In 2007, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began using SAFER, a method developed to better assess a dog’s propensity for aggression.
SAFER stands for Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming.
Dogs are typically assessed in seven areas over 10 minutes.
The test is designed to identify a dog’s comfort level with restraint and touch, reaction to new experiences including movement and sound, bite inhibition, behavior around food and toys, and arousal level toward other dogs. Responses determine the next steps to be taken with each dog.
Dogs are scored between 1 and 5 on a series of tests.
“When a dog scores 1s and 2s on his assessment, he is less likely to bite under ordinary living situations when handled in a mildly or moderately awkward manner than dogs who score 3s, 4s and 5s,” according to the SAFER manual and training guide. “Dogs that score 3s may be safe and inhibit their bite, but they could be made more safe by putting them on a behavior modification program. Dogs that score 4s may have serious fear or intolerance issues and should either receive behavior modification training and then be reassessed or only adopted to experienced adopters ready to manage the dog’s issues.
“Dogs whose behavior during one of the first four assessment items score a 5 have the highest probability to be a serious danger to staff, volunteers, and visitors to the facility. They should only be handled by the shelter’s most experienced staff until their disposition is determined. These dogs may respond well to behavior modification or they may not.”
Both the Lucas County Dog Warden and Toledo Area Humane Society use the test to evaluate dogs before putting them up for adoption.
The humane society has a foster program in which dogs can leave the shelter and live in a home environment where volunteers can work to modify behavior.
The dog warden does not have such a program.
“We don’t consider SAFER testing pass or fail per se, but use it as a tool to help predict future behavior,” said Gary Willoughby, executive director of the Toledo Area Humane Society.
The ASPCA says shelters that identify dogs with behavior issues use reward-based behavior modification protocols that “can make a big difference for dogs who showed behaviors such as resource guarding or overarousal during their assessment. However, for behavior modification to be effective, your organization needs to have other programs in place that address the needs of your dogs and their adopters,” according to the SAFER manual and training guide.
SAFER assessments should not be used as the reason for euthanasia, according to the ASPCA. Veterinary reports, input from animal-care technicians, volunteers, and foster parents should also be considered whenever a life or death decision must be made, according to the manual.
Employees at both groups have been certified by the ASPCA to conduct the test, which requires submitting videos showing the evaluation of several dogs.
“The whole point of SAFER is everyone is doing the same thing,” said Lucas County Dog Warden Julie Lyle.
Being in a shelter environment can cause a dog’s behavior to deteriorate. The dog warden is starting a new protocol of pulling dogs who have been up for adoption for 30 days and retesting them before placing them back on the adoption floor. If a dog does poorly on subsequent evaluations and the dog warden can not find a rescue group to take the dog, it will be euthanized.
“It’s unfortunate that dogs have to sit in a shelter and they aren’t getting adopted and their behavior is degrading,” Ms. Lyle said. “Dog behavior is fluid. They aren’t an inanimate object that you can expect to respond to the same stimulus the same way. Dog responses change over time.
“It’s sad and disappointing every time a dog fails. But our primary focus is public safety. We are not trying to pass off dogs as adoptable who are not safe.”
Ms. Lyle and Mr. Willoughby agree the SAFER assessment is the most accurate tool the groups have for assessing behavior.
Former Dog Warden Tom Skeldon would assess a male dog’s behavior by squeezing its testicles.
“The old way to do it, it was gut [feeling],” Ms. Lyle said. “What does the dog look like, how does it act when I walk up to it, can I put a leash on you, do you seem safe, are you too big, are you too old? That’s how it was done 15 years ago. I don’t think we would be doing our due diligence if we didn’t use this tool. It’s not fair to the dog or to the public. At this point, SAFER is the best that we’ve got.
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