November 11, 2017

The use of a behavior test for the selection of dogs for service and breeding

Behavior tests were used to categorize different characteristics that indicated future suitability as a service dog for German Shepherds and Labrador retrievers, highlighting differences between the breeds and between sexes.

Historically, the process of selecting dogs suitable for service work was based on behavioral testing. The aim of this particular study was to investigate the results of behavior tests from the Swedish Dog Training Centre (SDTC) could compare with a dog’s future capacity as a service dog. SDTC is one of Europe’s largest centers for training and breeding service dogs for various types of work and breeding.

In the study, 1310 German Shepherd dogs (730 male, 580 female) and 797 Labrador retriever dogs (343 male, 454 female) were tested and compared. 10 behavioral characteristics were scored based on the dog’s reaction to 7 different test situations. The first test was the “approachability and tendency to compete for objects” test. In it, the dog’s approach was observed when the test leader (TL) remained passive, and when the TL actively tries to make contact with the dog. The second test was “startling test 1,” where the TL holds the dog on a leash. A handler runs away from the dog and calls it into a wooded area with a number of life-size paper figures of people, when a figure is suddenly pulled up in front of the dog. The third test, “startling test 2,” consisted of a handler walking the dog along a path when a life sized rag doll is placed about 1m from the dog, and the leash is let go. The fourth test is the “reaction to a loud noise” test. In it, the handler walks the dog along a path to a ladder leaning on a tree with large objects suspended from it. As the dog walks past, the objects are dropped, making various loud noises. The fifth test is the “reaction to a successively approaching threat test,” where a paper figure with emphasized eyes is mounted to a sled and is slowly drawn closer to the dog. The sixth test, “attack on the handler,” consists of the TL pretending to attack the handler while the handler holds the dog on a leash. The seventh and final situation was the “reaction to gunfire” test, in which there is a repeated firing of a pistol, first when the handler is playing with the dog and subsequently when the dog is at the handler’s side.

From these tests were 10 evaluated characteristics: courage, sharpness, defense drive, prey drive, nerve stability, reaction to gunfire, temperament/energy level, hardness, ability to cooperate, and affability. When transformed into an index, reaction to gunfire was not included because all forms of gun shyness disqualify a dog for use as a service dog. German Shepherd dogs scored significantly higher for both sharpness and defense drive than the Labrador retrievers. Labrador retrievers scored significantly higher for courage, nerve stability, hardness, cooperation, and affability. In both breeds, males scored significantly higher for courage, prey drive, and defense drive. In German Shepherd dogs, males scored significantly higher than females for nerve stability, while there were no significant differences between sexes for Labrador retrievers on these behavioral traits. In German Shepherd dogs, males also scored significantly higher than females for ability to cooperate, while in Labrador retrievers, the females scored significantly higher.

From these tests, 4 factors were determined. Factor 1 consisted of courage, nerve stability, and hardness. Factor 2 consisted of temperament and ability to cooperate. Factor 3 for German Shepherd dogs was affability, while factor 3 for Labrador retrievers included both sharpness and defense drive. Factor 4 consisted of affability for Labrador retrievers, while factor 4 consisted of sharpness, prey drive, and defense drive for German Shepherd dogs.

The subjective evaluation of these dogs showed marked differences in mental characteristics between breeds and between sexes, but particularly between categories of service dogs. It was concluded from this study that German Shepherd dogs are more suitable for and are more often selected for police work, while Labrador retrievers are more suitable as guide dogs.

Reference: Wilsson, R, Sundgren, P, 1997. The use of a behavior test for the selection of dogs for service and breeding, I: Method of testing and evaluating test results in the adult dog, demands on different kinds of service dogs, sex and breed differences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Volume 53, Issue 4: 279-295.

Reviewed by Sadie Scott.