Understanding Puppy Temperament Testing

FearChihuahua_1541404_originalWhen Magic was a baby, his breeder conducted a series of puppy temperament tests to better predict his future personality. Many professional breeders do this best match each pup to future owners. We won that lottery, in part because Magic was an opinionated, head-strong, smart-aleck pup with test indications predicting he’d make a great Schutzhund dog. Because we’d had a German Shepherd in the past, and my background in behavior, the breeder figured we’d know how to channel that drive. Even so, Magic still nearly drove us crazy when the normal delinquent behavior began! That’s when many dogs lose their homes.

Inappropriate expectations by prospective pet owners are a major risk factor for relinquishment. Owners fall in love with a barking bundle of joy, or a needy shivery stray. They dream of the Lassie-beneath-the-fur, but end up with a headstrong aggressive delinquent, or a clingy anxious pooch that eats through doors. That’s where temperament tests can help, not just for professional breeders, but also shelters and rescues.

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WHAT ARE PUPPY TEMPERAMENT TESTS?

Temperament testing strives to be a canine crystal ball to identify personality tendencies and predict potential problems. They measure different aspects of temperament such as stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness, and the pup or dog fails if he exhibits unprovoked aggression, panic without recovery, or strong avoidance. Once tested, puppies or shelter dogs can be better matched with owners. Better matches save dog lives and preserve loving relationships.

No test is entirely predictive of behavior in the new home because there are so many variables involved. Personality and temperament aren’t cast in stone at birth. Nature and nurture work together, making predictive tests even more difficult to measure. Early experience, socialization, development and the consequences of learning will all have an impact on behavior.

Temperament tests are typically conducted on puppies between seven and ten weeks of age. But a number of behaviors of personality might not emerge until the puppy matures. For example, a pup born with a slightly anxious temperament develops fearfulness shaped by the environment and experience. This suggests that testing for behaviors such as dominance, activity levels in novel situations and fearfulness might therefore have greater predictability after three months of age. The later the test, the more likely you are to get an accurate reading. Of course, by that time the puppy often is already re-homed.

Shelter dogs or others that repeatedly exhibit aggression when touched or approached in a nonthreatening manner, aggression to other dogs, possessive aggression and fearfulness on the screening tests, are at risk for continuation or re-emergence of these problems in the new home. Testing in a shelter environment adds stress that also skews the results, depending on how long the dog has been in the shelter, age and health of the dog, and more. There may be risks involved to those conducting tests, too, when the dog being tested lashes out–but designing tests that are safe for the tester may skew results as well.

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HOW TO TEMPERAMENT TEST DOGS

Here are some of the typical tests conducted on the 7-10 week old puppy:

  • Cradle pup on his back like a baby, place a hand gently on his chest and look directly in his eyes. Pups that accept this handling are considered biddable, while those that resist are more likely to be independent-minded.
  • Hold pup suspended under her armpits with hind legs dangling, while looking directly in eyes. Again, those pups that submit are said to have a low score for willfulness, while those that struggle may want to do things their own way.
  • Drop keys or tin pan to test him for noise sensitivity.
  • See how pup reacts to a stranger entering the room–or to being left alone in the room. Does she run and greet, or cower and cry?

Tests such as the AKC Canine Good Citizenship Test, STAR Puppy Program and American Temperament Test Society are often used to assess temperament of family pets. These often are adult dogs in which the character has already formed. Such evaluations might include:

  • Accepting a friendly stranger’s petting
  • Walking on a loose lead including through a crowd
  • Basic obedience–sit, down, stay, come when called.
  • Reaction to another dog
  • Reaction to distraction such as dropped chair or jogger running past

More specific tests might then be added to assess a dog’s suitability as a therapy dog, such as how he reacts to wheelchairs, people with canes, or unexpected body postures and movements.

Shelters often use behavior assessments to determine whether a dog can be re-homed. Failure can mean death to the dog. Although emerging evidence supports the premise that shelter dog assessment tests have some predictive value, many of these tests have not been adequately validated.

The ASPCA uses the SAFER assessment program developed by Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Dr. Emily Weiss, along with the Meet Your Match adoption programs. Mary Burch, Ph.D., a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, evaluated existing behavior assessment protocols and helped create the ADOPT shelter protocol–Assess Dogs on Practical Tasks. Such behavior assessments often rate such things as:

  • In-kennel and approach behaviors
  • Leash/collar and on-leash behaviors
  • Reactions to petting, handling, play and distractions
  • Reaction to other animals (e.g., dogs, cats)
  • Guarding of food or possessions

Some tests for aggression involve provocation–for instance, using a stuffed boxing glove or Assess-A-Hand (Sternberg protocol) to determine if the dog might bite. A child-like doll or Assess-a-hand may not accurately predict the dog’s response to the human hand or to children, but is safer for the staff during testing. In other words, dogs may willingly attack a fake hand or doll because they know it’s fake–but refrain from biting a real child or human hand.

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VALIDATING PUPPY TESTS

Several years ago, child psychologist Margaret Shunick conducted two studies on temperament tests that did validate certain predictive generalities. In the first investigation, she chose a group of puppies that tests indicated would be bossy, willful adults. Half of these pups were given to new owners who were offered no comment or instruction about their personality. The owners given the remaining pups also received advice to teach them to behave with respect by requiring the pups to work for rewards such as sitting for a treat or a meal. The first group of owners given no instructions ended up with pushy, dominant-aggressive dogs. The second group developed into nonaggressive, respectful dogs.

Shunick conducted another temperament test project in conjunction with acquiring her master’s degree at the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy. She used the “Strange Situation” test originally for assessing temperaments of small children, and applied it to puppies. Children and their mothers–in this case puppies and their owners–are placed in a room with new toys. Shunick recorded puppy reaction when owners left the room, and found the pups fell into three broad categories:

  1. Couldn’t care less when owners left or came back perhaps indicating a tendency toward more independent, willful behavior or improper bonding
  2. Superneedy who whined and ignored toys when owners left and clung to owners when present, suggesting overattachment predictive of future separation anxiety
  3. Middle of the road paid attention to owners’ coming and goings, but not traumatized and enjoyed toys, suggesting a healthy attachment and easygoing personality without need of either firmness or coddling.

This work implies there is a way of singling out more pushy puppies, and those that probably would go on and develop separation anxiety. Even when you accurately predict the predisposition for separation anxiety, once in the new home the separation anxiety may fade away–or get worse. That has to do with the OWNER’S temperament.

NEW-PUPPY-COVER-lorezSo even if you know what the dog’s doing, how can you predict the way that the owner’s going to be able to respond? Should this “driven” puppy be matched with a tough owner, or a kind owner? What about the shy pup? And how do you test the people to make sure? Predicting puppy temperament is only half of the equation, and the human half has life-and-death power over the partnership.

Temperament testing is effective to pick up the main tendencies of a dog especially if they’re extreme. But this also depends on whether people are testing properly. These tests can be abused, or misinterpreted, so the results can be wrong. In the final analysis, temperament testing is only as good as the tester.

Learn more about choosing and raising your perfect furry wonder in the book COMPLETE PUPPY CARE!

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Understanding Puppy Temperament Testing — 2 Comments

  1. I found this article even more fascinating since Baron just passed his AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy testing. He is changing everyday and it can be fun to see how he will act from day to day. But I gotta ask. What is a Schutzhund? It’s obviously a german word and my very limited vocab of German tells me that “hund” is hound. But the rest?

    • Oh, sorry…yes Schutzhund means “protection dog” and is a type of training developed in Germany to “test” the working ability of German Shepherds. To this day, the only GSD allowed to be bred and registered in Germany must have first passed this test. Any dog (even mixed breeds) can be trained and compete in Schutzhund trials but the most common breeds are GSD and other protection-type breeds. Today this specialize training is often used for training K-9 police dogs (there are three levels of training), and it encompasses not only protection work but also obedience and tracking. Before being allowed to compete in the first level, dogs must also pass a temperament test. Dogs that do well in Schutzhund typically are free-thinkers able to know when to disobey, high drive dogs that love/must have a job, and loyal, among other things.

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