My Favorite Test: Annoyance Tolerance

By March 14, 2017News

A good Service Dog has to demonstrate more than enthusiasm and mastery of core skills. The dog must also show tolerance in the face of mild, but annoying and repetitive actions typical of a child. Of course you can’t endanger a real child during temperament testing, but this test will do the trick.

Repeating things over and over is a strong trait in human children. Every dog has a tolerance limit, but non-aggressive reactions are desirable. Whining, playful reactions, avoiding, escaping, or passive appeasement and acceptance are the desirable reactions.

If there is no aggression in the temperament, then aggression is not going to appear. Other behaviors reflecting fear or passivity will appear, but not biting. A dog like this will not defend itself, and must be protected from children’s actions.

I adapted this test from C. W. Meisterfield. I have read his work and disagree with most of his methods, except for this wonderful gem. It reveals so much.

What dogs should be tested?
This test can only be done on a “perfect” dog that has passed ALL other handling and general temperament testing. The dog must be happy to be handled everywhere, be groomed, have feet massaged. It’s not safe to do on any other dog.

Our goal is NOT to see if the dog is easily triggered to freeze, “whale-eye”, growl, or bite. We need to already have that information. We need to eliminate those variables previously, before doing this test. Those dogs should not be tested with the Annoyance-Tolerance test.

An accepting reaction to fast movements, grabbing, and jerking hand movements should already be present.
The dog must already accept mouth and tooth handling with a tolerant attitude.

This test is only for dogs that you consider perfect with every situation, that love everyone. You are digging a little deeper here, to see if that perfection reaches as far as dealing with repeated annoyance.

This test is suitable for professional trainers only.
Proceed in using this test at your own risk. In no way is the author responsible for errors and omissions which could cause harm to the tester or the dog.

Slow Motion is the key here.
This whole test is done in slow motion, and gently, as if petting the dog. EVERY motion you make is slow and relaxed and casual. Imagine honey pouring: that is the speed you use. This allows you time to observe the dog’s reactions, and gives plenty of time for the dog to decide how it wants to react.

When a group of students graduates from Martha Hoffman Hearing Dog Academy (MHHD), we always fling open the doors for a live Open House session online.

We acknowledge our students for what they’ve achieved, talk about the discoveries they (and we) have had during the course, and we invite everyone to adopt a general-purpose learning game that can accelerate the progress of whatever dog you’re training or loving in your life.

To attend the Open House, you’ll have to become a member of the MHHD Open Forum group on Facebook. We post an event announcement there, and you simply RSVP so that we know to add you to the chat group.

The session takes place in live text chat. This makes the conversation accessible to everyone. It’s a great way to experience the model we use for the live chat sessions in our courses.

It may seem like you are testing the dog’s response to a very gentle hand pushing down its muzzle very slowly. Actually, you are not. Instead, you are testing what the dog does when it knows the push is coming yet AGAIN. How does the dog deal with the approaching hand?

The dog accepts the handling every time it is repeated. It either enjoys it, or tolerates it without protest. If it playfully protests, the dogs’ protest should stop when the dog realizes the muzzle grasp is inevitable.

The dog should be on leash so that it must stay near the tester. It needs enough leash to make a choice to refuse the testing. I prefer to gently hold the dogs collar, so that I can feel its body moving.

The tester gently and slowly reaches for the dog’s muzzle, holds it shut very gently, and slowly pushes it down about an inch. Hold it for about two seconds.

Equally slowly, the muzzle is released and the hand moved slowly about a foot away.

  • Wait two seconds, and repeat several times. The dog must see the hand coming.
  • Watch the dogs behavior as the hand approaches.
  • Watch the dogs behavior as the hand slowly retreats.
  • Watch the dogs behavior as the hand is grasping the muzzle.

Stop the test if you see any freezing, whale eye, stiffening, or avoidance. This dog is showing you it does not want reaching motions, or to have its muzzle handled.

Is the dog relaxed and cooperating? Repeat several more times.

After about 4 or 5 successful repetitions with the dog remaining relaxed, the dog will realize that the hand is yet again coming to grasp and press its muzzle.

Its reactions will now show us how it feels about gentle but unwanted handling.

The issue here is not the dog’s reaction to the sensation of the hand slowly pressing on its muzzle, but the way the dog reacts when it anticipates the inevitable restraint once again.

How does it deal with this situation? If the dog passively accepts several more repetitions, it passes. Stop the test.

The FAIL reactions:

  • Dog moves sharply AWAY to avoid the hand, and the tester is unable to grasp the muzzle again.
  • If the dog threatens, freezes, or stares, stop testing immediately.
  • Dog moves sharply TOWARDS the hand. Stop testing immediately.

Now you are getting information on how many times the dog will accept annoyance.

Questionable reactions: Dog shows playful avoidance by opening its mouth and blocking your hand:

If you see a fast reaction, STOP the test now. Fast reactions or freezing from the dog are undesirable, and may indicate fear, stress, or aggression. But if the dog is relaxed and playful in its reaction, keep testing.

  • Reaction: Dog opens mouth and slowly, gently, blocks the hand from grasping its muzzle.  Teeth might be felt but are not putting pressure.

This reaction shows that the dog will use a playful strategy to prevent the grasping.  If it still lets you grasp it, keep repeating the test. You want to find out: Does the dog escalate the blocking, or does it de-escalate into passivity?

  • Reaction: Dog opens mouth and slowly, playfully, mouths the hand to prevent the grasp. Teeth are felt with some slight pressure.

This reaction shows that the dog will use a playful mouthing to prevent the grasping.  If it still lets you grasp its muzzle, keep repeating the test. You want to find out: Does the dog escalate the mouthing to be harder or faster, or does it de-escalate into passivity?

A dog that playfully deflects your hand trajectory, will do one of three things when you repeat the muzzle grasp:

  1. Repeats the same level of deflection. Usually, it moves its head around to block your hand, with no actual mouthing or pressure. Stop the test. This is a nonviolent strategy, but not acceptable for being around small children.
  2. Stops the playful mouthing, and passively allows the grasping to repeat several more times.
    Excellent reaction! This dog DE-ESCALATES its level of protest, when it realizes the grasping is inevitable. It gives up and allows grasping.
  3. Escalates the level of mouthing to playful harder mouthing. Stop the test.
    This is a dog that ESCALATES in response to annoyance. It gets more and more annoyed, and might progress into aggression.

Passing Reactions:
The dog allows the muzzle grasp about ten times and shows no avoidance, only relaxed acceptance.

Is this a hard test?
Yes, because dogs do not like their muzzles pressed down, no matter how gently. It’s a strong signal between dogs for restraint and pinning, when done harshly. Done in slow motion, without pinning, it allows the dog to decide if it will tolerate it, and how many times it will tolerate it.

How well does this test predict anything?
In real life, nothing is perfect. I’ve seen a super-friendly dog happily get petted by about a thousand people in three days at an expo. At about the thousand-and-first petter, the dog gave a snap.

This test gives clues that can be followed up with more testing and more situations. No test gives a firm answer. All tests, like all scientific experiments, only give us more questions to follow up on.

Be sure to join Martha and others from the Service Dog community on the Martha Hoffman Hearing Dogs Open Forum Facebook group. It’s an open community where dog trainers, both professional and owner/trainers, exchange ideas and tips about training their dogs.

Martha Hoffman is the Training Director for the Hearing Dog Program. She has trained several hundred Hearing Dogs and tested over 20,000 shelter dogs over the course of 25 years. She is the founder and lead trainer at Martha Hoffman Hearing Dog Academy (MHHD) and the author of the highly respected text on Hearing Dog training, Lend Me an Ear.

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