears that including vocalizations may be helpful for differentiating between dogs who are safe with cats and dogs who may not be.

And last, dogs are interested in cat pee, especially when it shows up places where one least expects it.

This study also brings another question to mind of course – Do we need a study that distinguishes between cats who are cynophiles (dog lovers) and those who are misocynists (dog haters)?



Cited Reference: Hoffman CL, Workman MK, Roberts N, Handley S. Dogs’ responses to visual, auditory, and olfactory cat-related cues. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2017; 188:50-58.

(Field) Dogs on the Beach

Mike and I and our dogs just returned from a week in Florida at a beach community that prides itself on its dog-friendliness. We met our friends Bob and Karen from Virginia, who brought their two Labs, Gus and Sally.

It was an amazing week. We spent hours with the dogs walking the beach, watching shorebirds and dolphins, hiking local trails, and visiting a nearby island preserve that is home to a pair of endangered Red Wolves (no sighting of those, but Bob and Mike did see a Bobcat while out cycling one afternoon).  A perfect winter get-away for all of us.



The Dogs: Our four dogs included Chippy (Toller), Vincent (Brittany), and Alice and Cooper (Golden Retrievers). Ally and Cooper are field-bred, from Jackie Mertens of Topbrass Retrievers. We have a 30-year history with Jackie’s dogs and love their athleticism, spirit, and boundless exuberance. They fit with our lifestyle and are a joy to live with and to train. Karen’s two Labs are also from field lines. Sally comes from Cresthill Kennels and Gus from Southland Kennels. Like us, Karen and Bob are active folks who spend a lot of time outdoors with their dogs. They have the added good fortune of living near the water and so they enjoy swimming, retrieving and boating regularly with their dogs.

Field-bred? As many readers know, the Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever are closely related breeds that were originally created to aid hunters by retrieving game – most commonly water fowl. As a result, they are highly active dogs that love to swim and to retrieve. As the general story goes, both breeds experienced an increase in popularity as family pets during the 1970’s. Because the attributes of a family companion are not always in line with the behaviors one seeks in a hunting dog, the breeds began to experience a divergence in selection criteria, with some dogs bred for their hunting ability and others for conformation and a more easy-going temperament. Over several generations, this resulted in two distinct  types within each breed. Although there is certainly overlap and some purposeful outcrossing between the two types, the term field-bred refers to dogs born within pedigree lines that are selected specifically for hunting ability, while conformation/pet refers to those selected for conformation and suitability as family companions.

Do field-bred dogs behave similarly across breeds? Karen and I had many great dog training conversations during our time together. One topic that interested us was the similarities and differences that we observed between field-bred Labs (her dogs) and field-bred Goldens (my dogs). Similarities included a love of retrieving and apparently inexhaustible energy level. All four dogs are intensely focused on retrieving and will chase toys and bumpers until the sun goes down (and comes back up again). Similarly, all are highly active (an understatement). Alice is known for “orbiting” – circling around us  in wide arcs, veering off on each loop to splash through the surf.  A typical 5-mile hike for us meant at least 10 miles for Ally. Similarly, Gus only slowed down when he fell asleep in his crate at the end of the day and Sally clearly has no understanding of the statement “this is your final retrieve“.

What about differences? A major difference that we observed, and something that will not surprise Lab folks, is that Karen’s dogs were more physically robust than my Goldens. While my guys love to chase and wrestle as they play, the Lab version of this involves a lot more body-slamming and chest-bumping (a play style that Alice made abundantly clear to Gus that she had no interest in participating in).

These were just a few observations from our dog days on the beach.  And of course, they may simply reflect similarities and differences of our four individual dogs. This was an “n of 2” for each breed, after all. Hardly a representative sample.



So……upon returning home, my immediate Science Dog query was naturally:

Is there any research that compares the behavior of Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers?”

Well yes Virginia, as a matter of fact, there is.

In 2016, a team of behavioral geneticists led by Dr. Pers Jensen at Linköping University in Sweden compared Dog Mentality Assessment (DMA) test scores of Labrador and Golden Retrievers (1). The DMA is a standardized and validated behavior profile that is administered by the Swedish Working Dog Club. The researchers’ objectives were to examine behavioral differences between field and conformation/pet lines of Golden retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. They hypothesized that because selection criteria were the same, that the behaviors of field-bred dogs in each breed would be similar. They collected DMA scores and pedigrees for 902 Golden Retrievers (204 field dogs and 698 conformation/pet dogs) and for 1672 Labrador Retrievers (1023 and 649). A statistical test called Principal Component Analysis (PCA) was used to identify a set of six primary behavior categories: curiosity, play interest, chase proneness, social curiosity, social greeting and threat display. Results were compared between both breeds and breed types, and pedigrees were used to compute heritability estimates for the behavior categories.

Results: Although the hypothesis was that similar selection criteria (hunting ability) would result in similar behavior patterns in Labrador and Golden Retrievers (two closely related breeds), the researchers actually found several significant differences between field-bred Goldens and Labs:

  1. Labradors vs. Goldens: When compared overall (combining types), Labrador Retrievers scored higher in curiosity, play interest and threat display compared with Golden Retrievers. Golden Retrievers, on the other hand, scored higher in chase behavior, social curiosity and social greeting.
  2. Field-bred vs. Conformation/pet: Within-breed comparisons showed that field-bred dogs scored higher in playfulness than their non-field cohorts in both Goldens and Labs. Other than this similarity however, there were several breed-specific differences (statistically speaking, this is called an interaction effect of breed and type).
    • Field-bred Labrador Retrievers were less socially curious and less interested in social greeting than their conformation and pet-bred counterparts. These results are in agreement with a 2014 study of hunting Labs (2).
    • In contrast, field-bred Golden Retrievers were more curious and more likely to show social greeting behavior than their conformation/pet cohorts. Field-bred Goldens also had a stronger chase (retrieve) response than conformation/pet Goldens.
  3. Heritability estimates: Analysis reflected substantial (moderate to high) genetic influence on the behavioral traits that were measured, in both breeds. However, results suggest that the genetic influences (called genetic architecture) underlying hunting ability in Labs vs. Goldens may be different.

Despite similar genetic origins and intense selection for the same type of work (retrieving birds), field-bred Labradors and Goldens demonstrate distinct behavioral differences. Most notably, field Goldens seem to be more highly social and more socially curious than other types of Goldens, while field-bred Labradors do not demonstrate this enhanced sociability. Equally striking is the evidence that the set of genes in Goldens and Labs that influence hunting ability are not identical and suggested different selective pressures and underlying genetic influences in the two breeds.

Take Away for Dog Folks

These results provide some helpful information to trainers, veterinarians and other pet professionals who regularly advise their clients regarding breed selection. First (and I know this is a no-brainer for those of you who live with these breeds)……a Golden is not a Labrador (and vice versa)…….  Second, a field Golden/Lab is not a conformation Golden/Lab (also obvious)…… And finally, a field-bred Golden is also not a field-bred Lab (less obvious). Even though field-bred Golden retrievers and Labrador Retrievers have been intensely selected for the exact same job over many generations, they still turn out, well, different (ain’t nature something?).

Practically speaking, a field-bred Labrador Retriever should be expected to be highly focused (i.e. less socially curious) and intensely playful (remember – they are the rough-and-tumble guys), and may have a higher propensity to threat responses than a Golden Retriever. And, if you go for the field-bred Golden type, expect a social butterfly who zips around at 100-miles-an-hour (Ally would be happy to demonstrate).



Most importantly, if you are considering one of these breeds (or types), find and trust a breeder with experience who knows his/her lines. The current research suggests that the behavior traits that were measured in the Goldens and Labs were moderately to highly heritable. A reputable breeder who knows her pedigrees is also going to understand how the temperaments and behavior of her dogs carry from one generation to the next and will advise her puppy buyers accordingly. For me personally, I am thankful for having met Jackie and her co-breeder, Paige, who know their Topbrass Goldens inside and out and who over the years have allowed us to have so many amazing dogs share their lives with us.

Happy Training!

Cited Studies:

  1. Sundman AS, Johnsson M, Wright D, Jensen P. Similar recent selection criteria associated with different behavioural effects in two dog breeds. Genes, Brain and Behavior 2016; 15:750-756.
  2. Lofgren SE, Wiener P, Blott SC, Sanchez-Molano E, et al. Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs. Applied Animal Behavior Science 2014; 156:44-53.



If Sit Doesn’t Matter, What Does?

My last Science Dog blog. “When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it” reviewed a series of studies showing that training shelter dogs to sit on command is not as predictive of future adoption as was once assumed. Those results should not be interpreted as an argument against the benefits of training programs, but rather as evidence that there may be other factors involving shelter dogs, potential adopters and the shelter environment that may be more important to consider when looking at adoption rates and how to increase them.

Following the “sit” studies, Alexandra Protopopova and her research team set out to discover what, if anything, about dog-human visits might consistently predict adoption outcomes for dogs. They asked the question: “If sit doesn’t matter, what does?”.

What Matters: The researchers first studied 250 out-of-kennel visits between adoptable dogs and potential adopters at a municipal shelter in Florida (1). After selecting a dog to meet, shelter visitors interacted with dogs in either a small outdoor area, a larger, grassy outdoor area or a small indoor room. Multiple factors were examined during the interactions, including the dog’s appearance/breed/age, the dog’s behavior, and the visiting environment.  Results: Overall, three factors stood out as significant predictors of an individual dog’s likelihood of adoption following these visits. These were:

  1. Willingness to play: A negative relationship was found between not playing and adoption. Those dogs who ignored play initiation by visitors were less likely to be adopted than those who did not ignore the adopter’s invitation to play. The converse of this is that dogs who wanted to play with the potential adopters were more likely to be adopted after the interaction.
  2. Lying close: Dogs who voluntarily laid down close to the human visitor were much more likely to be adopted than those who did not. (14 times as likely, in fact!)
  3. Visiting space: Visits that took place in the small, outdoor area were more likely to lead to successful adoptions than were those that occurred in the large, enclosed grass area or in the indoor room.


What to do with this information? Here is where things get really cool. The researchers used the results from this study to design a simple program that could be used by shelters to improve adoption rates (2). And then, they tested the program to see if it  actually worked.  Science at its best.

Here is what they did:

Structured Interactions: The study included two experiments. In the first experiment, the researchers developed a play/toy preference assessment test and then used it to test the play preferences of 20 dogs. The dogs were retested several times over a period of three weeks to validate the accuracy of the tool. The second  experiment used a modified version of the play preferences assessment to identify the toy preferences of a larger group of dogs at the shelter. Following their play preference testing, the dogs were assigned to two groups: (1) A structured interaction group in which potential adopters interacted with the dog with his/her preferred toy and then engaged in petting while an experimenter encouraged (lured) the dog to lie quietly at the visitors feet or (2) A control group in which the dog’s play preferences were not revealed and whose interactions with the potential adopter were unstructured. (Details of the play preference test and the structure interactions format are included in the paper).  Data were collected on a total of 160 dog-adopter interactions.

Results: In the first experiment, play preference as measured by toy selection (tennis ball, nylon squeaky toy, cotton plush toy or flannel rope toy) was validated. This means that dogs who showed a preferred toy during the initial, short assessment continued to show the same preference when retested multiple times. However, it is significant to note that about one-third of the dogs (35 %) were not interested in playing with toys at all. (This is a point that the experimenters return to and address later). The import of this test lies more in the observation that simply asking dogs what type of toy that they preferred was helpful during future interactions, as found in the results of the second experiment. When the Structured Interaction group was compared with the Control group, striking differences emerged:

  1. Dogs in the structured interactions group (offered their preferred toy, encouraged to lie down at the visitor’s feet) spent less time ignoring the visitor’s invitations to play and more time in close proximity to the visitor.
  2. Dogs  in the structured interactions group were also significantly more likely (2.5 times more likely, in fact!) to be adopted than were the control dogs.
  3. The duration of the interactions did not differ between the two groups, suggesting that using structured interactions did not take additional staff or volunteer time than traditional visits. In addition, results of a post-interaction questionnaire revealed that the visitors did not find the format of the structured interaction to be intrusive or to interfere with their ability to visit with the dog.


Take Away for Dog Folks

There are numerous ways in which this new information may be used to help shelter dogs. The initial set of studies showed that contrary to popular belief, teaching a dog to sit does not increase his or her chance for adoption (though it very well may have other benefits). Additionally, while multiple studies have shown that a dog’s appearance is one of the strongest factors that people use when initially selecting a dog (even though people tend to deny this when asked), appearance was not found to be important during subsequent out-of-kennel visits. Rather, during the actual visit with the dog, potential adopters react more to the dog’s play behavior and tendency to stay in close proximity (lying at feet) when making their adoption decision.

Let’s first look at play behavior: The use of the play preference test in this study is in-line with our increasing understanding of the welfare and emotional health benefits seen when we allow dogs to demonstrate their preferences and even better, to have a choice. This has become a bit of a buzz-word among trainers, but hyperbole and anecdotes aside, there is really nothing not to love about a shelter dog being allowed to choose his or her favorite toy and then carrying that toy into meet-and-greet areas for play with a new visitor.

Of course, nothing will be 100 percent effective or helpful. One of the caveats of the toy preference work was the finding that not all of the dogs in the shelter were interested in playing with toys. (I am sure this is not news to shelter staff). Of the dogs tested in the 2016 study,  only about 2/3 could be easily enticed to play with a toy, regardless of the toy type. This finding is consistent with previous shelter dog studies that reported that only a minority of dogs played with toys and that object-play is often of very short duration. This may occur because of the stress of the shelter environment, an individual dog’s previous history (i.e. never having had toys or opportunities to learn to play) or a combination of factors.

For those of us who live with toy (and play) maniacs, this might be surprising to learn.



Still, it is very helpful information. Knowing that dogs who willingly play with visitors are more often adopted and that a substantial number of shelter dogs may be reluctant to play with toys can lead shelters to develop their own innovative programs to encourage play behaviors in dogs. This may include different types of toys such as food puzzles or encouraging more “people-oriented” types of play (more about this in the next blog piece).

Second, lying in proximity:  In the structured interactions group, the researchers placed the dog on lead and then used a food lure to encourage the dog to stay close and/or to lie down near the visitor. While one could argue that this behavior was not voluntary and might not reflect a truly calm dog, helping a dog to focus on relaxing and to enjoy petting would allow the visitor to experience the dog while he or she is calm and quiet in a setting that is often not conducive to calm behavior in shelter dogs. In addition, this type of relaxation training is common in many dog training programs (including my own) and can be used as a way to classically condition dogs to remain calm and enjoy handling and petting. For shelters with training programs, this information suggests that training dogs to “lie at feet in a natural environment” might be an especially important exercise to emphasize.

Last, what I personally love best about this research is that it shows science working in the very best way that it can work – first to discover new knowledge, second to create a new approach or program from that knowledge, and third to test (and in this case confirm) the validity of the new program. In my view, a win-win for everyone involved – dogs, adopters and shelter professionals.

Cited References:

  1. Protopopova A, Wynne CDL. Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption. Applied Animal Behaviour Science , 2014; 157:109 – 116.
  2. Protopopova A, Brandifino M, Wynne CDL. Preference assessments and structured potential adopter-dog interactions increase adoptions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science , 2016;176:87-95.



Excitable You

There is a common cognitive bias, the Fundamental Attribution Error,  that is central to the way in which we view others and make judgements about their behavior. It is supported by a large body of research and is one of the most common errors that our brains make on a regular basis. The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to our tendency to explain the behavior of other people in terms of their internal disposition, such as personality traits, innate abilities, and motives, rather than to the external (situational) factors that may actually be exerting a much stronger influence on them. This lapse in judgement occurs (especially in Western cultures) because we tend to assign high value to what we assume to be an individual’s character and personality traits, while at the same time we underestimate the influence that situational factors and context can have.



We all are susceptible to committing this error and it is usually only through conscious control that we can keep it in check. A common example occurs when we are driving and someone cuts us off in traffic. We immediately label the offending driver as “a jerk” (or worse) rather than consider that he might be driving to the hospital (or with his dog to the veterinarian) on an emergency and would not normally behave so rudely towards other drivers. This is not to say that unpleasant people do not exist, but rather, that humans have a natural tendency to jump to depositional (personality) explanations for another’s behavior and are less inclined to consider situational explanations.

FAE Homer

The Fundamental Attribution Error came to mind recently when I was reading a paper that examined dog owners’ reports about their dogs’ behavior, specifically about excitable behavior. The study was conducted at the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Center for Shelter Dogs and was published in the journal, Animals (1).

The Study: The authors note in the introduction that the term “excitable behavior” in dogs is both poorly defined and under-studied. They then provide a diverse list of undesirable behaviors that have been reported to  fall under the umbrella of excitable dog behavior. These include jumping up, mounting, destructiveness, mouthing, grabbing clothing, digging, some forms of barking, rough play, pulling on lead, and (my particular favorite) “dogs who respond poorly to commands and are difficult to control”.  Study objective: The purpose of the study was to use an on-line survey to collect information regarding owners’ experiences with their dog’s excitable behavior and to report the behaviors that are prevalent in excitable dogs. Methods: The study group was self-selecting. Participants checked a box in the survey that asked if their dog was “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those owners who answered “yes” were included in the study; owners who answered “no” were excluded. The remainder of the questionnaire included questions about the dog’s demographics and problematic behaviors, and the degree of frustration that the owner had with those behaviors. Results: The study group included 175 owners, the majority of whom said that they were very frustrated with their dog’s behavior and found it difficult to manage. Most of the dogs were spayed/neutered and were young adults (average age; ~ 3 years). Almost half of the dogs (44 %) were identified as either purebred Labrador Retrievers or Lab mixes. The two most frequently reported problematic behaviors were jumping up and mouthing (without discomfort to the person). Other commonly reported undesirable behaviors included general disobedience, unwanted barking, pulling on the leash, destructive behavior and “not listening to commands”. The scenarios in which excitable behaviors were most likely to occur included when the owner arrived home after an absence and when the owner was playing with the dog. Some owners also reported excessive excitement when the dog was meeting new people. Conclusions: The authors concluded that “The majority of owners in this self-selected sample were very frustrated with their excitable dog”, that “Many of the dogs in the sample had other behavior problems”, and that their results could be used to “…..provide better education to owners of excitable dogs(Emphasis mine).

Hmmm……..Yes, in case you were wondering, I do have an opinion about this.



There are several problems with this study, in terms of both its methodology and the conclusions that were made. Let’s start with that pesky thing called the Scientific Method, which requires the use of both a representative sample and sufficient controls to prevent bias and capricious conclusions.

Sampling bias: In the authors’ words “The focus of this study is on owners’ experience with their excitable dogs.” Therefore, it must have seemed logical to them (i.e. it felt like a good idea at the time) to simply ask owners to tell them if their dog was one of those (poorly defined) excitable dogs. By this logic, an excitable dog is a dog who is excitable (according to their owner). Circular reasoning does not a representative sample make. And here’s a big surprise; the owners who identified their dog as “highly or extremely excitable” were also very frustrated with their dog’s behavior. Wow. Who knew?

Control Group

Absence of controls: At the start of the survey, owners were asked if they would describe their dog as “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those who answered in the affirmative were included in the study. Owners who answered “no” were not allowed to complete the survey (i.e. a possible control group of dogs was purposefully excluded). The authors went on to report that excitable dogs are likely to show problematic behaviors of jumping up and mouthing, along with a myriad of other associated problem behaviors. However, without a control group to compared the frequencies of these behaviors to, what do we actually learn from these data?

Absolutely nothing


Here’s why: Let’s say that a control group was used (i.e. correct scientific methods were followed). So, hypothetically, let say that the control group included a similar number of age-, sex- and breed-matched dogs who were representative of the general population of dogs. Their owners completed the same survey and answered the same questions. The reported frequencies of problematic behaviors in the experimental group (dogs identified as excitable) were then compared with the frequencies of the same behaviors in the control group. Here are some possible outcomes of this hypothetical study:

  • Jumping up: In the actual study, 60 percent of owners of excitable dogs said that their dog jumped up to greet when they returned home after an absence. If (hypothetically) a similar proportion of owners in the control group, let’s say 62 % for reason of argument, stated that their dog jumped on them when they returned home, then the proportion of jumping up in excitable dogs did not differ from the proportion of that problem in the general population of dogs. And, if jumping up was not over-represented in the excitable dog group, then jumping up is NOT a problem associated with excitable dogs. (Rather, it is just something that dogs do).
  • Pulling on leash, destructive behaviors, not listening to commands: You see where this is going. The plethora of unwanted dog behaviors that the study participants vented about in their surveys cannot viewed as indicative of an excitable dog because the frequencies of these behaviors were never compared to their frequencies in other dogs. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the owners placed their dogs into the self-described category of excitable dog in the first place. Lots of dogs pull on lead, bark and do not listen. All that we learned here is that owners like to complain about these behaviors and welcome the opportunity to label their dog as “excitable”.

no control group

Wait, there’s more.

The Fundamental Attribution Error: The authors state: “In general, disobedient, destructive, chasing and barking behavior problems were the most commonly reported behaviors by owners of excitable dogs“.  Excluding the occasional dog who cheats on his income taxes or robs the town bank, I think that this list of unwanted behaviors pretty much covers everything that owners complain about in young, untrained dogs. (What are the “non-excitable dogs’ doing to annoy their owners, one might ask)? While this sounds facetious, I actually am serious. If the purpose of this study was to allow a group of self-identifying owners of excitable dogs to air their (numerous) complaints about their dogs and to give their perceptions a voice, then by definition, the authors are assuming that excitable dogs differ in some fundamental way from other dogs. I would argue that they have no evidence of such a thing and moreover that classifying certain dogs as excitable is ill-founded and not in the best interest of any dogs, regardless of the researchers’ noble intentions.

Encouraging dog owners (and dog professionals) to commit a fundamental attribution error by labeling dogs as inherently “excitable” provides tacit permission to blame the dog’s personality or intrinsic nature for undesirable behaviors, rather than looking carefully at situational factors that may be influencing the dog. The outcome of such perceptual differences could be devastating:


  • My dog must have been born this way. (Solution: none)
  • He was abused/abandoned/neglected by his previous owner and it made him hyperactive. (Solution: none)
  • He’s a Lab, Lab-mix, Pittie (*Insert any breed stereotype here) (Solution: none)
  • She’s a hyper-active dog. (Solution: none)
  • He’s an excitable dog. (Solution: none)
  • She’s a bad dog. (Solution: Get rid of the dog).

This mindset leads an owner to the conclusion that their dog’s behavior is immutable and that their own degree of responsibility is minimal or nonexistent. Alternatively, where do situational explanations lead us?


  • He is rarely exposed to new people, places, and dogs. (Solution: I need to socialize him and take him with me more often).
  • She does not receive regular exercise. (Solution: I need to incorporate several types of daily exercise into our routines).
  • He has not had consistent training (Solution: I will enroll him in a training class).
  • She is crated and left alone for many hours of the day. (Solution: I will hire a dog-walker or use a reputable doggy day care).
  • I may have unrealistic expectations for my young dog’s behavior. (Solution: I will ratchet down my expectations so that they are more in line with what is reasonable to expect of a young, happy and exuberant dog. I will love my dog).

Let’s avoid making the fundamental attribution error with our dogs. Because we have complete control over what happens to them, the outcome can be much worse than simply calling someone a jerk.

Nuff said. Off box.

Cited Study: Shabelansky A, Dowling-Guyer S. Characteristics of excitable dog behavior based on owners’ report from a self-selected study. Animals 2016; 6, 22; doi10.3390/ani6030022.

Excerpted from: “Only Have Eyes for Your: Exploring Canine Research with the Science Dog” (2016).





Beware the Straw Man

Many animal shelters regularly use standardized tests to assess the behavior of dogs and to determine adoption suitability. However, while the use of these tests has become ubiquitous, there is a distinct lack of research demonstrating their reliability or validity. In other words, while testing a dog’s degree of friendliness, aggression and fear prior to adoption makes intuitive sense and feels like a good idea, we do not actually know whether or not it actually works. This is an important question to raise (and I am by no means the first to be raising it), because when these tests are administered as a method for predicting a dog’s future behavior, the dog’s performance on the test often determines whether or not he has a future.


My previous blog,  “This test you keep using…..” reviewed a study that examined the predictive value of a single subtest of a standard behavior test, the fake hand as a test for food aggression (1).  That paper’s results are important because it brought the fake hand test under needed scientific scrutiny and because it brought additional attention to the need for the scientific validation of all behavior tests that are used with shelter and rescue dogs.

Though still limited, these studies are being conducted and published. For example, an Australian behaviorist, Kate Mornement, has been studying behavior assessments used by animal shelters for the last several years as part of her PhD research at Monash University (2,3). Most recently, she and her research team examined the effectiveness of a behavior assessment program called the BARK protocol (4).


Kate Mornement, Pets Behaving Badly

The study: Kate and her research team first worked with a focus panel of nine canine experts to develop a standardized 12-subtest behavior assessment that was labeled the Behavioural Assessment for Rehoming K-9s (BARK) program. The BARK battery of tests was designed to assess five primary behavior traits: anxiety, compliance, fear, friendliness, and activity level. Following development, the BARK test’s reliability and validity were studied in a shelter setting over a 12-month period. Several measures of its effectiveness were examined: inter-rater reliability (the degree to which different evaluators agreed when assessing the same dog), test-retest (the degree to which a dog’s score was stable over time; in this case dogs were retested 24 hours following their initial assessment), and predictive validity (the accuracy with which in-shelter test results predicted a dog’s in-home behavior). Predictive validity was assessed by surveying adoptive owners several months following adoption regarding their dog’s degree of anxiety, fear, friendliness, compliance, and activity level.

testing test

 Results: Several results of this study are of value to shelter professionals and dog folks:

  1. Inter-rater reliability: Scoring for the five behavior categories showed statistically significant and moderate agreement between evaluators when testing the same dog. This means that two evaluators (who in this study were highly experienced researchers) generally rated dogs similarly. Some associations were stronger than others, with the assessment for fearful behavior showing the strongest correlation between scorers.
  2. Test-retest reliability: The test-retest reliability was significant for some traits and non-significant for others, resulting in overall weak reliability for the entire group of subtests. This means that a dog’s scores were not always consistent (stable) over time (in this case, just 24 hours) while in the shelter environment. Similar to inter-rater reliability scoring, the tests that reflected a dog’s degree of fear had the strongest correlations.
  3. Predictive validity:  A group of 67 dogs who had been adopted into homes were subsequently assessed via owner interviews. Owner assessments were compared with the dogs’ in-shelter BARK scores. Overall, the predictive value of the BARK test was found to be poor. Only two of the five behavior categories had statistically significant correlations between in-home behavior and BARK test scores; fear and friendliness. However, even these associations were not strong (r = 0.42 and r = 0.49, respectively).  There were no correlations between in-home reports of anxiety, compliance, and activity level with in-shelter BARK scores.

Take Away for Dog Folks: These results suggest that a standardized behavior test, administered to shelter dogs in a shelter environment, may not be a reliable indicator of a dog’s future behavior.   


Soapbox time: These results (and those of Marder et al) raise several questions. Perhaps single-session tests designed to measure major behavior categories can work and all that is needed is additional attention to designing the right types of subtests. Or, perhaps it is more important to examine differences among shelters in terms of staff experience, time availability, adoption standards, and the number of animals that are cared for and attempt to design behavior assessments that can be modified to fit individual shelter’s needs. Or, perhaps it is time to rethink the entire use of these tests and to consider not using them at all.Elephant

Because these tests have become so entrenched in shelter and rescue dog culture, it is this last suggestion that is not only often overlooked, but also that has the potential to raise much ire. Typically, responses to this suggestion center around three objections, all of which qualify in one way or another as straw man arguments and which can effectively function to derail thoughtful discourse.


 These are:

  1. If we stopped using the [insert branded test name here] behavior test, we would not have a way to assess dogs’ behavior prior to putting them up for adoption. [Setting up a false dichotomy: It is not an either/or issue. There are other, potentially better, approaches to monitoring and assessing shelter dog behavior than single-session standardized tests. Not using the [***] test, does not require you to use nothing at all to assess behavior].
  2. I have seen the tests work with my own eyes; if it prevents a single dog who is aggressive from going up for adoption from my shelter, it is worth using. [False proposition: For example, Marder’s data show that yes, some dogs are correctly identified as food aggressive. However, others are missed, and some  dogs who are not aggressive are misidentified as such. A poor diagnostic test that gets one right once in a while cannot be defended as a valid diagnostic test].
  3. But, what about the children? We cannot risk adopting out a dog who might bite a child!!?! (This last is typically uttered with raising voice and a hint of hysteria) [Classic Strawman: Redefining the argument to imply that those who question the use of the beloved test advocate the release of baby-killing canines into communities. This is misdirection at its best as invoking the emotional “save the children” chant works to derail discourse every time. First, no one denies that it is important to ensure that only dogs who are safe are placed into homes with children. Second, the fact that it is important to identify dogs who may be aggressive to children is not the same issue as whether or not one continues to use tests that appear to be unreliable. In other words, an inaccurate test would not help you to save those children that you are so concerned about… ]


Strawman arguments, in addition to being logically invalid, function to keep people from paying attention to the evidence, and from admitting that there may be a problem with the use of behavior tests to assess shelter dogs. If we can keep these at bay and instead encourage discussion of where the science seems to be leading us, we may find that there are potential alternatives to the current standardized, single-session behavior tests. Improved design of the tests is one, as is custom-designing tests to meet shelters’ needs, as is developing an approach that is more longitudinal in nature – for example, having shelter staff note simple behaviors once or twice a day during feeding/cleaning/exercising dogs to provide a longer-term and cumulative record of the dog’s behavior. Longitudinal data, like single-session behavior tests, would require validation through scientific testing. Conversely, to continue to champion a battery of tests that have not yet held up under scientific scrutiny and have been shown to be significantly deficient in at least some areas, seems to be helping no one, least of all the dogs who are tested……..and fail.

References Cited:

  1. Marder AR, Shabelansky A, Patronek GJ, Dowling-Guyer S, D’Arpino SS. Food-related aggression in shelter dogs: A comparison of behavior identified by a behavior evaluation in the shelter and owner reports after adoption. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2013; 148:150-156.
  2. Mornement K, Toukhsati S, Coleman G, et al. Reliability, validity and feasibility of existing tests of canine behavior. AIAM Annual Conference on Urban Animal Management, Proceedings. 2009;11-18.
  3. Mornement KM, Coleman GJ, Toukhsati S, Bennett PC. A review of behavioural assessment protocols used by Australian animal shelters to determinae adoption suitability of dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2010; 13:314-329.
  4. Mornement KM, Coleman GJ, Toukhsati S, Bennett PC. Development of the behavioural assessment for re-homing K9’s (B.A.R.K.) protocol. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2013; Article in Press. Abstract


This test that you keep using……

The availability heuristic is a common cognitive error that influences our ability to make accurate decisions. It is operating full-force whenever we base a decision upon evidence that is easily available (i.e. dramatic, obvious, easily measured) but that may not actually reflect reality. In practice, this means that we pay more attention to evidence that is salient (obvious and dramatic) and tend to ignore evidence that may be more compelling but not quite so sensational.

Take for example, shark attacks. The feeling that shark attacks are far more common and that we are at greatly inflated risk than we actually are occurs because of the extensive and sensationalist media coverage that a single shark encounter attracts. As a result, when you consider going to the beach this summer, an image of a shark pops into your mind because such an image is highly available to you. However, while shark attacks can and do happen, an examination of the actual risk is much lower that our perceptions lead us to believe.

Shark      Coconuts                     PERCEPTION                                                             REALITY

I will return to the significance of the availability error shortly. Let’s now turn to an important dog topic – the expression of food-related aggression in dogs. (There will be a tie-in, I promise. 🙂 )

Background information: Food-related aggression (FA) is a specific subtype of resource guarding in dogs. It’s expression  can vary in intensity from a dog who simply shows tenseness near his food bowl, to freezing, growling, or biting a person who interferes with the dog while he or she is eating. Most of the standardized behavior evaluations that are used by shelters and rescue groups include an assessment for FA. For reasons of safety, many use a fake plastic or rubber hand that is attached to a long stick for this test. Although procedures vary somewhat, the test for FA involves interfering with the dog while he is eating from a bowl, first by placing the fake hand into the bowl and pulling it away and then by attempting to push the dog’s face away from his food by pressing the instrument alongside the dog’s face. The validity of this test, meaning its ability to correctly identify dogs who do (and do not) truly have FA, is an important issue because dogs who exhibit FA during a behavior evaluation are almost always identified as an adoption risk, which can lead to reduced opportunities for finding a home, and at some shelters, to automatic euthanasia.


2004 Study: Despite its ubiquitous inclusion in behavior tests, few studies have actually examined the reliability of the fake hand test for FA. A few years ago, a group of researchers at Cornell conducted a study with dogs who had  a history of various forms of aggression, including FA (1). They found a positive and statistically significant correlation between showing an aggressive response toward the fake hand and previously exhibited aggression in the dog. However, the relationship was weak and a substantial number of dogs who were NOT aggressive also tested positive (i.e. reacted to the hand) when tested. The authors recommended the use of caution when using a fake hand in behavior tests because of the high number of both false positive and false negative responses that they found. A limitation of this study was that because the researchers used dogs with a known history of different types of aggression who were already in their permanent homes, they could not make conclusions about the predictive value of the test. To do this, we needed a study that examined how well the fake hand test, when administered to dogs in a shelter environment, correlates with dogs’ future behavior when living in homes. Such a study was published in September, 2013 in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2).

2013 Study:  Dr. Amy Marder and her colleagues at the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston, MA  tested a group of 97 dogs using a standardized canine behavior evaluation that included a test for FA. Dogs showing extreme aggression or multiple forms of aggression were excluded from the study for ethical and safety reasons. Following testing, all of the dogs were adopted into homes. Adopters of dogs who showed food aggression (FA+) were provided with additional instructions for handling the dog during feeding times, but the dogs themselves received no additional training or behavior modification prior to adoption. Adoptive owners were surveyed to assess the dog’s behavior in the home at 3 days, 3 weeks and 3 months following adoption.

Results: Of the group of 97 tested dogs, 20 dogs (21 %) reacted aggressively to the hand and were classified as FA+; 77 dogs did not react and were identified as FA-. Of the 20 dogs who were classified as FA+, approximately half (11/20, 55 %) were reported by their owners to show food-related aggression while in the home and nine of the FA+ dogs (45 %) showed no signs of food aggression when in the home. Of the 77 dogs who were classified as FA-, the majority (60/77, 78 %) were also FA- when in their adoptive homes. However, 17 dogs from this group, 22 %, did show signs of FA when in the home, even though they had tested negative for FA while in the shelter. A final result was that the majority of owners of dogs who were showing FA in the home reported that they did not consider their dog’s behavior to be problematic and that they would definitely adopt the same dog again.

Take away for dog folks:

  1. The authors found that the negative predictive value of the test was high since 78 percent of dogs who tested negative in a shelter environment showed no food aggressive behaviors when in their adoptive home. (This is good).
  2. The positive predictive value of the test was low since only 55 percent of dogs who tested positive in the shelter environment showed food aggression when in the home (This is bad).
  3. Owners may perceive food-related aggression as much less problematic than do shelter staff and may have little trouble managing dogs who are reactive around their food bowls.

If that information does not give you enough to chew upon, let me contribute an additional question to this controversial (and apparently quite polarized) topic. What do these data say about the test itself?

There is really no question that the data presented in this study, along with the Cornell study, suggest something additional. Realizing that this is a sacred cow to those who are highly committed to their fake hands, I offer up the suggestion that perhaps the fake-hand test is not measuring what its users think it is measuring. (In other words, it is not a valid test of FA).

Keep UsingThis test that you keep using……..

Here is why (stay with me here; this gets long but it is worth the ride…..): The researchers reported positive and negative predictive values for the fake hand test (numbers noted above), but they also had data available to calculate two additional measures of a diagnostic test’s validity. These are referred to as sensitivity (a test’s ability to correctly identify all positive responses) and specificity (its ability to correctly identify all negative responses). I went ahead and punched these numbers using the data that the paper provided and found this:

  • Fake Hand Test Sensitivity = 39 % This means that 39 percent of the time, the fake-hand correctly identified FA in the dogs who actually had it. The flip side of this statistic is probably more important. It also means that almost 2/3 of the time (61 %), the fake-hand either incorrectly identified a dog who was FA- as being FA+ or missed the identification and labeled a dog who was FA+ as being FA-. Although sensitivity values are considered to be a relative measure, I do not think anyone would try to argue that 39 percent success rate signifies a valid test. (Especially in light of the fact that a positive result for this particular test can mean the end of life for the dog).
  • Fake Hand Test Specificity = 87 %. This means that the majority of the time, if the fake hand says a dog is non-reactive around his food bowl, it is correct. Only 13 percent of dogs who tested FA- actually had FA. While this is a desirable value for the test, high specificity alone is not enough.
  • Supporting data? This was not the first study that has examined the use of the fake hand in behavior evaluations, but it is the first study that has measured the predictive value of the test. It is important to note that to date, there are no published studies that provide data showing that using a fake hand to diagnose food reactivity in dogs is a highly reliable test. None.

Which begs the question – Why do temperament tests that are used with shelter dogs continue to include the fake hand as a test for food aggression?

IllogicalSeems a bit illogical, doesn’t it?

There are a few possibilities:

  1. It is simple and measurable: Unlike much of what we do in behavior and training, the Fake Hand test is pretty easy to administer and to score. Therefore, it is a shoe-in for being included in a battery of tests that can be quickly administered to a lot of dogs and by personnel who have varying levels of expertise.
  2. The use of the fake hand is well-established: Many, but not all, of the behavior assessment tests that are used in shelters today include a test for FA that uses a fake hand (3,4). Many of these tests are highly standardized and include specific training programs for shelter staff who administer them. However, while proponents of the fake hand insist that a set of clear and very specific steps are used in the test’s administration (i.e. how far to stand away from the bowl, how many times the dog’s face is pushed, how to manipulate the bowl), such protestations are a moot point since none of the specific guidelines for administering the tests have been validated either.
  3. The results are dramatic and salient – i.e. AVAILABLE: A dog who reacts aggressively when a fake hand is shoved in his face while he is eating provides us with an example of the availability heuristic in action. Aggressive responses in dogs elicit dramatic and involuntary reactions in those who witness the response –  a rush of adrenaline, a bit of fear, perhaps even a little bit of the “stopping to watch a car wreck” feeling, if you will.  Just as we react strongly (and illogically) to reports of shark attacks, so too might an evaluator react emotionally to an aggressing dog. The fallout is that the aggression that is provoked by a fake hand during a behavior test may acquire more significance than it actually has in real life.  (This is supported by Dr. Marder’s results when interviewing owners of FA+ dogs, who did not see FA as such a big deal). And, because the provoked aggressive response in the dog is dramatic and obvious, the evaluator now feels compelled to do something about the reaction that was provoked – special adopts, no adopt, euthanize.

        shark3         Pos FA Test                   AVAILABILITY HEURISTIC – DRAMATIC IMAGES STICK WITH US

Here’s a bombshell….Perhaps poking a dog in the face with a fake hand while he is eating in a shelter environment is not a valid way to test for food aggression:  The sensitivity statistic of 39 % suggests that at least some (if not the majority) of dogs who react when tested with  a fake hand are not showing FA. At the very least, this paper and this particular statistic suggests that the presumed test for FA using a fake hand is not testing for the thing that proponents think it is testing for. Additionally, the availability error may lead those who regularly administer this test to assign excessive significance to FA because of the salience of provoked responses in the test and highly inflated perceptions of risk to owners. Given that the fake hand test leads to decisions that severely reduce a dog’s chances of being adopted into a home or may even result in the death of the dog, this is a possibility that must be raised and considered.

Cited References:

  1. Kroll TL, Houpt KA, Erb HN. The use of novel stimuli as indicators of aggressive behavior in dogs. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association 2004; 40:13-19.
  2. Marder AR, Shabelansky A, Patronek GJ, Dowling-Guyer S, D’Arpino SS. Food-related aggression in shelter dogs: A comparison of behavior identified by a behavior evaluation in the shelter and owner reports after adoption. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2013; 148:150-156.
  3. Barnard S, Siracusa C, Reisner I, et al. Validity of model devices used to assess canine temperament in behavioral tests. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2012; 138:79-87.
  4. Taylor KD, Mills DS. The development and assessment of temperament tests for adult companion dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2006; 1:94-108.