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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Put to the test

Correspondent

It’s a big day for Yoshi. He’s been at SpokAnimal CARE for weeks waiting to catch the eye of someone who will take him home. Today, this fine looking German shepherd/Shar-Pei cross is going to take a test that might improve his chances. Like many of the dogs that arrive at area shelters, Yoshi came in with no information regarding his temperament. A dog’s personality is based partly on genetics but largely influenced by the experiences in the first 16 weeks of their lives. Dogs learn how to play appropriately with their littermates. If they are too rough and pushy, their brothers and sisters will refuse to play with them. If they are taken away from their littermates too early they might not learn how to interact with other dogs.

The amount and type of exposure they have with people in those first four months shapes how they cope with human interaction for the rest of their lives.

Susan Sternberg, an expert in shelter dog behavior evaluation and training in New York, developed a personality test for dogs. The profile is used in all three of the animal shelters in Spokane: the Humane Society, SCRAPS and SpokAnimal.

Every other Friday, Elin Zander is at SpokAnimal testing dogs.

“It’s more of an interview than a test,” said Zander. “We ask all the dogs the same questions and write down their responses.”

Judy Campbell, who is helping Zander today, begins Yoshi’s interview in a small room as far away as possible from the distractions of the kennel. She strokes his back, checks his teeth five times by pulling back his lips – a test most humans wouldn’t be able to pass without snarling – and gives him a strong hug around his neck to gauge how comfortable Yoshi is with human contact. He is given a squeaky toy and aroused into high energy play to see if he will maintain his boundaries, not jump on people and end the game when Campbell tells him to. This test helps to determine whether or not Yoshi is gentle enough to be around small children.

The food test is next and has the potential to be explosive. Instinctively, dogs guard or protect their food. If they have had to compete for resources or did not get food regularly, they may have maintained that instinct instead of learning to share. This “interview question” requires special equipment. Yoshi has a bowl of food placed in front of him, soft and rich with gravy. Using an “assess-a-hand,” a plastic hand with a padded forearm attached to a dowel, Campbell strokes Yoshi’s back while he eats. She then moves the hand into his food bowl while he continues to eat and then the bowl is removed completely from his reach. A big score on the plus side for Yoshi. He not only tolerated the intrusion but wagged his tail throughout.

When people come to the shelter, they are often looking for a friend for an animal already in the home. The finale to the interview is introductions to other dogs and cats. A polite greeting between dogs involves indirect eye contact and primary interest in the end of the dog opposite his face. Bared teeth and direct physical contact is a sign of aggression or bad manners. That information makes it easier to understand why a dog we have not met before is leery of us when we approach him with a wide grin and outstretched arms.

Yoshi met two dogs. Spunky, the adolescent black Labrador ran toward him and jumped on his head as a greeting. Yoshi demonstrated his displeasure with a “back off young fella” bark. Dot, the senior black Labrador, followed all the dog rules for a friendly greeting so Yoshi followed her around like a patient servant waiting for his next instruction.

When all the tests are completed, Zander and Campell compare their observations. The assessment grades the dogs as Level 1, 2 or 3. The levels don’t indicate good dog or bad dog but rather what type of home would be most suitable. Yoshi is a Level 1 dog. Novice or first-time dog owners would probably find Yoshi charming. Level 2 dogs are best suited for homes with experienced dog owners that can provide training and leadership. Level 3 dogs are generally not recommended for adoption but are sometimes referred to breed-specific rescue groups. The results are posted on the kennel door so staff can use them when helping people select a dog.

“It is not a guarantee,” said Zander, “but rather a guideline. Some dogs are stressed out in the shelter, and sometimes behavior issues don’t emerge until they settle into their new homes.” It’s a good start to help with the very important decision in choosing a canine companion.

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