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Puppy Temperament Testing

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.

The Tests 
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:

  1. Take the puppies one at a time to an unfamiliar but comfortable setting for the test. Ideally the person handling the pups will be a stranger to them, possibly taking directions from someone who knows the test. It’s important to handle each pup exactly the same. Videotaping is a good idea, along with taking notes.
  2. Test the puppies more than once, because one test might catch some of them at an off time physically and give an inaccurate result. The puppies are jetting through critical development periods at these ages, too, and not all at the same pace.
  3. A good breeder or caretaker will have many observations on each puppy to share with you, so listen carefully and consider these with the test results.
  4. The breeder has that all-important genetic knowledge (or should have) that puts the test results into the context of what a puppy with those test results of that breed AND bloodline is likely to be like as an adult. The more you know-the more you’ll know! Testing pups of known genetics is more accurate than testing pups from unknown bloodlines. Tests on mixed breed pups leave a lot of room for error.
  5. Restraining the puppy gently with tummy up is a common test. You would want to see different responses depending on the temperament you need. As with many things in life, there is not just one “right” answer. Few handlers would be looking for the puppy who fights this restraint, but some people want the dog to struggle just a little before accepting it. They feel that shows certain working qualities. Reading the dog is important, too. The dog who just lays there might be relaxed – or frozen with fear.
  6. Another test is to lift the puppy off the ground. You’re looking for the degree and duration of resistance to being held in the air.
  7. Young puppies tend to follow, and how much the pup follows you when you walk away can indicate the degree of interest in humans.
  8. Kneeling or squatting and calling the puppy-remember to call each puppy exactly the same way-also shows the pup’s interest in humans.
  9. Touch sensitivity is sometimes tested with pressure of thumb and forefinger squeezing the webbing between two toes, counting slowly to ten as the pressure is increased. Fingernails are not used, and the pressure is stopped when the dog gives any reaction at all
  10. The tester may teach the pup a simple skill such as sitting for a treat, looking for trainability, response to praise, response to food, and other qualities.
  11. Retrieving instinct can be tested by getting down on the ground with the puppy and tossing a light, appealing item forward a few feet. You gently restrain the pup and make sure the puppy is interested in the item first, and then you toss it in a way that causes the pup to visually track it. You release the pup to run to it. You’re looking for any part of the sequence: a) run to the item, b) pick up the item, c) carry the item, d) start back to you with the item, e) carry the item part or all of the way to you, and f) deliver the item to your hand. If the puppy does bring the item to you, give it right back to the puppy to reinforce this terrific response. If the pup runs out and grabs it, you’ve got something to build on. If the puppy runs out, grabs it, and carries it, that’s outstanding, too.
  12. In a non-frightening way, pups are often tested with unusual sights, sounds, footing, and other experiences. These experiences, as well as the whole temperament evaluation, should be made enjoyable for the puppy. There is no excuse for hurting or frightening a puppy in the name of temperament testing! Puppies soak up learning like sponges, and temperament testing should contribute to a puppy’s future, never detract from it.

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.