Puppy temperament testing is both science and art. Much of a dog’s temperament is genetically based. We continue to learn more ways the behavior is shaped by physical traits, including invisible or subtle ones. Dogs have different structures in their eyes that cause them to actually see the world differently, just as one example.
By the time a puppy is old enough for a temperament test at 7 to 8 weeks, the pup’s experiences in life have also affected temperament. Even at this tender age, it’s not possible to say with absolute certainty that a particular trait is solely genetic and not at all learned.
Indeed, you can dramatically improve a puppy’s responses on a temperament test by good handling and good experiences.
The mother dog’s behavior affects the puppies through her contact with them. She passes her genetic material to them and then heavily influences their early life experiences.
Clearly it’s in everyone’s best interests to make sure mother dogs have good genetics, good health care, good training, good conditioning to human handling, good socialization to everything that will be around when rearing pups-and even good experiences when pregnant. She is far, far more than an incubator!
Which One to Pick?
People enjoy puppies, and some insist on adopting their dogs only in puppy hood. Puppy temperament testing offers a tantalizing promise of predicting the pup’s adult temperament. The tests seem simple and tend to be scored in easy numbers such as one through five. It sounds easy! Sometimes, though, you simply cannot tell what that puppy will be like as an adult.
Puppy testing became well known after the publication of Clarence Pfaffenberger’s book “The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior.” Every dog lover will enjoy reading this fascinating book about the puppy testing and handling methods that revolutionized the selection and rearing of puppies for guide dog training. Considering the time and expense that goes into training a guide dog-not to speak of the hopes and dreams and the genuine need for the service of the dog-the choice of a dog to put into the program takes on great importance. The new methods raised the success rate from around 9 percent to about 90 percent!
The jobs dogs are trained to do have expanded many times over since the book’s first printing in 1963. One of the most important jobs dogs do today is unofficial, and that is the job of companion to humans. Particularly where there is a vulnerable human in the household, suitable behavior from the dog becomes critical.
We also now work with dogs in other assistance roles for people with disabilities, as therapy dogs to provide emotional support for humans, in several police roles, multiple military roles, search and rescue, arson detection, termite detection, customs, border protection, livestock herding, livestock guarding, drug detection in schools, security for people at high risk, and many other jobs. New tasks that dogs can perform in partnership with humans are found all the time. Dog training has become so sophisticated that we now know how to elicit behaviors in dogs that in the past we had to just hope would happen by accident.
The rub, though, is finding the right dog. Just like people, individual dogs are different, with different strengths and weaknesses. Breed is a clue as to what a dog might be trainable to do, but far from a guarantee. Bloodline is another clue, but puppies in the same litter can be quite different from one another. If you see them grown up trying to do the same job with two different handlers, it’s not unusual to note that those dogs would be better matched with the opposite of the handlers they have!
It’s easy to see why puppy temperament tests have become routine. They are far from perfect in predicting how the pup will turn out, but any information helps. Keep in mind, though, that puppies change a LOT as they mature, and the effects of experiences they have later will not show in puppy testing. We all think we can give our puppies the perfect upbringing, but of course there is no such thing as a life free of mistakes and accidents. If you need a known temperament for a specific purpose, a young adult dog is a better choice than a puppy, and plenty are available.
Where can you find a puppy temperament test? There are many. The Pfaffenberger book goes into great detail. Susan Clothier wrote a puppy testing booklet. Carol Lea Benjamin wrote one. William Campbell’s book “Behavior Problems in Dogs” includes a puppy temperament test. Wendy Volhard developed one of the best-known tests.
Other puppy tests have been devised by all sorts of organizations and individuals in attempts to choose the right dogs for their needs. Each trainer will have a different personality, different physical abilities, and will often be teaching the dog different tasks using different training methods. With experience, each program and each trainer learn to narrow the criteria of testing to come closer and closer to the ideal dogs for their work.
To pick the test that best fits your needs, study as many as you can find, in books, online, at seminars, from your puppy’s breeder, from rescue and shelter workers, from experts in the work you want to do with your dog, and anywhere else you can-BEFORE you choose a puppy! Here are some of the elements you are likely to find on a puppy temperament test:
Who Gives the Test?
Your best bet when getting a puppy is to deal with someone who thoroughly knows the genetics of the litter and is an expert in that breed. Such a person will be happy to arrange puppy testing because it enhances her own knowledge of the litter. You will want the benefit of all possible information from the testing she routinely does.
Most of us are well served by letting this knowledgeable person choose the pup for us-making sure, of course, to be completely honest with her so she can best know what kind of pup will make a good match. It’s highly possible she will choose a different pup for you than you would choose for yourself, and that her choice for you will be better. She will also have the advantage of observing the puppies in other settings, probably for many hours. She brings a real depth of familiarity with those puppies to the task of choosing the best one to join your family.
If you have a specific job in mind for your dog, talk to experts in that work and find out what puppy tests they consider applicable and what responses they like to see to those tests for their working purposes. Find out the rationale behind their methods-you want to understand as much as possible prior to any testing. A video of your prospective pup and littermates being tested will allow you to study the test over and over, and to get the opinions of experts about the pup you are considering.
If you need to give the test yourself, do your homework FIRST! The puppy will be different the second time you test, the third time, the fourth time-every time is a learning experience for the puppy that will change the response the next time. Any interaction you have with the puppy prior to the test will also have an effect, especially if you have spent more time with one puppy than with the others.
Puppy temperament testing is a task you may have better success getting an expert to do for you than other favors. Follow all wishes of the puppy owner as to infection control procedures, which include not going from one kennel to another in the same day. Puppy immune systems are immature, and you certainly don’t want to make them sick.
Does It Work?
Experts disagree about the accuracy of puppy temperament testing. Breeds vary greatly, and so do the reasons we test the pups. Different people train differently-and often do not realize just how differently.
The meaning of a puppy’s responses to a test is open to wide interpretation. This is certainly part of the art and skill that an experienced tester brings to the task. Having tested puppies and then known those puppies as adult dogs will help refine a person’s ability to see a response on a puppy test and look to what that response is likely to mean in the adult that this baby dog will become.
So, does puppy temperament testing work? Sometimes it works very well. Most of the time it probably helps at least some, if the person who trains the dog makes good use of the knowledge to shape the temperament in the desired direction.
Provided the puppy is always treated well in the process of testing, it’s certainly worthwhile to do it. The people have fun, the puppy learns, and human knowledge of dogs moves forward.
Kathy Diamond Davis is the author of the book Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others
Copyright 2005 – 2010 by Kathy Diamond Davis. Used with permission. All rights reserved.