Puppy Temperament Tests: Guide to Understanding Puppy Testing
Many breeders and shelter workers swear by puppy temperament tests–or they swear AT them! Learn what puppy temperament tests offer, and how best you can use them to find the pup of your dreams. If a new puppy figures in your 2022 plans, take a look at what you need to know about puppy temperament tests.
What Are Puppy Temperament Tests?
When 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.
ARE PUPPY TEMPERAMENT TESTS VALID?
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 are 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. Even the development stages of pups can change the outcome.
When Are Puppy Temperament Tests Conducted?
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. They may develop separation anxiety, for instance.
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.
How-To Guide for Puppy Temperament Tests
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?
Common Puppy Temperament Tests
Tests such as the AKC Canine Good Citizenship Test, STAR Puppy Program, the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test (PAT), 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. As of August 2019, the American Kennel Club also authorized its own AKC Temperament Test. 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 we might then add specific tests 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.
Shelter Puppy Temperament Tests
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.
VALIDATING PUPPY TEMPERAMENT 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:
- Couldn’t care less when owners left or came back perhaps indicating a tendency toward more independent, willful behavior or improper bonding
- Superneedy who whined and ignored toys when owners left and clung to owners when present, suggesting overattachment predictive of future separation anxiety
- 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.
Should You Perform Puppy Temperament Tests?
So 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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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!
thanks – I have been going to the Volhard’s training camp for years!
you left out the puppy temperament test developed by Jack and Wendy Volhard
I’m very familiar with the Volhard aptitude test, and many people use it. It’s a combination of many of the tests already mentioned, but I did go ahead and add it to the post. Thanks.
We just got a 10 week old French Bulldog last week. she is usually super sweet but there are times she becomes very aggressive. Snarling, growling and today snapped at me. I am not talking about play aggression, I am an experienced dog owner, but not with Frenchies. Do you think this is something to worry about? Is it too late for temperament testing?
Hi Mary, Congrats on your new puppy! You might ask the breeder about this behavior to see if it’s something he/she has seen in the other pups or parents. A temperament test might be helpful but as mentioned in the post, the results can change as the puppy matures. I think it would be more useful for you, as an experienced dog person, to keep track of the episodes (time of day, etc.) to see if you can identify the trigger. Does it happen near food dishes or other important doggy real estate? Maybe it occurs when other pets are near, or strangers in the house, or a certain sound outside? Good luck!
Hey I’ve got a question. I just got a puppy a few days ago. She’s just 6 weeks. She’s really smart about going to the bathroom on her pad. We’ve only had one accident. But she whines a lot and if she a lone she doesn’t stop whining. She a chug. Or chihuahua pug mix. How can I help her to become comfortable being alone some.
Hi Mary, congratulations on the new puppy! At 6 weeks, she’s still a baby and wants and needs comfort. There’s a product called Comfort Zone with D.A.P. (dog appeasing pheromone) that can help soothe these babies. It mimics the scent the mom-dog produces that tells the puppies, “no fear, all is well.” You can find it at pet product companies, and it comes as a collar, a spray, or a plug-in.
Thank you for asking readers to be a bit skeptical when it comes to temperament tests. There are so many outside factors than can completely effect the outcome, it’s very hard to imagine that these tests are very reliable. We change the outcome simply by observing it, it is said, and I can’t help believe that to be true.
A lot of these studies don’t sound very scientific, either. The one cited in which dogs labeled “dominant, willful” were put into two groups, one “control” group of dogs who were placed in homes with no mention of the test’s results and one group whose new families were informed of the outcome and told that the dogs would be problem dogs without effort being made to train them doesn’t really test whether or not temperament tests work, but rather whether giving new guardians a strong push toward proper dog training skills and an atmosphere of regular skill building results in a more balanced and better-behaved dog. Which of course, it does. Perhaps the test could be improved by making sure all the dogs receive the same training and encouragement, but one family is told that they have a dog whose test results indicate that he is a “problem dog” while the other is told they have a dog who tested as a “smart, reliable dog” then see how it goes…but I still think there are too many uncontrollable factors at work to be able to tell if the test had any usefulness in predicting a dog’s behavior in the long term. Every home is so different, every guardian is so different, then there’s the issue of what training methods each home chooses. Even if they all took the same training class with the same leading trainer, I know from experience that every guardian takes home something different when it comes down to their actual execution of daily training. Some are lazier, some are more conscientious, some are more skilled at training while others just have a hard time communicating with their dog. Some students are more likely to make training fun for their dog while others, despite everything the trainer tries to teach them, are impatient and want a quick fix, turning to things like choke chains and other aversion-based methods than can encourage fear aggression.
Sorry to have rambled on so. Temperament tests, in my opinion, are a far to simplistic to be useful. Who among us would like to be labeled for the rest of our lives based on spending 15 minutes (or less) with a total stranger? Considering these encounters are a life-or-death matter for thousands of dogs every year, I think the whole concept is potentially dangerous and a bit too much like a eugenics experiment for my taste.
Thanks for addressing this topic. I always enjoy your posts. (and books, and articles, etc. :))
Thanks for the great reply and addition to the discussion! I love this thoughtful response, and it adds a lot to the conversation. There is no crystal ball way to predict anything, no matter how much we wish it to be so. *s*
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.