Search dog handlers show positive bias when scoring their own dog's performance

Corinna C Clark, Nicola Sibbald, Nicola J Rooney*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
32 Downloads (Pure)


Self-assessments of performance are commonly used in the human workplace, although compared to peer or supervisor ratings, they may be subject to positive biases or leniency. The use of subjective ratings scales in animal sciences is also common, although little consideration is usually given to possible rater bias. Dog handlers, for example, work very closely, and form strong relationships, with their dogs but are also best placed to monitor dog performance since they often work in isolation. Previous work found ratings of search dog performance correlated well between experienced dog trainers, instructors, and scientists; but until now, there has been no investigation into ratings made by a dog’s own handler.

We compared handlers’ subjective assessment of their own dog’s search performance to scores given by other handlers and in a second study, to scores made by impartial raters. We found that handlers generally showed leniency; for example scoring their own dogs more favourably for Control (responsiveness to commands) and MotivationStrength of Indication. But the degree of bias varied with the trait being scored and between raters. Such differences may be attributable to greater desirability or importance of favourable scores for certain traits, or a lack of clarity of their precise meaning. Handlers may vary in susceptibility to bias due to differing levels of experience and the extent to which they view their dog’s ability as dependent on their own. The exact causes require further investigation. We suggest working dog agencies provide rater-training to overcome leniency, improve reliability and validity, and to increase handler’s motivation to provide accurate assessments. This study represents one of a series of steps to formulate robust, validated and evidence- based performance rating systems and has relevance to any situation where raters assess their own performance or others (particularly where they may have a vested interest in, or loyalty towards, the ratee).
Original languageEnglish
Article number612
Number of pages9
JournalFrontiers in Veterinary Science
Publication statusPublished - 10 Sep 2020


  • bias
  • rating
  • working dog
  • leniency
  • reliability
  • validity


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