Tuesday, December 15, 2015

We are always looking backwards.

The late and sorely missed comedian Mitch Hedburg had a way of boiling things down to the their elements. One of my favorite of his shticks was about a guy that showed Mitch a picture of himself when he was younger. Mitch's response was "Every picture of you is a picture of you when you were younger."

After the laugh you think a minute: yep, every picture is a picture of you when you were younger. Pictures snap moments in time, but they are always moments that are gone. No one has ever gotten a picture of their older self. We don't get to look ahead, which is probably a good thing for the most part.

Yet we are asked to predict, to look ahead, all the time with animals. We administer a rank of tests that we then try to present our results as predictive of what any specific dog will or won't do in the future. We try to guess which dog will fit better in which family, or who is a better prospect for what project or program.



We have gotten pretty good. There are tools such as SAFER, Assess-a-Pet, and MatchUp, and others that are scattered all over. Each of these tests is used by owners and trainers and shelters to try and predict the behavior of a pet and whether that pet will or won't succeed in X situation. Sadly, some groups and shelters use these tests to determine, on a single trial, whether an animal lives or dies.

I use tests too. We all do. My difference is that I use the tests, generally, as diagnostic tools. I am called in when the dog has become a problem. My job is to find the problem (which may or may not be the problem described by the owner) and try to assemble a program that just might bring things back into a sustainable state. The big aims, of course are 1) try to keep people from being hurt, 2) try to keep the dog from being hurt, and 3) try and keep the family unit together-or if not, help them evaluate options.

Now don't get excited. None of us are "pure". I also work with a few programs where we select dogs that have varying problems and try to bring them up to "adoptable" status. So yes, I am guilty of trying to predict future behavior. We have to try and select dogs that show the ability to be kept in somewhat close quarters and are at least somewhat focused on human social contact. Sometimes we are dead on-and sometimes not so much. When we are on the "not so much" path, that is where we have to reach into that creative tool box (remember last post?) and look for solutions.

The point of this ramble is that we, as trainers and behavior consultants, have to remember the use and function of behavioral testing and evaluations. These, just like the pictures we have on our phones and on our walls, are snippets of time, locking in forever the situation at a specific moment. They don't give us a look at our futures selves. Yes, we can look at these pictures and get an idea where we have come from, something that helps us to make decisions in the future. But they are all in the past. Prediction, be it from a detailed scientifically rigorous test or from gazing into a darkened mirror, is inexact and mostly peering through the fog. The same goes for our clients. We get an imperfect idea of what their past is, and can capture an image in the moment, but our testing and evaluating is still peering through the fog. We need to remember to approach these tools as they are, and build from the information conveyed rather than accept an evaluation as a final, unwavering truth.