Timing and presence of an attachment person affect sensitivity of aggression tests in shelter dogs

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Kis, A., Klausz, B., Persa, E., Miklosi, A., & Gacsi, M. (2014). Timing and presence of an attachment person affect sensitivity of aggression tests in shelter dogs. Veterinary Record, 174(8). doi: 10.1136/vr.101955

National Canine Research Council Summary and Analysis:

In 2014 Kis, Klausz, Persa, Miklosi, and Gacsi published a two-part study that investigated factors that might mediate “aggression,” “fear,” and “anxiety” on behavior evaluations of shelter and pet dogs. Three scenarios adopted from Klausz et al.’s (2014) “Quick Assessment Tool” were used including a friendly approach, a threatening approach, and taking away a bone. The authors first hypothesized that shelter dogs would be more reactive, and therefore display more “aggressive” behavior if evaluations were conducted after an acclimation period, rather than upon arrival. Kis et al. (2014) also hypothesized that results would vary among pet dogs depending on whether or not their owners were present during the evaluation.

The study was conducted in Budapest, Hungary. Seventeen male and eight female (N = 25) shelter dogs were subjects in the first experiment which compared behavior evaluation results over time (one or two days after arrival at the shelter vs. two weeks later). Each of the three subtests were short (30-60 s) with a total test time of approximately 3 minutes per dog. Dogs were chained to a tree and spike, with the ability to move forward and backwards. The tests were videotaped and later analyzed by an experimenter who had not performed the tests. Growling, snarling, snapping with/without attack, and biting were all deemed “aggression.” “Fear-submission” consisted of tail between the legs, dipped head, tensed posture, and laying on its back, and “anxiety-discomfort” was defined by muzzle licking, scratching, and yawning.

In the first experiment, the only condition in which significant differences were found was the “take away the bone” subtest. Data showed that more dogs were “aggressive” on the second attempt than the first (Z=2.640; P=0.008).  (It is worth noting that a different study revealed that 1) nearly half of shelter dogs who show food aggressive behavior on a behavior evaluation did not exhibit the same behavior in the adoptive home, 2) even owners who occasionally observe food aggressive behavior do not consider their dog to be food aggressive, and 3) owners do not find food aggressive behavior to be particularly challenging (Marder et al., 2013)).

In the second experiment of the study, 49 pet dogs were evaluated twice across the same three conditions, once with and once without their owners present. Whether owners were present for the first or second round was randomized for each subject. The results indicated that the owner’s presence did significantly affect behavior results. For the friendly greeting scenario, dogs showed more “anxiety-discomfort” (muzzle licking, scratching, and/or yawning) when owners were absent than present (Z=2.140, P=0.032). Growling, snarling, snapping, and attempting to bite increased in the take away bone scenario when owners were present (Z=2.354, P=0.019). Eight dogs showed an increase in threatening and biting towards the  artificial hand when their owner was present; four increased from no “aggression” to growling, one increased from no “aggression” to snarling, one increased from no “aggression” to an “attack” (with or without biting), one increased from no “aggression” to biting, and one increased from growling to biting. All other dogs showed the same level of these behaviors (or lack thereof) with or without owners present; 40 showed no “aggression” on either trial and one bit the artificial hand on both trials. Finally, for the threatening approach scenario, warnings and biting increased when the owner was present (Z=2.673, P=0.008). In all, 13 dogs showed an increase in warning or biting behavior when their owner was present; 12 showed no “aggression” without the owner but growled with the owner and 1 dog growled without the owner, but snarled when the owner was present. The remaining dogs were consistent between conditions; 32 dogs showed no “aggression” in either condition, and 5 growled during both presentations. The malleability of the behavior by the simple change (presence or absence of owner) indicates a lack of validity for such an assessment and underscores the contextual nature of the expression of threatening and biting behaviors in dogs. However, the authors speculate that for shelter dogs who are presumed have no attachment person available, some warning and threatening behaviors that would emerge in a home could be masked by this lack.

The data confirmed that results of a behavior evaluation can differ according to the variables of time spent in a shelter for the first group and the presence of an attachment figure for the second. There are numerous ways to interpret these data. The authors interpret their findings as though the “more aggressive” results for both groups are also the more accurate results that will best predict future behavior. However, given that the lack of test-retest reliability necessary for test validity, the reverse could be true, or there could be other unnoticed confounds.

The results are further called into question by a study that showed the same raters viewing the same video-recorded dogs are unreliable over time for “well-behaved,” “pushy-aggressive” and “nervous” behavior when the dog was meeting another dog (Diesel, Brodbelt, & Pfeiffer, 2008). Thus, it is plausible that the scoring of the behavior, rather than the behavior itself, changed over time.

A third explanation to consider is a sampling bias. In the first experiment there were 95 dogs in the original sample, but after adoptions, owner retrievals, and transfers to rescue organizations, only 25 dogs remained at the two-week mark. Though it was a within-subjects design, it is possible that the 25 remaining dogs represent a biased sample, perhaps even those whose behavior toward potential adopters rendered them less attractive.

The authors report that growling, snarling, snapping and biting were rare, but propose further testing should be done to determine the timeframe that is maximally sensitive to provoking such behavior. Instead, the data can be interpreted to suggest the wisdom of abandoning behavior evaluations altogether; there are severe limitations to the validity, reliability, and usefulness of these evaluations.

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