The Fake Hand and Dog Aggression

A fake hand is poked into a dog's food bowl to see if he responds with aggression
From Great Dog Productions

A recent New York Times article talked about a common test that supposedly assessed dogs’ aggressive tendencies. The test uses a fake hand, called an Assess-A-Hand, to “determine” whether a dog will aggressively protect his food bowl.

The idea behind it is fine; who wouldn’t want to know whether a dog is aggressive? But the idea that a single test, lasting a couple of minutes, could tell you that is absurd. The article quotes one shelter staffer as saying they’d thought of the test as a “magic bullet” and another justifying using it by explaining that “anxious adopters” need “assurances” that the dog won’t bite or react badly to other dogs.

No shelter person, breeder, dog trainer, or other dog professional should ever provide “assurances” about any dog’s future behavior. Nice as it would be to have those assurances, if you want a guarantee that your dog won’t bite, you’d better get a stuffed animal.

Part of the problem with the Assess-A-Hand tests is that people administer the test very differently. Poking the Hand into a bowl, maybe bumping the dog gently — that is how the test is intended to be used. But I have seen people actively poke and prod the dog, escalating until they provoke a reaction. Not fair.

In either case, though, the test does not provide any deep insight into the dog’s personality and certainly no way to judge future behavior. Spending time with that dog and watching his interactions with people and dogs will tell you a lot more. And taking any dog into your home means taking on some risk. There are no guarantees.

The responses to the article are interesting snapshots of the spectrum of attitudes toward dogs, from those who argue that any dog, even a repeat biter, deserves a chance to those who say that no dog who has ever bitten should be accepted into a shelter. I don’t think that either extreme is reasonable, whether it’s condemning a dog based on a single flawed test or arguing that no dog is unadoptable. I do think that a dog’s history is far more revealing than a test administered at a stressful time in a scary place to a dog who may have been hungry for days.

The bottom line, though, is that we humans need to stop seeking magic bullets. There is no simple, two-minute solution to the problem of hundreds of thousands of homeless dogs, some with long histories of biting people. There is no test that can tell you what any individual’s behavior will be in myriad unknowable future situations. We should focus on ourselves: find the time to get to know our dogs and teach children how to behave around dogs. That would be more productive than looking to simple tools like the Assess-A-Hand to perform miracles.



3 thoughts on “The Fake Hand and Dog Aggression

  1. Pam,

    Well-written piece on an important issue. I had not heard of the Assess-A-Hand before reading your article. It seems like a stupid idea. Of course the dog knows that it is not a real hand, so if it were to bite it, that would not indicate aggressive behavior toward people. Also, I think that many dogs who might object to being interfered with while they were trying to eat might be reactive when they would not be so in other situations. It deserves repeating– stupid test. What would you do if you were trying to eat and someone started poking you with a fake hand?


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post on the realities of dog ownership. Our Ray did not growl when we first got him, so he gave no warning of any “displeasure”! He just reacted very aggressively. A few months later, I dropped something near his food bowl when he was eating and, as I immediately bent over to pick it up…. he gave a menacing growl. I was so happy that I was telling all sorts of people, and their response was a disbelieving “You’re happy because he growled at you?” I had to explain that yes, I was elated, because Ray was now giving a warning whereas in the past he would have just reacted aggressively. We also then knew that there was a strong possibility of a food guarding problem but then, he was a stray for sometime so perhaps an understandable response!

    There really is no magic bullet as you note, just time, patience, education, observations and TLC!


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