A quick assessment tool for human-directed aggression in pet dogs

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Article Citation:

Klausz, B., Kis, A., Persa, E., Miklosi, A., & Gacsi, M. (2014). A quick assessment tool for human-directed aggression in pet dogs. Aggressive Behavior, 40(2), 178-188. doi: 10.1002/ab.21501

National Canine Research Council Summary and Analysis:

This study is included because the assessment developed has been adopted by other researchers due to its brevity and reported validity. Klausz, Kis, Persa, Miklosi, and Gacsi’s (2014) paper describes the development and validation of a short behavior assessment meant to predict biting/non biting behavior in pet dogs. The authors explain that while many assessments have been used and researched, they are often time-consuming and create undue stress for the dogs. Thus, Klausz et al. (2014) hoped to develop an assessment that is both efficient and valid. Though the authors did not explicitly name their evaluation, we will refer to it as the “Quick Assessment Tool,” or QAT, for discussion purposes.

Subjects were 73 adult pet dogs categorized as non-biting controls (NB), dogs who had bitten once (OB), and dogs who had bitten multiple times (MB). The operational definition of a biter was one who had “bitten or snapped at a person at least once in their lives” for an OB and multiple times for an MB. Given this definition, nearly two thirds of the subjects are labeled as either OB or MB. Snapping and biting, however, are two distinct behaviors, the first of which carries no possibility of direct injury; thus it is problematic to group them together if the ultimate goal of such tests is to prevent injury to humans, particularly since there is no evidence to date that a history of snapping actually predicts an elevated risk of biting injuriously. Moreover, no distinction was made between bite severity or motivation (e.g., play bites). Biting behavior and history of other warning behaviors (e.g., growling, snarling, and snapping) were provided by the owners. The typical biases of human memory and long recall-periods apply, as well as the general shortcomings of self-reported data.

The subjects were administered five tests in a fixed order and all trials were videotaped for further analysis. Because each test was short (30-60 s) and breaks between tests were minimal, the entire assessment was approximately four minutes for each dog. The five tests were friendly greeting, take away bone, threatening approach, tug of war, and roll over. After the short test battery, owners were asked to indicate how often their dogs behave “aggressively” towards strangers and towards family members (each on a 1-5 scale). “Aggressive” was defined as growling, snarling, snapping, or biting. Results from the assessment were compared to the dogs’ reported biting history and owner-reported “aggression.” Waiting until after the tests were conducted to ask the owners about their dogs’ history reduced the risk of experimenter bias during the tests. On the other hand, having the owners present during the evaluation could have biased their responses. For example, if an owner observed their dog behaving aggressively during the test, they may be more likely to remember or report previous instances of biting behavior, whereas owners who saw their dog behaving non-aggressively during the test may be more likely to dismiss previous instances of aggression.

As a reliability measure, 19 subjects were re-tested approximately one year later, and no differences between the results of the two tests were found, indicating test-retest reliability within this sample of owned dogs. The authors interpret this as behavioral consistency.

The authors note that they measured “fear behavior” because they “assumed that behavior evoked by fear or frustration often leads to human-directed aggression in pet dogs,” A widely held hypothesis regarding warning and biting behavior. Behaviors generally accepted to indicate fear or anxiety such as head ducking, tail wagging between the legs, and rolling over were marked as fear behaviors. However, such behaviors are also frequently observed as part of greeting among dogs, and the test did not suggest a way to separate the two motivations.

Behavior during the QAT did not correlate with owner‐reported aggression towards the owner or the owner’s household. There were, however, correlations between three of the subtests and owner-reported stranger aggression: threatening approach (r = 0.33; P = 0.004), tug‐of‐war (r = 0.34; P = 0.006), and friendly greeting (r = 0.33; P = 0.007). There were also significant differences in their QAT between dogs who had reportedly bitten in the past and those who had not, but the collective sensitivity and specificity of the friendly approach, threatening approach, and take away bone tests was (0.76 and 0.73), which while reasonably good for a diagnostic test, would yield many false positives given the low incidence of behaviors of interest (see Patronek & Bradley, 2016, for an explanation of this relationship). This suggests that any attempts to apply the test to a very different group (e.g., shelter dogs awaiting judgements about their adoptability) would be unlikely to yield acceptable levels of sensitivity or specificity for such a purpose.

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Additional Reference:

Patronek, G. J. & Bradley, J. (2016). No better than flipping a coin: Reconsidering canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 15, 66-77. doi: