International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners
FINDING A SUITABLE CANDIDATE FOR ASSISTANCE DOG WORK
by Joan Froling
Note: As author, I have decided to avoid gender preference by referring to a dog as "him," but either gender can be a fine service dog.
SCREENING FOR AGGRESSION PROBLEMS
The last thing any disabled person needs is a dog that exhibits aggressive behavior toward people, other dogs or other animals. In the USA, you would lose your access rights if you have a dog that barks in a menacing way or growls or lunges at people or at other dogs. The U.S. Department of Justice and National Association of [state] Attorney Generals makes this quite clear in their July 1996 Frequently Asked Questions document educating businesses, the public and other interested parties about a disabled person's access rights with a service animal under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Department of Transportation prepared a similar document for Airlines and Passengers interpreting the Air Carriers Access Act. To summarize, any dog exhibiting disruptive behavior like aggression toward people or other animals demonstrates he has not been successfully trained to function as a service animal in public places and does not have to be treated as a service animal even if he performs an assistive function for the disabled individual.
If a dog acted vicious all of the time, no one would train him as an assistance dog. It is the youngster that grows up to exhibit aggressive behavior after puberty because of hereditary breed traits or a temperament defect that breaks the heart of the puppy raiser, assistance dog trainer or an owner trainer. It is the well mannered adult dog who occasionally exhibits aggressive behavior due to a phobia, hereditary breed traits, an inappropriate upbringing, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, a Jekyll Hyde personality disorder, high prey drive, mental illness or some other root cause that may accept as a candidate, never suspecting he harbors this dreadful flaw. The sooner you detect the aggression problem, the better, as he will need a career change home and you will have to start over with a more suitable dog.
People Aggression: During a 30 day trial period, as you deliberately expose the dog to a variety of real life situations , one thing you should be looking for is how this candidate will react to the public. See if he has a negative reaction to kids, to men in general or to people in uniform, people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, people with an umbrella, a hat, dark clothing or a cane or something else that may trigger aggressive behavior. In the absence of another explanation, such as the dog picking up on your fear of someone, it is quite possible the dog is having a flashback to a time when he was abused. Something else to check for is to find out if the dog can tolerate being in a crowded elevator or handle a dense crowd situation with a bunch of strangers without becoming over-protective or panicky.
I initially test for aggression toward people out in public by walking the dog up and down the sidewalk in front of a grocery store or group of small shops at a busy time of day. If the dog tolerates people coming and going just fine, I'd ask people passing by to stop and pet the dog. Is he hand shy? Does he bristle at some people? Does he curl his lip back, shiver or emit a low rumbling growl? These are warning signs of a potential problem with aggression or timidity. I'd hope to see him behave in a friendly manner. If he is not eager to socialize, is he at least acting relaxed and good natured about letting strangers pet him? It is important to have an assistance dog who is absolutely trustworthy, a dog that can go anywhere, not one that makes up his own rules about who is allowed to touch him or touch his handler.
Stress Related Aggression: You should consider exposing a candidate nine months old or older at least once to a very stressful situation with loud noises to find out if he will become aggressive if he is nervous and distracted by the commotion around him. For example, how would he act if you went to see a parade, a rock band, a symphony, a concert in a park, a high school marching band at a practice session or a fireworks display? Some test a dog at a busy truck stop to find out if he will be unnerved by the horns and loud hissing air brakes. Any such site would suffice. In a state with trainer access rights, a person could expose the dog to the decibel level of the "Coming Attractions" in a movie theater. A good candidate should pass the test with no problem. If the dog is not aggressive but panic stricken due to the noise, you will be alerted to a serious problem before investing months of training in the dog. Being slightly nervous the first few times is not unusual; and such dogs might benefit from a deliberate program of noise de-sensitization, but any aggressive behavior towards the trainer or a member of the public would be inexcusable. It is unrealistic for a trainer to tell a disabled person to never take the dog anywhere where the dog might be exposed to a loud noises or a prolonged loud noise. If the dog is panicky and becomes aggressive movie theater, for example, then other situations like boarding an airplane when the pilot turns on the jet engines could produce the same reaction and someone trying to assist you could be bitten.
Dog Aggression: Aggression toward other dogs is extremely undesirable. However, the behavior must be evaluated in context with what else is happening when the dog raises his hackles or curls his lips back or growls or lunges with a snarl or bites. In a very unusual situation, such behavior may not be inappropriate. If a dog has been attacked, for example, he is certainly entitled to defend his life. If your dog is turned loose with other dogs, you've thrown him into a pack situation where he may be vulnerable to attack or feel compelled to assert his dominance. If you allow another dog or pup to pester him, don't be surprised if he gets fed up and talks in "dog language" to the pest. Jealousy can evoke an aggressive vocal outburst. Where it crosses the line between normal off leash behavior and dog-aggression is when the one dog draws blood or worse yet, kills the other dog.
The kind of dog-aggression that is inappropriate in an assistance dog is unwanted aggressive behavior that occurs when the dog is "in uniform" and on duty and off your property. He must learn that any show of belligerence toward other dogs is forbidden. There must be no barking, growling, lunging, roaring, snarling or snapping. Nor is an assistance dog permitted to exhibit aggressive behavior that is defensive in nature. This includes a growl or curling his lip back or raising his hackles if another dog approaches him while he is lying down or if another dog passes him in a hallway or approaches from behind. Some dogs can learn this, some apparently can not help themselves and do not belong in this career. Most assistance dog trainers would not accept a dog that shows any sign of hostility, extreme shyness or fear of other dogs. Ideally the candidate is calm and aloof, though wanting to play is not a reason for rejection, just a signal the dog needs some lessons on how to behave appropriately while on duty.
I like to test for a dog aggression problem by arranging a series of visits to a community obedience training center. I prefer to start with an advanced class where handlers keep their dogs under good control. If the dog does well, I will try a beginner class, hoping for dogs that will act up, so I can get a reading on how the new candidate is likely to behave when another dog is belligerent in his presence. I may not be able to rule out a Jekyll Hyde personality disorder or mental illness in one or two visits but if the dog does not display it by the sixth visit, I can relax.
Another possible test is to walk the candidate past the yards of belligerent dogs who will bark and lunge at the fence. I expect the candidate to be interested, possibly so excited he wants to drag me over to the fence so he can socialize. He might bark. Obedience training can get an excited, distracted, barking candidate under control, but cannot remove a desire to hurt or slay other dogs from a candidate's heart. If there is any doubt as to whether the dog's response is playful excitement or predatory in nature arrange to obtain a second opinion from someone with some expertise on dog aggression.
Territorial Aggression: It is normal, of course, for a dog to display some watchdog behavior in most breeds, and it is up to the dog's trainer or handler to set limits (house rules) on what is acceptable. Some dogs like a Samoyed or Golden Retriever may be very laid back, rather passive and then it is up to the trainer whether or not to keep the dog that way or to encourage a few barks for alert purposes. A dog should respect whatever rules are set if the trainer is consistent in enforcing them every day for a month.
During the fourth week of the evaluation, I'd check the dog's reaction to people crossing the front yard, ringing the doorbell and entering the backyard, hoping the work I'd done to impress upon the dog that watchdog behavior is undesirable had paid off. Two or three barks would be acceptable if the dog hushed as soon as I ordered him to be Quiet or ordered him to obey a Down-Stay command. If the dog refused to obey because his hereditary territorial guarding instinct is so powerful he could not hear or heed obedience commands in his frenzy to get at the trespasser, he does not demonstrate a suitable temperament for assistance dog work. I'd also eliminate a dog that exhibited this level of aggression toward a canine trespasser or a dog accompanying a visitor.
Sometimes, in spite of everything you do to discourage it, a dog will become extremely over protective of the home, to the point where his behavior makes people afraid to enter. This is a dog that can't be quickly silenced or called off. He refuses to listen. If this happens with a new candidate in a home setting, or with a dog trained by a program or private trainer in the first month of placement, realize the dog has a mental problem that makes him an inappropriate choice for this career. It is not a trait that manifests itself in a kennel situation, so it is not something all programs or private trainers will be able to screen for in advance.
As a general rule, paramedics, a doctor, a relative or neighbor should be able to enter the home and never have to fear for their safety from an assistance dog, for someday the human partner may be unconscious due to a seizure or some other medical crisis, sorely in need of help..
Be sure to differentiate between a dog that is barking because he is excited at the prospect of a visitor to play with and a dog that is belligerent and predatory. If in doubt, have the dog evaluated by an objective third party with expertise in canine behavior problems.
Aggression with Other Animals: Schooling an assistance dog to ignore cats and squirrels and other animals is part of the educational process, and therefore is not something everyone tests for in the first thirty days. A dog with low prey drive is fairly easy to discourage. A harsh word will suffice. A dog will a medium prey drive will be eager to chase if not kill the creature and will require more than one lesson to obtain reliable and appropriate behavior if he encounters one while on duty. A dog with high prey drive is afflicted with a bloodthirsty compulsion to chase and kill a squirrel, a cat or some other animal. People with mobility impairments have been injured in the past by dogs that went out of control due to this predatory behavior. As such, it qualifies as an aggression problem in some dogs.
Testing a dog's reactions to different animals in the 30 Day period certainly would not hurt and may lead to the welcome discovery that the dog is relatively indifferent to such critters. Behavior modification with an electric shock collar may be the only way to break a dog of a deep seated predatory fixation on other animals, something a non professional should never attempt without special schooling from professionals on how to accomplish it. It will be expensive, results are not guaranteed permanent, and as such, this should weigh heavily in the decision of whether or not a particular dog should continue as a candidate-in-training. Other kinds of behavior modification training have proven ineffectual with this type of aggression problem, I'm told. Assistance dog breeding programs try to produce dogs with low prey drive. Most would reject a dog with high prey drive at the outset for they know such dogs can endanger the life of a disabled client. It seems sensible to test for it before investing a great deal of time and money in a potential candidate.
Dominance Related Aggression Testing: A big concern if a candidate's background is unknown is whether or not he has a dominance related aggression problem. To increase your own safety and that of other household members, take a few minutes to learn how to recognize this problem before anyone gets hurt by a new candidate and also how to prevent it.
It begins by appreciating the fact a dog is not a little human in a fur coat. He thinks differently than we do. He is a pack animal and he relates to humans the same way he'd relate to canine members of a pack. If we want a successful partnership with a dog, we must respect his view of the world and learn how to communicate with him in ways that will make sense to a dog.
In a dog's world, each pack has a social pecking order. Each member of the pack either ranks above the dog in importance or below him. There are no "equals" - that is a human concept the dog does not understand. It is the dog's nature to show respect and affection to his social superiors. While he may play with a social inferior, tolerate affection from one, he cannot show respect by giving into an underling's demands without losing his superior social status. Therefore, if we want the dog to obey our commands and work cooperatively with us, we need to convince him that we are his social superior / pack leader, not a weak underling. We communicate that message to the dog by the way we treat him. We cannot treat him like an equal or like a pack leader if we want his respect and affection.
While a dog may learn to enjoy the privileges of being a pack leader, it is also a job with a lot of worries, so most dogs are perfectly content to let somebody else be in charge while they play and lead a pretty carefree life. However, it is absolutely crucial to the pack's survival to have a leader, so if nobody communicates to the dog that he or she is a dependable pack leader, Mother Nature will compel the dog to take on the responsibility himself. Once he takes on leadership, it stimulates the dominant side of a dog's nature. If he retains leadership for a long time, he won't relinquish that exalted status without a fight. He can become dangerously aggressive if someone he regards as a social inferior suddenly tries to push him around..
It is very easy to prevent this kind of aggression if you have a puppy or an unspoiled adult dog. When a dog comes into a new household, his first order of business is to figure out his rank in the pack. He learns his rank in the pack hierarchy by the behavior that other pack members, human or canine, exhibit when interacting with him. If his status is unclear, he will "test" the others to see how they respond. You need to recognize these age old "tests" and respond in a way that reassures the dog that the pack already has a dependable leader, thank you very much. For example:
During the first 48 hours in his new home, Dakota, my current Samoyed service dog, startled me by leaping onto my bed about five times and he also got up on the couch several times without permission. I called his breeder and learned she had not permitted him on the bed or furniture in her home, so this behavior was not occurring due to a bad habit. He was testing me to find out if he had the right to a high status sleeping place in his new pack. I definitely impressed upon him the answer was, "No," sternly ordering him off the bed or couch. Another way he tested people was to refuse to move out of the way when people approached him. If the person had stepped over him or went around him, a dog would view this as the person showing respect for his high status position in the pack. However, if they forced him to get up and move out of their way, he'd interpret that as a demand by someone who is his social superior for respect. He also tried a couple times to see if he could be the first one through a doorway till I set him straight. He was not my social superior and therefore he must respectfully wait till I (the leader) crossed the threshold and then gave him permission to follow. He did not growl when I touched his food bowl while he was eating, (thank goodness he had not been spoiled that way), but to ensure he got the message about who controlled the food in this pack, I interrupted his meal at least three times a week during the first few months, putting his bowl up on the counter for five or ten minutes, then I'd call him back and let him finish the meal. At least once a day while he was in training, I made a point of taking away a rawhide bone he was chewing on or some other toy, purely to establish I had the right to claim it for my own whenever I wanted it. These were simple non-violent ways to send important messages that communicated our respective places in the social pecking order. They are effective ways for you to prevent a dominance related aggression problem from developing in a puppy or an adult dog
If the dog had responded with growls when I tried to make him get off the bed, move out of my way or when I tried to touch his food bowl or take a toy away from him, it would have indicated an aggression problem related to dominance that could result in a nasty dog bite. Millions of dogs end up in animal shelters each year because their owners foolishly behaved in ways that sent a dog the wrong messages while he was growing up. They gave him an exaggerated sense of his own importance by behaving like weak underlings whenever he showed aggression. For example, they backed off if he growled when they approached his food bowl while he was eating. They backed off if he snarled or snapped at them when they tried to take a toy away. If they wanted him to get off the sofa or bed and he growled, they left him alone. If they gave him a command and he yawned or ignored it, they let him get away with this insolence. Then they are puzzled and angry when he someday bites a family member. It happens when the human does something the spoiled dog views as an open challenge to his pack leadership, like trying to push him off the bed, something he feels compelled to punish with his teeth so as to maintain his high status position in the pack. He did not understand it was "wrong" because his pack had been treating him like their leader for months. He ends up in an animal shelter, they get a new puppy and often the same thing happens again as they do not take the time to learn the basics of dog psychology.
If a new dog responds with growls, do not try to force this strange dog you barely know to move or to give up his food or his toy. You do not know how long he's been that way. It is quite possible he will retaliate with a bite. He has been spoiled and doesn't know any better and could be dangerous. It would be prudent to consult a specialist on aggression problems to evaluate the danger and come up with a treatment plan, if you lack the necessary expertise.
A minor problem that can be settled with a show of firmness need not disqualify the dog, but if a dog would growl again, after the first correction, or if the dog snarled or snapped at anyone, ever, that kind of behavior should disqualify him from further consideration as an assistance dog. Remember, your goal is not to spend months rehabilitating a dog with a dominance related aggression problem for assimilation into your household as a pet. Your goal is to find a wonderful dog without an aggression problem to train for the most challenging career a dog can tackle. Only dogs that are cooperative, unspoiled and emotionally stable should merit your consideration.
OTHER PROBLEMS TO BEWARE OF
Also to be avoided are dogs that show evidence of being socially retarded. If a dog did not receive adequate social stimulation through exposure to new places and experiences before the age of 16 weeks, he will grow up with an incurable malady known as "kennel shyness." Such a dog will always be fearful of new places and unfamiliar sounds. The dog typically exhibits little curiosity about people or places outside his kennel or safe area. Puppies severely afflicted with this malady will huddle in the back of a kennel or yard and do not show interest in exploring the outside world if the gate is left open. Older dogs will tremble, be easily spooked or stressed to the point of being dysfunctional if forced to leave the backyard, depending on the degree to which they are afflicted.
If the dog did not receive adequate social contact with humans before the age of 16 weeks, his ability to form emotional attachments to people is permanently blighted. Such a dog won't warm up to you. The dog doesn't want your affection. Nor will he show affection. Depending on the degree of emotional impairment, he will act indifferent, suspicious, or fearful of people. Some people feel sorry for the dog, mistaking such symptoms as evidence the dog was "abused." Regrettably, a loving home won't help or cure this kind of dog. Intensive efforts to re-socialize a socially retarded dog only results in marginal gains at best, according to research on the subject.
A dog that is abused rather than socially retarded should retain the capacity to love humans if he received adequate socialization during the first eight weeks of his life. By the end of the 30 day evaluation period, he should be wagging his tail and showing other
signs of appreciating all the kindness lavished on him. Even so, deep psychological trauma as a result of living with an abusive former owner will often produce signs of panic or other kinds of aberrant behavior whenever the dog encounters something that triggers a flashback. Such dogs may eventually become affectionate pets if adopted by patient sympathetic owners, but the vast majority of them lack the emotional stability to handle all the challenges of a career as an assistance dog.
Inexperienced trainers and inexperienced handlers often fall victim to the romantic notion of giving an abused dog "a second chance." Allowing pity for a dog with a hard luck story to sabotage the quest for a candidate with highly desirable character traits can lead to years of problems. Excuses like,"he can't help it, he was abused before I got him," won't carry any weight with the business community and the general public. It regrettably deprives the handler of the pleasures of working with a dog who is reliable and safe in all public settings. Unless there is a spectacular remission of symptoms by the end of the 30 day trial period, an abused dog belongs in a low-stress pet home and the search for an appropriate candidate should continue. A dog that is an ultra sensitive "baby" about everything or abnormally passive or one that is easily spooked or hyper excitable would not be a suitable candidate either.
© Copyright Joan Froling, 1998. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Return to Selection Criteria
Return to IAADP home page