Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sue Sternberg - part 4

Continued from here.

In a study by Hennessy, (1996, Physiology and Behavior), it was found that the levels of cortisol, a stress indicating hormone, in a newly arrived shelter dog don't significantly decrease until after 4 days. Even then, they still tend to be at high levels and usually take 10 days before they drop to something closer to normal. Sue recommends waiting at least three days before doing the assessment on a dog. It would be preferable to retest at the 2 week mark but a lot of dogs don't have that long in a shelter.

Assess-a-pet takes about 15 minutes to conduct and ideally involves 2 people for safety as well as to have an extra pair of eyes to observe the dog's responses. At the seminar, Sue went over the first portion of Assess-a-Pet, called Sociability, which takes about 2 minutes and is considered to be the most important part of the whole assessment.

Sociability is done in 4 parts. After bringing the leashed dog to a quiet room, observations are noted as the tester does the following:

1. Stands back and ignores the dog for 60 seconds
2. Three back strokes from base of neck to top of tail
3. Sits in a chair
4. Gives 20 seconds of affection

There are some important subtleties to each section which I won't get into (so please don't use this as a template for the selection of your next dog) but the idea is to see how the dog reacts to each situation. Points are given for "friendly" reactions and red flags are given for an assortment of behaviours which Sue has statistically corelated with displays of aggression either later on in the testing or post adoption. Friendly reactions must involve physical contact and can come in the form of nuzzling, licking, leaning, etc. Red flag behaviours are obvious things like snapping and biting but also include mounting, hard stares, dilated pupils, freezes, etc. There are also different levels of each behaviour so that it isn't always black and white.

One of the more, uh, esoteric behaviours, is the anal swipe which seems to be a relatively recent finding by Sue. This occurs when the dog basically rubs its anus on some part of the tester, say the shoe or pant leg. Sue theorizes this the dog trying to mark it's property (in this case, the tester) with its anal scent glands. Several video examples of this behaviour were shown and well, as Sue said, it's one of those things that once it's pointed out to you, you never forget. Everywhere I go now, I'm on the lookout for the anal swipe some dog might be imposing on its owner. According to Sue, the anal swipe, is corelated to dogs who don't do well in one or more parts of the full assessment.

Here she was quick to add that an anal swipe from a dog directed to a stranger is very different from a dog that likes to plant its butt on the lap of its owner. Different meaning under different context.

While several of the behaviours presented to us at the seminar were obvious, there were some which I couldn't readily discern. Most of these difficult ones were ones based on level of intensity judgments. The dog would either be given a point or a red flag depending on the level of intensity of the behaviour. A dog gently jumping up on a tester is given a point for sociability but if that jump is too rough, it becomes a red flag. Yes there are levels of intensity you can use to describe the jumping but how's one to reliable know the difference between "moderately hard" and "strong and intrusive". This difference won't necessarily pass or fail a dog but still, it introduces an element of inconsistency which depends on the interpretation of the tester.

After Sociability is graded, the rest of the assessment includes sections on dominance aggression, resource guarding, mental sensitivity, response to strangers, response to children, response to pets.

I think Assess-a-Pet can be a very powerful tool in highlighting significant areas of a dog's behaviour profile and I believe that what Sue is doing in developing this tool - and in the process creating a massive video database of dog behaviours, which will eventually be available on-line - is a hugely worthwhile endeavour. My concern is with the expectations such testing might engender. As with any tool, Assess-a-Pet can be misused. Will good dogs be passed over because they don't get top marks? Does this type of assessment reinforce unrealistic expectations on dogs? Are we misleading ourselves in thinking we can wholly quantify something which is ineffable? As with the assessment itself, the answers to these questions are not easy ones.

These types of assessments will always be a reflection of what human society expects of its dogs and thus they are subject to the whims of popular opinion and public opinion doesn't always a have a great moral compass nor is it very consistent. As someone at the seminar mentioned, when she was a child and stuck her hand in the dog food bowl and caused the family dog to snap at her, her mother demanded, "What did you do to the dog?". These days, there's a good chance that type of behaviour would land the dog in a shelter.

Continued here.

No comments: