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.