Puppy Temperament Testing; Does it Really Benefit You?
While puppy temperament testing can provide some insight into a puppy’s personality, there are serious limitations on the temperament test’s ability to predict how a dog will behave when it reaches adulthood.
Far and away, the most important factor in an adult dog’s behavior is the training and socialization they receive throughout their life. Any pup can be trained, regardless of how they perform on a temperament test.
There are two very distinctive camps when it comes to puppy temperament testing: the PRO side who are very adamant about the positive results of puppy aptitude tests, and the ANTI side who don’t believe that puppy temperament tests are valid for assessing what the dog will be like when he is older.
I suppose that I am somewhere in between these two camps. I have certainly temperament tested puppies that I have adopted and taken into training, hoping to get a glimpse into what the dog will be like one day. And, I have had and seen puppy temperament tests that have proven absolutely no validity later in life.
It is also important to note that it is much easier to choose a puppy and temperament test puppies from known breeds or purebred puppies, simply because it gives you more solid information. That is not to say that mixed breed puppies in the shelter cannot give you some information, it just means that the information is less. A short story versus a novel, if you will.
Figure out what dog temperament is ideal for your circumstances. If you want a dog with a known temperament or specific qualities, then it is best to adopt or purchase an adult dog. Adult dogs have developed their temperaments and behaviors. Puppies, like children, are constantly developing who they want to be when they grow up and are ever-changing.
A confident puppy can develop into a nervous adult, or vice versa.
A social puppy can even develop into an antisocial adult, despite socialization. But a social adult will mostly likely remain a social adult and an anti-social adult will likely remain antisocial or at least standoffish and aloof.
You just can’t change inherent temperament. Having worked for many Service Dog organizations and started and run my own for years, I have seen hundreds of temperament tests on both adults and puppies.
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You have to take into account what matters, and the breed, prior to any kind of temperament assessment. A German Shepherd Dog is going to test differently and have different adult aspirations than a Miniature Poodle, or a Golden Retriever. Likewise, you can’t expect a Miniature Poodle to herd sheep or a Golden Retriever to protect the home or be successful in police bite work.
So, first things first; figure out which breed or mixture is best for you and assess why you want that dog as an adult. For instance, if you have children of all ages, a very busy home full of people coming and going, and you need a dog that is super friendly and accepting of all these happenings, then you don’t want to consider a Malinois or a Fila Brasleiro. If you want a quiet dog you won’t want to look too long or hard at Great Pyrenees or Shetland Sheep Dogs.
Don’t think that you will have the only Shetland Sheepdog in an apartment situation that won’t bark when he hears the neighbors coming and going! Most individuals stick somewhere close to their breed standard for conformation and behavior.
Parents and genetics matter more (in my opinion) than anything else. Assess the parents if you want a pup to act and react in a certain way. If two aggressive Golden Retrievers (which is fairly rare) have puppies, then chances are very high that they are going to have some aggressive puppies.
Some would say this is pure genetics and others would say it is a combination of some genetics and learned behavior from the mother and I suppose it can be both. This is also another reason it is so important to get puppies from a well socialized, non-fearful mother so that the puppies aren’t imprinted with fearful behaviors from the start. I am a big believe in nature over nurture.
Nurture is important, but nature is a genetic component that is nearly impossible to change. This has been proven with years of successful breeding programs with Guide Dogs, Service Dogs and Police Dogs. The behaviors, qualities and temperaments of certain dogs are bred to like dogs to develop stronger puppies with all of the good qualities.
It isn’t easy, and it doesn’t always work without flaw, but it is more successful than breeding dogs willy-nilly.
The Validity of Testing
Much like many people who are concerned about selecting the best pup to fit their needs, I visit the breeder and spend time with all of the pups in the litter before making my selection. As part of the process of choosing, one can always give the puppies some form of personality or temperament test. The characteristics that are common to test for are sociability and a lack of fearfulness.
Six to eight weeks of age seems to be the ideal testing period for dogs. This is a typical age of testing for people who are also trying to select the working dogs for specific purposes. Obviously, the earlier that dogs with appropriate temperaments can be selected for certain service jobs, the better things will go in the long run.
Fewer man-hours will be wasted and less money will need to be spent training dogs that will ultimately prove not to be capable of doing the required work. For this reason, many attempts have been made to design tests that can validly measure the personality of puppies.
For example, Clarence Pfaffenberger, one of the most important figures in the development of training and selection programs for guide dogs for blind people, used a variety of tests to select dogs for this task. He claimed that a young puppy’s willingness to retrieve playfully thrown objects was the best single indicator of whether it would grow up to be a good working dog and used this as one of the criteria in selecting guide dogs. However, studies have shown that dogs don’t necessarily keep to this rule.
There have been many questions that have been raised about the validity of pup temperament testing and its ability (or inability) to predict adult behavior. A study published in the journal PLoS ONE* by a team of researchers from the Clever Dog Lab at the Messerli Research Institute, which is part of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, provides additional information about puppy testing. The team was led by Stefanie Riemer. The team tested dogs at three stages of life, very young or neonatal (2 to 10 days of age), puppies (40 to 50 days), and adults 18 to 24 months of age. The tests were modified and selected to be appropriate to the age of the dogs being tested.
When I first encountered this research report, I had little hope that the neonatal tests would be of any predictive value since the researchers made some major extrapolations in interpreting the meaning of test results at this stage of life.
For example, the idea that the force with which the puppy sucks at a finger would be a prediction of later playfulness and motivation, or that the sounds made by these newborn dogs would predict how much a 7-week-old pup would struggle when it was restrained and how much an adult dog would bark or growl during a simulated approach of a threatening person seemed to be quite an interpretive stretch to me.
Since their data showed that these neonatal tests proved to have virtually no ability to predict later behavior, we can just drop them from further discussion here.
Of much more interest was the relationship between the puppy tests at age 6 to 7 weeks and whether they predicted the behavior of the adult dogs. There were a broad range of tests and measures taken. We can roughly group them as tests of sociability (for example whether the dog approaches a stranger and greets them and so forth), prey drive, exploratory behavior (whether the dog moves around and investigates the new environment), responses to novel situations (such as when presented with a strange mechanical toy and moves erratically around the room), or responses to threats such as being stared at or approached in a threatening crouch, and some other items as well.
Although the statistical analyses of the data from the 50 dogs tested as puppies and adults was quite sophisticated, in the end the results showed that the tests had little predictive ability. The only thing that comes out of this is the observation that the puppies that engage in a lot of exploratory behavior turned into the adults who explored their environment a lot. Sociability, fearfulness, irritability and all of the other tests were mixed when it came to predicting adult behavior like prey drive from tests administered when a pup is 40 to 50 days of age.
As you can see, the tests do have limitations. However, this does not mean that they are wholly inaccurate. It seems to usually be effective to look at the puppy’s parents and its breed standard in addition to any sort of temperament testing when predicting what type of a dog it will become. Of course, the best way to select a dog with the right type of personality is to adopt one that is already an adult with the personality that you desire.
How to Pick a Puppy
So, you are hell bent on a puppy! You don’t want to go with the known temperament and behavior of an adult. You desire to start with a pup. Again, research your breed of choice and make sure you and your family are up for the tasks and challenges that the breed possesses. Make sure that you know the right dog temperament for you. Spending time fostering adult dogs or even puppies for a breed rescue is a great place to start.
But, there are some general rules I have learned over the years.
Don’t Pick the Most Dominant Puppy
Everyone tells you to pick the most dominant and outgoing puppy in the litter. “Choose the pup that struts through and parts the members of the litter with his attitude.” Chances are this is going to be a difficult puppy, even if you have chosen an easy breed.
The dominant pup is used to getting his way and using his teeth and behavior to get what he wants. Most people, especially with children, don’t want to have to try and knock this puppy attitude down a few pegs and teach the puppy he can’t get everything he wants in life by throwing his teeth and his weight around. Leave this pup for a very, very experienced owner.
Don’t Pick the Scared Puppy
On the opposite end of the spectrum are people who are drawn to the smallest, runt of the litter. The puppy that is cowering in the corner afraid of visitors and looks like he needs a hug. Training this puppy will also be a project.
Chances are he will need immense and patient socialization and he may still have some fear issues as he ages. Although your heart may break for this puppy, do you really want to invest 10-20 years living with a fearful dog?
Find a Confident Puppy
I look for confidence. I don’t want the dominant bully. I want the puppy that is happily socializing with his litter but also is interested in my arrival.
A puppy that is hiding may not be interested in human affection. A puppy that is busy dominating his littermates and playing by himself may look confident, but I also want a dog that is social and wants to spend time with me and other humans. That human/social connection is the most important thing to me when selecting a puppy.
You’ve Heard It Before
You have heard it before, “Pick the puppy that picks you”.
This is good advice, because the puppy that picks a human is usually a social pup and social skills are important tools for life with people. Not all dogs want to be with people.
Some dogs are fiercely independent. Other dogs choose the company of other dogs in the family or other animals. I, personally, want a dog that wants to be with ME; not my other dogs, not my cats, but ME!
More on Confidence
Separate the puppy you are interested in from his/her litter. Take him to another room or take him to a place that he has never been before. How does he act?
Does he panic? Is he confident and without a care in the world? I want a confident dog that remains social with me.
I don’t want a dog that panics or howls or completely shuts down when he is on his own with me.
Test Him Further
I also like to get an idea of how he will deal with stress, not crazy stress, but things he may not know. I like to shake bottles or make noises and see how the puppy reacts. Startling at the sound of a noise is okay, but is he capable of then investigating the noise?
Or does the puppy shut down completely when he hears something unfamiliar?
I also like testing my new puppy’s footing by getting him to walk across slick floors, up and down stairs, and across a noisy and strange tarp.
Again, I want a dog that will take everything in stride. I don’t want a dog that is going to run for the hills if a tarp blows in front of him on a walk in the neighborhood.
I want a dog that isn’t bothered by anything in his environment and if he is taken aback is quick to recover.
In my opinion, sociability and confidence (of course health) are the most important thing to me when I am looking for a puppy. Everyone is different, but know what you want in a puppy and what scenarios your life will be full of and try to test for that.
The Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test
Choose one puppy to evaluate further. The following come directly from the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test, one of the most renowned and accredited puppy temperament tests.
Watch how the puppies interact with you. Which ones come up to you immediately? Which pups are curious, but may not be the first to jump on you? Which ones are more interested in doing something other than coming to you? Observe the tails: are they up or down?
Slowly walk away from the puppies. Which ones follow you? Do they follow with tails up or down?
Roll each puppy over on his back and gently hold for 30 seconds. Do they struggle fiercely, struggle a little and then relax, or not struggle at all?
Crouch on the floor and gently stroke him from head to tail. Let the puppy sit or lie down while you gently stroke his back as you crouch down.
Does the puppy jump up at you, bite, or growl, cuddle, roll over, or move away? It is believed that excessive barking and growling from a puppy could mean either aggressive behavior or being playfully social. See if he or she licks your face.
Pick up each puppy and hold him or her above your head for 30 seconds.
Does the puppy struggle fiercely, or does he struggle but maintain a relaxed body? Perhaps he does not struggle at all but holds onto a rigid body stance.
Crumple up a piece of paper or use a puppy toy if available. Throw it out in front of you no more than 4 feet and observe what the puppy does.
Pinch the soft webbing on one of the puppy’s front paws, gradually increasing pressure until the puppy shows sign of discomfort. Does the puppy show discomfort immediately or does it take a while before the puppy reacts in pain?
Clap or bang an object loudly and observe the puppy’s response to the loud noises. Does the puppy listen, try to locate the sound then bark and run towards it?
Alternatively, does the puppy just listen and try to figure where the sound is originating? Some puppies will hide or show no curiosity at all.
Is the puppy afraid of loud noises?
Use a toy or rag and move it around the puppy quickly. Does the puppy run towards it and bite at it? He may try to put his foot on it to stop the motion.
Some pups will look with curiosity with either tail up or down, but not respond and others will run away and hide.
Open an umbrella and place it on the ground. See what the puppy does.
When I was training Service Dogs for people with disabilities; I took adult dogs from shelters because the temperament that I saw and tested was the same. Puppies go through a kind of puberty just like kids and their personalities and temperaments can do some changing, especially if you are unsure of their background and breed.
And, it is also important to note that some breeders do a great job of socializing their puppies to crazy environmental stressors and things.
I know many breeders who set up obstacle courses full of tarps, ball pits, shake cans, unsure footing and just about anything you can imagine. THESE are the breeders that I seek out if I am looking for a purebred puppy. I like a pup that already has a leg up in life.
I even know breeders whose dogs compete in dock diving who are careful and adamant about getting the puppies into water and happily swimming and lightly diving into water. The truth is you can find just about anything you are looking for if you do the research. Find the best breeders if you are resolute about a purebred dog.
Or do the best you can if you are working with a shelter puppy. Always test their confidence and sociability! Everything else is in your hands to carefully socialize them to as they age!
There are a variety of tests out there! Most of the tests can give clues as to how the puppy will react now, and it may just so happen to be key in deciphering your pup’s tendencies in the future. Of course, the true issue with the accuracy of a puppy aptitude test – especially when testing a young puppy – is just that; you’re testing the puppy as it is now, not as it’s future self.
Puppies are constantly learning, and they build behaviors based upon both nature and nurture. So, no matter how it is currently asking as a young child that has been barely exposed to the world, it has yet to experience all of the things that will shape its personality and reactions in the future, and it has not gone through all of the hormonal changes that occur when a dog changes from puppyhood to adulthood.
None of this is to say that personality tests don’t work. They may actually be helpful in predicting some potential personality traits that a dog may have. They simply aren’t a crystal ball. Whether or not you use puppy temperament tests, and to what extent, is up to you, but it will always be important to keep in mind that you, as a dog owner or trainer, are one of the most vital aspects in developing your puppy into the dog that you want it to become.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.