I’ve worked in the service dog field for a long time — as a trainer and as an educator, teaching future trainers. The burning question is and has always been: How do we choose appropriate dogs for training? This post is not going to discuss the merits and disadvantages of breeding for service dogs versus choosing shelter or other available dogs. Trainers have had varying degrees of success with both approaches. More to the point, all these trainers face the same question, whether evaluating a puppy or an adolescent or adult dog.
Dozens of puppy temperament tests and behavior evaluation tools are available. But there is not a single one that has broad support, based on proven results, across the guide and service dog world or among shelter staff. Researchers have attempted to study the tests and the scant published research on them to decide whether there is a “best” test or approach — or even whether it is possible to evaluate a dog’s temperament in a way that can predict future behavior or career success.
A 2015 article in Bark magazine looked at tests of behavior tests. The author compared results obtained with two tests widely used to assess shelter dogs, primarily for aggression, with the results of a more scientific test, the C-BARQ. The two common tests studied were the Assess-A-Pet, developed by Sue Sternberg, and SAFER, developed by Emily Weiss. When compared with C-BARQ, these tests were not found to be reliable. While Assess-A-Pet agreed in a majority of cases where C-BARQ would find a dog aggressive, it also had an unacceptably high number of false positives — identifying a dog as aggressive that C-BARQ did not. SAFER had worse results.
So, how good is C-BARQ? We could look at the research on C-BARQ (and I might do that in a future post), but a very significant obstacle to using this tool is its length. It is possible that the comprehensive nature of C-BARQ is what makes is a superior evaluation tool — but that same depth, due to its more than 150 questions, makes it impractical to administer in shelters, for example. Answering the C-BARQ questions requires familiarity with the dog in a variety of settings, too. In other words, C-BARQ is not a simple answer for the service dog trainer or would-be pet owner seeking a way to evaluate a dog in one or two meetings.
Where does that leave us? A 2013 paper, “Personality Consistency in Dogs: A Meta-Analysis,” available on PLoS One, looked at 31 methods for assessing temperament or predicting behavior. The authors looked at several personality dimensions measured by a variety of tools: Activity, aggression, responsiveness to training, sociability, submissiveness and fearfulness, which they merged with reactivity. Their results are discouraging.
The authors concluded that, when looking at puppies, the traits most likely to remain consistent were aggression and submissiveness. In adult dogs, tests repeated with relatively short time intervals tended to be consistent across all these dimensions, but even in adults, personality was described as “moderately plastic” over longer time periods. In plain English, giving the same dog the same test several months or years apart gave different results. While it is useful to know whether a puppy is likely to be very aggressive or very submissive, that is not enough information for most trainers or even potential pet adopters.
Much more research is needed, clearly. But these results have an even more significant message. Getting to know a dog takes time. Deciding whether a dog is suitable for work, as a service or guide dog or in any other career, cannot be done in a few meetings or by administering a 15- or 30-minute test at a shelter. The service dog organizations where I have worked invest that time. Raising puppies and working with them throughout their puppyhood and adolescence gives the trainers and puppy raisers a solid base for evaluating the dogs’ potential. They’ve seen the dogs in many environments and witnessed their responses to many different stimuli and events. Even then, it’s sometimes tough to be sure.
As trainers, we need to appreciate the complexity of dogs’ personalities and their individuality — even if it makes our jobs harder and means that not all the dogs we train will succeed as service dogs or even as pets.