During the SAFER test, dogs are given scores from 1 to 5 in seven categories: Look, sensitivity, tag, squeeze, food behavior, toy behavior, and dog-to-dog behavior. Each portion is always performed in the same order, and usually takes about 10 minutes.
Here is what happens:
■ The look assessment involves the assessor gently restraining a dog’s head and giving direct eye contact with a soft gaze. A dog that remains loose, whether holding the gaze or averting its eyes, receives a score of 1, even if the dog attempts to jump on the assessor playfully. A dog that is stiff with averted eyes or that will not settle and repeatedly pulls away from the assessor is given a 2. A dog that jumps on the assessor or rubs its shoulder against the person and otherwise does not allow the evaluation to be conducted is given a 3. Dogs that hold the gaze and become continually stiffer get a 4, while those who freeze, growl, or attempt to bite get a 5.
■ During the sensitivity evaluation, the assessor firmly and repeatedly grips the dog's fur and skin, moving down and up each side of the animal's body. Dogs get a 1 for staying loose and accepting the touch. Moving around while staying loose and connected to the assessor, remaining still and tucking its tail, or licking and gently mouthing the assessor's hand with no pressure results in a score of 2. Trying to escape or standing tall and square gives a dog a score of 3. Repeatedly turning toward the hand quickly and muzzle-punching with a stiff body results in a 4, while freezing, growling, or biting gets a 5.
■ Tag involves the assessor playfully moving from side to side in the room, encouraging the dog to follow with a high voice, and lightly tagging the dog three times with two fingers. If the dog joins the game or indicates play by huffing or popping its body, or follows at the end of the leash with a soft body, it gets a 1. A 2 means the dog is unresponsive, either fearful or not, but approaches the assessor at the end of the game. A dog that turns away repeatedly or spins toward the touch, tries to exit, displays a stiff body, or body checks the assessor gets a 3. Dogs that vocalize panic with tail tucking and try to exit, or that stand their ground and bark with stiff posture get 4s. A dog that growls or tries to bite gets a 5.
■ The squeeze evaluation can be done by gently squeezing a dog's paw or rear flank twice. Dogs that gently pull back, sit, or are unresponsive get 1s. A 2 means the dog may whimper and pull away or mouth the hand with no pressure. Dogs that become stiff, yelp repeatedly, or move so that the assessor is unable to perform the test get 3s. A 4 means the dog reaches for the hand while moving away to prevent a second attempt or growls. A 5 indicates the dog freezes or attempts to bite.
■ The food-behavior assessment involves use of a fake hand to take a bowl of food from a dog and to touch both sides of the dog's face while the dog is eating. A 1 means the dog stops eating when the bowl is taken or its head is pushed by the fake hand, or it follows the bowl but remains relaxed and still lifts its head when pushed. A 2 means the dog followed the bowl, its body a little stiff, but lifts its head after pressure from the fake hand. A 3 means the dog follows the dish with a stiff body, the tail between its legs and refuses to lift its head when pushed, or starts eating faster or gulping the food. A 4 means the dog froze or growled, and a 5 means the dog attempted to bite.
■ Next is the toy-behavior evaluation, in which the assessor presents a toy or, sometimes, a rawhide and then uses a fake hand to try to take the item. If the dog shows no interest, relinquishes the item, or keeps a firm grip while staying loose and not placing its body between the item and the assessor, it gets a 1. A 2 means the dog takes the item away and places its body between it and the person, but remains loose. A dog that takes the item away while keeping a firm hold with a stiff body gets a 3. A 4 indicates the dog freezes or growls. A 5 means it tried to bite.
■ The dog-to-dog evaluation requires a “helper dog.” The dog being assessed is taken from the room while the helper dog is brought in unseen. The first dog then re-enters the room and its initial reaction is observed. Dogs that approach in play or submissive positions get a 1. A 2 means the dog approached with a loose body or turns to the side and exits without approaching the other dog. Dogs that rush at the other dog with a stiff body, high head and tail, and erect ears get 3s. Dogs that charge the other dog while growling or attempting to bite get 4s. There is no 5 score for this category.