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Like many people who are concerned about selecting the best puppy 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 my process of choosing, I always give the puppies some form of personality
or temperament test. The characteristics that I test for are sociability and a lack of fearfulness. I test the puppies at around seven weeks of age. 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. Because of his suggestion, I always throw in a test of a dog's willingness to retrieve.
A couple of years ago when I was getting my current Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley, I tested his litter. There were two males who attracted me and seemed relatively equivalent. However one of the pups actually chased a thrown item, picked it up, and brought it part way back to me and this tipped the scales in his favor. Now, some two years later, I am not so impressed about the validity of the retrieving test since I have been spending many hours trying to teach this same dog basic retrieving for obedience trials with remarkably little success.
There have been many questions that have been raised about the validity of puppy temperament testing and its ability (or inability) to predict adult behavior. A recent 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 University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, provides additional information about puppy testing. The team was led by Stefanie Riemer. As is typical of the research coming out of that institute, the test subjects were Border Collies — after all it is the Clever Dog Lab (click here for why). 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 1 ½ to 2 years 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 puppy 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 to me 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), 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 virtually a washout when it came to predicting adult behavior from tests administered when a puppy is 40 to 50 days of age. This clearly explains why my dog's retrieving behavior as a puppy was not an accurate forecast that he would avidly retrieve when he was an adult.
This whole discussion of testing puppies reminds me of a friend who has had a number of dogs with good stable temperaments. Many of her dogs have gone on to do quite well in obedience competitions. I once asked her, “How do you usually test the personality of the puppies that you are thinking about getting?”
She smiled and explained to me, “I lift each puppy up, hold his or her face near me and look the pup in the eye. The first puppy that doesn’t act fearful or annoyed, and licks my face is usually the one that I go home with.”
I suspect that the good temperaments of her dogs has had more to do with how she rears and trains them once she has taken them home rather than with the accuracy of her testing procedures (click here for more on rearing effects). On the other hand, it is rather pleasant looking closely into the face of a puppy. Who knows, at least according to this recent research, it might work as well as some of the other tests of canine temperament currently in use.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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* Riemer S, Müller C, Virányi Z, Huber L, Range F (2014) The Predictive Value of Early Behavioural Assessments in Pet Dogs – A Longitudinal Study from Neonates to Adults. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101237. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101237