Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dangerous Dog Evaluations

One of the tools that an investigator of bites and fatalities can use is a behavioral evaluation.  Behavior evaluations, and there are many of them, have different designs and purposes.  Some claim to be predictive of adoption success.  Some are comparisons of various temperament factors.  Some are puppy tests intended to predict the best puppy for showing, or obedience, or field work.  Some claim to determine the best dog for bite or protection work.  Some seek to find the best dogs for drug and detector work.

They are useful tools, but the value-and limitation-of those tools must be considered when evaluating a dog’s behavior.  First off, I have issues with those who claim certain tests are predictive of adoptive success, or of predicting how the dog will, or won’t, behave in the future.  To me, the purpose of a temperament test is not to predict what the dog might do someday. It is an assessment of what the dog is doing right now. It is also a tool we can use to help figure out what may have led a dog to make a behavioral choice in the recent past.  Predicting what might happen is a skill best left to the seers and prophets of the world.  The interaction of environment, training, owner skill, relationships with other animals, potentially diet, possibly (but only remotely in my view) vaccines, and a host of other factors large and small conspire to affect a dog’s future behaviors in ways we are only beginning to understand. This conspiracy of influence makes prediction the guess in the dark that is has been for as long as human memory has existed.

But as investigators we are asked to evaluate dogs, and to make recommendations from that evaluation.  To do so effectively we have to ask ourselves before we test “Why are we testing this dog?” and “What is the intended outcome of this test?”  We have to have a goal in sight, a purpose in mind.

When I am asked to test a dog after a bite, or to evaluate a potentially hazardous dog, there are things I am not doing.  I am usually not looking to see if this particular dog is good material for adoption. I may not be looking to see if this dog can be “saved”.  During an investigation I am evaluating a dog to find out what, in the dog’s behavior, may have contributed to the incident at hand.  I want to see what triggers the dog has, how she responds to various stimuli.  I want to see if there are particular sensitivities.  I want to understand how this dog interacts with and perceives the world.  I want to get a sense of what makes this individual dog tick. 

A behavioral evaluation is NOT is a contest between human and dog to see who can intimidate who.  It is not a battle of wills.  It is not to see if the evaluator can get submission from the dog or bully it into reluctant compliance.

Neither is an evaluation a contest to see who can “handle the baddest”.  No responsible evaluator should be trying to rack up points in some bizarre contest to see how nasty a dog they can manage.  Frankly, bite scars from evil, aggressive dogs do not impress me; all the bites I have received have been because I made mistakes.  These mistakes were usually from not paying attention and missing clear warnings that the dog was about to react with a bite.  Bite scars may be a part of the business, but they are marks of times we failed.  That failure is serious, because failure on an evaluator’s part not only results in injury to the handler, but in many jurisdictions is a death sentence for the dog.

So what is a behavioral evaluation?  A behavioral evaluation for a dog is a map, a documentation of everything about that dog’s behavior at that time and in that place, noted fairly and with understanding of what dogs are.  It should be a picture of the world from the dog’s eyes.  In the case of a bite investigation, the evaluation lets me review the road signs of the long, strange trip that led to the situation at hand.  How did the dog’s past, the owner’s actions, the surrounding environment, and even the dog’s diet, add up to place us where we are?  To quote Arthur Conan Doyle, what was the curious incident of the dog in the night time?  What did he see?  How did he come to act as he did?

In some circumstances I evaluate a dog to see what path rehabilitation might best take, with potential recommendations to be considered in matching the dog, as it behaves presently, with treatment and/or placement options.  I see these evaluations as similar to the scholastic and psychological testing done by school systems on children identified as having learning or behavior deficits.  Schools no longer, thankfully, look at children with problems and label them as “stupid” or “bad”.  Instead, they test them to find their strengths, and weaknesses, behaviorally and intellectually.  The school then uses these tests to tailor the child’s learning program to address the deficits.  If there are psychological difficulties, the school works with the parents and medical experts to treat these issues so the child can succeed as well as that child has the ability.

Dog evaluations for rehabilitation should, in my view, be the same; a tool to find deficits, and a way of mapping out rehabilitation by identifying the issues.  Unfortunately, some use the testing of temperament to be a live-or-die test, choosing to cull those that fail to meet the sometimes artificially determined objective on a certain day in a certain environment.  That is not my method.

At this point I am going to hijack my own column here and lead into a serious question: the question of rehabilitating a dog identified as having critical behavioral problems, particularly those involved in human focused aggression or that have been the product of dog fighting.

In my view this breaks down into two questions: can we rehabilitate dogs with serious problems, and should we rehabilitate those dogs.

The first part is pretty easy to answer.  Many dogs, just like people, can be rehabilitated with time, talent, and dedication.  Not all, but lots of them.  Fighting dogs can largely be re-conditioned to, over time, accept the presence of other dogs.  Look at the success of most of the dogs from the Michael Vick fighting case.  Some of these have gone on to be therapy dogs, assistance dogs, and general ambassadors for the breeds involved. Others, although not so successful, are safely living out their lives with a combination of wise management, patience, and devoted support.

When it comes to dogs involved in fatalities or serious aggression against humans, the issue is a little more clouded.  With non-fatal attacks there may be a possibility of successful rehabilitation-provided the legal liabilities in releasing these dogs are not insurmountable.  These dogs often require long term, careful management to insure that no on e else is injured.  Most people, frankly, don’t want to accept that sort of responsibility-and many are unable even if they want to.  If they are the original owner they may have set the dog up for the problems it has, so there may be a serious need to retrain not just the dog but the human.

In the case of fatalities, the legal problems usually do prevent the dogs’ release; no government agency is going to be willing to accept the liability that one of these dogs presents.  Even if the dog is released to a skilled rehabilitator or sanctuary, any future incident involving the dog pretty much guarantees that someone, somewhere, will try and sue the releasing agency.  That cost is usually too high.

Another problem when we look to see if these animals can be rehabilitated is access to qualified trainers and adequately prepared sheltering.  Rehabilitation is far more than just parking a dog somewhere that it can be securely held.  These dogs require long, skillful deconditioning, and retraining, to be acceptably safe in society again.  Thus, a dog with serious aggression issues cannot just be popped into your local dog trainer for fixing.  The person must be competent with aggressive animals, and willing to take on the often long-term project.  These folks are few and far between.  Not all trainers are qualified, and even some board certified Veterinary Behaviorists are less than comfortable working with a dog that has severe human aggression issues.  All of these folks deserve to be compensated for their time, expertise, and willingness to risk their own safety to try and save a troubled dog.

Then we have the should issue.  This takes in the questions of whether it is better to save a single dog than to use the same resources to save, say, ten dogs.  Or a hundred dogs.  Dogs are no more interchangeable than children, and our society does its best to address the problems of each and every child-but dogs are, well, dogs.  We do not, as a society, value a dog as highly as a child. Is that morally, ethically right?  Here we pass clearly into an area beyond my limited expertise, but the fact remains-dogs are property.  And in this case there is a lot of property; some more attractive, some easier to deal with, and too much of it in need of help.  Shelters have to make heart-wrenching decisions as to who lives and who dies.  Who gets the Veterinary care needed, and who has to be destroyed. Rescues have to choose just which dogs to save-and which ones they have to turn their backs on today.  Should we spend hundreds, or thousands, of dollars rehabilitating a single dog, or should we spend the resources on tens, or hundreds, of other dogs just as deserving?

To summarize the should question we have to think; are we morally proper in trying to rehabilitate difficult, or even dangerous dogs?  That is a personal decision for each of us, but many would say yes.

Should we expend the resources to do so, especially since resources are precious-as precious as a dog’s life?  Is there an able and willing (not necessarily the same thing), qualified person to work with the dog?  Does this person have space or time to work with the dog?  Are there the financial resources (money) to pay this person for their time, effort, and skill?  And finally, practically, and most heartbreaking-do we devote a large chunk of resources to save a single dog, or should we look to save as many dogs as we can with the same money?  I no longer run an Animal Control agency or a shelter, so I no longer have to make those decisions.  To those who do: that is the worst decision you make on a daily basis.  I have been there.  I feel for you.