Puppy temperament testing began many years ago to determine a puppy’s suitability for a particular sport or service. Over time it has crept into the pet dog domain. This post is going to examine the validity of such tests for choosing a pet dog. Is it a waste of time for you to puppy test? Or, will it provide you with the perfect way to determine whether a puppy is right for you and your family?
Temperament testing a puppy is about gathering a bunch of puppies together and comparing them to one another with a pre-determined set of criteria. There are a number of set exercises commonly used to test a puppy’s temperament. The recommendation is that you observe the puppy in the group, then separate them to perform the test.
Research in the area of puppy temperament testing validity is divided. Lindsay (2000), Wilsson and Sundgren (1998), Rooney et al (2003) and Jones and Gosling (2005) all found, that tests conducted on young puppies, were not valid predictors of future behaviour.
Such authors argue that too many changes in behaviour occur when puppies are only weeks old, due to learning, to be able to predict future temperament. Wilsson and Sundgren (1998) argue that the tests are far more valid when conducted later in the puppy’s development, around six months of age. “…dogs should be tested later, when their behaviour has matured and when changes per time are less….” (Wilsson and Sundgren, 1998)
However, Pfaffenberger (1963) and Martinek et al (1970, 1975) found that testing helps improve training results, as it gives a good indication of the puppy’s natural skill sets. So, at least in the dog service and sporting world, puppy testing may have the ability to predict future suitability.
One of the most popular temperament tests is the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test. The Volhard test outlines ten different areas that can be assessed to determine a puppy’s future personality. The results are measured by scoring each puppy based on their response to your actions. Some of the tests include;
Sound sensitivity: Testing a puppy’s reaction and recovery to a startling noise such as keys thrown on to the ground. Quick recovery and interest in the keys are considered a good response.
Restraint: Holding the puppy on its back for 30 seconds to test how much of a fight the puppy puts up. Struggling fiercely and biting from the puppy is considered a poor outcome.
Social dominance: Stroking a puppy from head to tail to test their acceptance of you as a leader. A puppy that sits quietly and licks you is deemed to have a forgiving nature.
I believe that if you are choosing a baby puppy simply as a pet for your family, these tests would serve no purpose.
In order for the tests to be predictive, they must be fair, or valid. This means you would need to have a sound understanding of research methods. The puppies you would be attempting to test would be influenced by many variables.
Variables such as, learning, time of day, weather conditions, hunger and previous activity level that you may not have witnessed. Such variables leave the door wide open for a puppy’s temperament being a certain way at that point in time, and completely different at another point if you were to retest.
In other words, the test will only provide you with an idea of how the puppy is at that particular point in time. All puppies jump, bite and wriggle, and testing does not seem to forgive for such typical puppy behaviour. What if you test a particular puppy one day and its scores are completely different from the same test on another day? Results can be inconsistent, misinterpreted, and confusing.
Many pet dog owners use the tests to determine which puppies are fearful and which ones are outgoing. I would argue that it would be so obvious that you would not need any tests to determine this.
For example, if a litter of puppies or an individual puppy cowers in the corner and will not approach you straight away, you can bet your savings that fear will be an issue for this puppy or bunch of puppies down the track. You do not need to use the key throw to see if a puppy is fearful- your regular visits and observations of the puppies and their environment will be enough to determine this.
Also, if you have chosen a breed you would like to keep, you have already selected a set of predetermined traits. For example, if you want a Border Collie you will, most likely, have an adult dog that learns quickly, is high energy, and has a natural tendency to herd. So why temperament test? Anything else you desire in your dog can be taught (within physical capabilities).
All too often people in search of a pet dog use temperament tests to look for traits that are not within breed standards. Ask yourself, what are you looking for in a dog? Is this a realistic expectation of the breed? Take some time to understand how dogs learn, and how to train your dog to be the way you want it to be. Such preparation will lead to a far more reliable outcome for your life with your dog than testing would.
Added to this, temperament testing can sometimes make a puppy fearful of an experience. Restraining a puppy can be stressful for them, and if done incorrectly it could cause serious trauma to the puppy. Exercises like this should be trained into puppies over time so that they will accept restraint for emergency situations.
Temperament testing can also lead people to label a dog and begin treating it based on this label rather than how it grows and develops. If a tested puppy is deemed to be ‘dominant’ it is said to require a firm and experienced handler. What if during the test the puppy was overstimulated, or scared, and tried to bite the handler? Perhaps at another time, it would not do this. You would then be training your puppy in an entirely inappropriate manner.
Pigeonholing dogs into categories is dangerous. To advertise testing as a way to predict future behaviour is a long bow to draw. Testing forgets that each puppy has the capability to learn based on the environment it is raised.
Temperament testing a litter for a pet is not an exact science. You will make a much better choice, have more fun, and end up with the kind of dog you need and want if you research the characteristics of your chosen breed, visit and interact with the litter (including your puppy’s parents) as much as possible, communicate with your wonderful breeder, and train and socialise your dog for their first three years of their life.
Diederich, C. Giffroy, J.M (2006) Behavioural Testing In Dogs: A Review of Methodology in Search For Standardisation. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97 51-72
Jones, A.C, Gosling, S.D (2005) Temperament And Personality In Dogs (Canis familiaris): a review and evaluation of past resarch. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95 1-53
Lindsay, S.R (2000) Adaptation and Learning. Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour and Training, vol 1. Blackwell Publishing
Martinek, Z. Lat,J. Sommerova,R. Hartl,K. (1975) Possibility of predicting the performance of adult guard dogs from early behaviour- II
Pfaffenberger, J.C (1963) The New Knowledge of Dog Behaviour. Howell Book House, New York
Rooney, N.J, Gaines, S.A, Bradshaw, J.W.S (2003) How Predictive Are Puppy Tests? Evidence from a puppy walking programme for military search dogs.
Wisson, E. Sundgren, P (1997) Behaviour Tests for Eight-Week Old Puppies- Heritablities of tested behaviour traits and its correcpondence to later behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 58, 151-162