Dog bite expert & animal behavior specialist

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

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Dr. Richard Polsky - The Dog Expert

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Expert opinion about temperament tests and predatory aggression in dogs

Temperament tests are widely used to determine the “adoptability” of shelter dogs.  Popular temperament test currently in use include the”EthoTest”, the SPCA “SAFER.” test, the “Am I Safe” test, and Amy Marder’s  Assessment Protocol”.  Dog bite expert opinion

Individual shelters may have preference for one test over the other.  However, Regardless of  the test chosen, all are designed to detect undesirable behavioral traits that would make a dog unsuitable for adoption.   All tests are designed to detect the presence of different types of aggression in the dog.

Accurately assessing whether a dog possesses aggressive tendencies is an extremely important concern for shelters. Aggression displayed towards people will obviously compromise bonding between adoptee and the dog. Moreover, shelters must be concerned about their liability if the dog seriously causes injury to a person following adoption.

Given this, shelters throughout the USA currently depend heavily on the results of temperament tests. Unless the circumstances are unusual, most shelters will not make a dog available for adoption if it reacts with aggression during testing procedures. Test results showing aggression, particularly if the dog is a pit bull, is tantamount to a death sentence.

The purpose of this article is not to critique the different types of temperament tests currently in use but rather to note that temperament testing, regardless of the particular test chosen, may not detect certain kinds of canine aggression. There are different kinds of canine aggression, a relatively simple concept originally adapted from research with rats. Different types of canine aggression have been  classified based on function aggression serves. These include: so called “dominance” territory, fear-based, predatory, irritable, possessive, maternal, etc.

In shelter dogs, temperament test may not detect  all the different types of aggression that might simultaneously exist in any given dog.   In particular, predatory aggression may  be difficult to detect, particularly when the dog is tested in the context of  the shelter environment.   I illustrate this  by drawing upon a fatal dog attack  that killed a 90-year-old lady shortly after the dog came into the adoptee’s home.

Fatal dog attack in Virginia Beach, Virginia

The incident happened in Virginia Beach Virginia in May, 2017. The dog in question was a one-year old, 50 lb. pit bull adopted from a rescue organization.

The incident unfolded as follows: The victim’s daughter was in the backyard playing with the dog. The mother was in the house and the daughter heard her mother’s scream, apparently after falling. She immediately went to attend attend to her mother but the dog rushed ahead of her and entered the house first. The dog then began to maul her mother. The attack lasted for about five minutes. Another person in the house tried to stop the attack by hitting the dog with a hammer, which was unsuccessful. The attack ended when the victim stopped screaming and crying. The victim died later at hospital.

Prior to adoption the dog was described as “good with dogs, good with older/considerate kids only, good with adults, does good in car, lease train, gray train, place patch, Alexa play with toys, obedient, playful, affectionate, eager to please, intelligent, even-tempered, gentle, goofy.”

So what went wrong? How could supposedly such a well-tempered dog, one supposedly lacking any aggressive tendencies whatsoever, behave in such a fashion?  It would be fair to assume that the dog passed a temperament test, and coupled with the anecdotal observations of shelter staff, the dog was therefore given the green light for adoption.

Predatory aggression not detectable by canine temperament test

The likely answer is that temperament testing did not detect predatory aggressive tendencies in this dog. I know of no temperament test that tests for predatory tendencies. All are employed detect only certain types of canine aggression such as fear-based, dog-dog aggression,possessive aggression, and to a lesser extent so-called “dominance” aggression.

Practical concerns make it difficult to test for a dog’s predatory responsiveness. For example, in a shelter environment one simply cannot easily re-create or simulate realistic movement that might be capable of eliciting a predatory reaction, such as a moving cat, a passing motorcycle or bicycle, or a child playing.

Another reason why predatory aggression may be difficult to detect a sheltered environment is because canine aggression is heavily contextually dependent. That is, contextual and environmental factors are of paramount importance in determining how and when the different types of aggression are displayed. Hence, results gleaned from temperament testing for predatory aggression made in the context of an animal shelter is not likely to be predictive of how the dog will behave in the context of the typical home environment.

Note that in this instance screaming was the immediate stimulus that caused the dog to move towards the mother. Her screaming likely triggered a predatory response. This is the most viable explanation given that there was no provocative movements made by the victim directed to the dog immediately prior to the attack.Rather, the mother was in the house and she fell and started screaming. The fact that the attack continued for as long as it buttresses the belief that predation was the principal motive for the attack. Findings in the animal behavior literature indicate that attacks on people by dogs are likely to continue as long as the victim resists by screaming and thrashing about.

Despite I believe that that behavioral results from canine temperament tests – along with verifiable behavioral histories of the dog and anecdotal observations made by shelter staff – provide reasonable guidelines on how a dog is likely to behave when placed in a home environment. note that no test or diagnostic procedure is perfect and all will produce errors in failing to detect certain tendencies or detect certain tendencies when such tendencies are not present. Temperament tests should always be done.   However, In the absence of properly done temperament testing, it becomes problematic to place certain kinds of dogs- those with undetermined behavioral histories and particularly if the dog is a pit bull – into a home with children or with an elderly person. Children and elderly people are at increased risk to sustain serious injury from an attack delivered by pit bull or another large, highly motivated dog.

Limitations of temperament tests?

Temperament tests and other screening procedures provide reasonable approximations and provide guidelines about how a dog might behave in a home environment after adoption.  Hence their use should continue, in the absence of anything better, realizing temperament testing is not immune to error. Errors happen, as in the example above, when the test fails to detect the presence of predatory aggressive tendencies when in fact such tendencies are present.

In conclusion, results from testing procedures should be interpreted with caution and should not be used as as definitive proof about a dog’s temperament.  Refinement upon current temperament testing protocols (the ones currently in use are rather dated) would improve matters.  For example, I feel testing to detect a dog’s predatory tendencies can readily be improved. For example, I see no reason why high risk dogs, such as border collies, could not be temporarily removed from the shelter, taken to a park, and tested where potential predatory evoking stimuli can easily be found: kids in playgrounds, riders on bicycles, etc.