A dog sniffs the rubber hand, which is pulling away its food dish during a SAFER test in February, 2012. Its purpose is to determine whether a dog is a ‘food guarder.’ This dog, Scooby, passed the test.
The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
Before they can be placed for adoption, area shelter dogs are evaluated for potential aggression.
The Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming, commonly known as SAFER, was developed by, and is a program of, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Lucas County Canine Care & Control and the Toledo Area Humane Society use SAFER.
The assessment is designed to evaluate a dog’s comfort level with restraint and touch, its reaction to new experiences including movement and sound, bite inhibition, its behavior around food and toys, and its response level toward other dogs. Dogs’ responses are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5s being the most aggressive.
How a dog scores on these tests at the Lucas County pound is a life-or-death issue. Get too high a score — a 4 or 5 — and a dog is sent to death row, where it is queued up for a lethal injection. Receiving a lower score means possibly a loving home or, in the interim, placement with a foster family.
Emily Weiss, PhD, is the ASPCA senior director of research and development who created the protocol. She said SAFER is not a pass-or-fail evaluation, but rather a tool for rescue groups to determine how a dog might respond in certain circumstances.
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“What we want to look for when we’re assessing is what the dog would normally do,” she said.
Julie Lyle, the county shelter’s director, said all dogs that could go up for adoption are evaluated using the SAFER method.
“They all get at least three days to settle in and get comfortable with the situation and the environment before they’re evaluated,” she said. “If a dog is sick or has an injury, that’s not a dog we’ll evaluate because their normal behavior is likely to be altered. Some of those go right up for transfer right off the bat if they can be handled.”
The ASPCA says a dog’s SAFER assessment can be considered in a decision to put a dog down, but that “the assessment alone should never be the only input to this decision.” The organization recommends the use of any information provided by former owners, veterinary reports, and input from staff, volunteers, and foster homes.
The Blade is now including more detailed information in its daily log entries for each dog killed because of poor SAFER scores. The listings will include the dogs’ scores and the dates they were evaluated.
Dogs that score 4 for food guarding are now a part of a new 60-day free-feeding pilot program that began March 5 and calls for the dogs to be transferred.
“Pit bull”-type dogs with a 3 on food guarding will be a part of the free-feeding program. Despite the state’s move away from breed-specific legislation in 2012 that declared all “pit bulls” inherently vicious, the county has a policy that any “pit-bull”-type dog that scores a 3 on any portion of SAFER will not be adopted out, and such dogs are frequently killed.
“Our larger transfer partners traditionally have had the same standards, so [they] will very rarely pull a ‘pit-bull’-type dog that scores 3s, 4s or 5s,” Ms. Lyle said.
The dogs are given scores from 1 to 5 in seven categories: Look, sensitivity, tag, squeeze, food behavior, toy behavior, and dog-to-dog behavior. The first four categories are considered part of body handling, while the others indicate potential food guarding, resource guarding, and dog aggression. Each portion is always performed in the same order, and the entire evaluation usually takes about 10 minutes.
According to the ASPCA, dogs that score 1s and 2s are less likely to bite in ordinary circumstances than their counterparts who score 3s, 4s, and 5s. Dogs that score 3s may be safe, but exhibit some concerning behaviors and would benefit from some training. Dogs with 4s have serious issues that need to be addressed with training and adoption to experienced families. Those who score 5s, particularly in the body handling categories, are considered potentially dangerous to people and may or may not respond to training.
From late February, 2013 — when the county shelter switched from paper to computerized records — through the end of the year, the county shelter took in 3,343 dogs. A total of 677 dogs were killed for poor SAFER scores — 226 for body handling, 216 for dog aggression, 215 for food guarding, and 20 for resource guarding.
Of the 1,764 dogs the humane society took in last year, it killed 184 for behavioral issues. The organization does not track the specific nature of each dog’s behavior problem.
Ms. Lyle said a dog’s SAFER scores are considered valid for 30 days, after which a dog will be reassessed. Should an animal’s behavior change before then, staff members alert shelter supervisors.
“If they’re showing us they’re not safe, then they won’t continue to be up for adoption anymore,” Ms. Lyle said.
Such dogs could be considered for possible transfer to a rescue organization under proper circumstances.
“It just really depends on what the issue is,” Ms. Lyle said. “If they’re trying to bite, it doesn’t matter what they score.”
Contact Alexandra Mester at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6066, or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.