Initially, I didn't think I'd write about today's topic, not because it isn't interesting, but because I wasn't sure how useful it would be to you, my dear readers. That's because Sunday's topic was about aggression: in puppies, how to assess them, and how to begin working with them. It was also specifically tailored for canine professionals, which I am not. I assume the majority of my readers are not, either. Still, so many people in the blogging world do rescue that I really thought this information should be out there, so today I'm going to write about Sarah's canine risk assessment.
The canine risk assessment is not the same as a temperament test. It comes after the temperament test, after you've already decided that this is a Dog With Issues, and it is meant to be used when you're trying to decide if you can rehabilitate this dog. It is meant to be an objective tool that allows a behavior consultant to make recommendations and gauge the likelihood of success. It does this by giving you a ten-point method of systematically eliciting information that will help you make your decision.
The Canine Risk Assessment
1. What was the age of onset? How long as the behavior gone on?
Generally speaking, an earlier onset and longer duration means a worse prognosis. Sarah said that early onset suggests that the behavior has a genetic component, as opposed to something the dog learned. Learned behaviors are easier to modify than ones that are coming out due to faulty wiring. A longer duration means the dog has had plenty of time to practice the bad behavior, and that those neural pathways become stronger, and the behavior more likely as a result. (See this excellent post for more on this concept.)
2. How specific is the behavior?
Here, we're trying to discover if the behavior happens only in certain settings, or only with certain stimuli, or if it has generalized and happens in respose to very fuzzy triggers. Sarah acknowledged that while it can be harder to work with a very specific behavior (because you have to set up the situation perfectly in order to do behavior modification), it is also lower risk because you can easily predict when it will happen.
3. How predictable is the dog's behavior?
This question is often directly related to the prior one. A dog whose behavior is very specific is probably quite predictable, and thus is far safer than one whose behavior has no known cause- or at least it's difficult to determine the cause. The unpredictable dog is also going to be harder to work with, and will probably have a poorer outcome.
4. Does the dog give visible or discernable warnings?
We will need to rely on our ability to read dog body language here: does the dog “warn” you that he's about to act aggressively, or does it come “out of nowhere?” In addition to considering the dog's warnings, we need to consider how obvious those warnings are- can his owners or the general public see them, or will they blithely mistake them for something else? Obviously, a dog who doesn't give good warnings, or one who doesn't give obvious ones are going to be riskier.
5. How quick is his trigger?
In that same vein, regardless of how well the dog warns, we need to consider how long he warns, too. A dog who gives a long, drawn-out series of warnings is far safer than the dog who attacks abruptly. Even the best warning is worthless if you don't have time to react to it.
6. Has the dog harmed anyone else (human or otherwise)? How severe was that harm?
This is a rather self-explanatory question. The dog who has a long rap sheet, or who has inflicted serious harm, is far riskier than one who hasn't hurt anyone.
7. What is the dog's arousal level like? Can he inhibit his behavior?
A dog who is often out-of-control or easily aroused is going to pose a greater risk than one who is able to self-modulate his responses. Of course, how seriously you take this behavior will depend on his age, size, and situation- if you have two dogs with similar arousal levels, the smaller one is probably going to be safer.
8. How likely would unintentional provocation be?
The fact is, people gravitate to small dogs, fuzzy dogs, and young dogs, and Sarah thinks this can make the situation worse. She has a point- as anyone with a scruffy little puppy can attest, it is nearly impossible to keep people away when the dog is perceived as “cute.” Unfortunately, this also means that it is far more likely that well-meaning but clueless people will unintentionally provoke the dog into bad behavior.
9. Is management possible, reasonable, and likely?
Make no mistake: these are actually three different questions. Management is an important component of any behavior modification program- you need to have a way of preventing the behavior while you're working on it. However, even if management is possible, it might not be very reasonable. Can you really expect someone to never have guests? And even if it is reasonable, not everyone is willing or able to implement the management plan.
10. Are the owners fearful of the dog?
Finally, regardless of whether or not the owners (or fosters or whoever is caring for the dog) are justified in their feelings or not, it is very difficult to make good progress when the dog's caretakers are afraid of him. If they are, rehoming the dog- if it's safe to do so- is the best option. If it's not safe to do so, there will be some tough decisions to make, including the consideration of euthanasia.
Once you've answered each of these questions, it's time to classify each as either “positive” or “negative.” Then it's time to make a decision about the dog's prognosis. A dog who clearly has more positives than negatives may be safer... or he may not be, depending on what is in his negative column. Sarah said some things may be weighted more heavily than others. For example, if a dog has only one fault, but it's that he bit a person so badly that they needed 100 stitches, it's clear that he's a high-risk dog. On the flip side, a dog with many negatives, but who has never caused harm is probably a much better candidate for rehab.
Finally, I really must stress that these are questions that are best answered with the help of a competent and qualified behavior professional. The canine risk assessment was meant for use by professionals, and I think it is vital that laypeople- from seminar junkies like me to rescue volunteers who have fostered for decades- consult with a professional. Still, it is my hope that learning about Sarah's canine risk assessment will help us laypeople see the issues more clearly, and help us identify when we might be over our heads with a dog, especially since a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.