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6 Ways to Test Your Dog's Personality

Online and offline tools are offering fresh insights into our dogs.

Key points

  • Online and offline tests can help us understand a dog’s personality and style.
  • A test called Behaviour and Personality Assessment in Dogs (BPH) may hold promise in a variety of applications.
  • A dog's genetic heritage can help explain behavior mysteries and innate preferences.

Grey, a 5-month-old Border Collie puppy is about to meet sheep for the first time.

“If he goes out there and just shows a bit of enthusiasm and keenness, that’s good,” his handler, Emma, says on the BBC’s documentary show, Farm Life. There are no guarantees, though. Emma says that in the past, there were times when she brought a “well-bred youngster to see sheep for the first time and they’ve literally picked up a piece of sheep’s poo and eaten it and walked off.” Hopefully, Grey will do better.

The pup catches sight of the sheep for the first time and drops his head between his shoulders. He begins stalking.

“Oh, that’s nice,” says Emma.

She unleashes him and he dashes at the sheep.

“Come by, come by,” instructs Emma, while Grey runs in tandem with a more seasoned dog.

“It’s like a window into what the dog’s thinking,” says an enthused observer. “With him keeping his tail down, it means he’s actually concentrating and he’s not just being daft and excited. That’s beautiful for a pup, that’s incredible.”

Thanks to his simple 15-minute test, Grey is headed for a promising career on a farm.

susanne906 / Pixabay
Source: susanne906 / Pixabay

While most of us today don’t need a dog to manage sheep, we can learn more about our canine companions' capabilities and style.

Six types of test can help us understand a dog’s personality across dimensions like temperament, aptitudes, skills, problem-solving, reactions to stress, and more.

1) Test to Predict Sociability and Aggression

Did your dog come from an animal shelter? If so, chances are he or she has already undergone this kind of personality testing.

Animal shelters around the world routinely assess how likely a dog is to bite or behave aggressively. While none of these tests is 100 percent reliable and the process itself may stress the animals, testing is intended to reduce risk to the community. These tests help shelter personnel to interact more safely with unknown dogs and to counsel prospective pet adopters for better outcomes.

One example is the Assess-a-Pet protocol (AAP) developed by canine behavior and shelter dog specialist Sue Sternberg, who explains that the goal isn’t to penalize dogs. “Shelter dogs have experienced a period of frustration, arousal, over-stimulation, deprivation, and stress.... the responses you are looking for do not necessarily look like what you expect from an owned dog already settled in a home.”

2) Test of Polite Manners

Is your dog an unflappable diplomat who always behaves politely?

The American Kennel Club has identified 10 skills that help ensure a dog—whether purebred or mixed breed—is well equipped to navigate human society.

Among the skills they like to see are the ability to come when called, to accept handling and grooming from a friendly stranger, to walk nicely on leash in a crowd, and to remain indifferent when walking by other dogs. A mastery of these and other skills suggests that your dog pal will be welcome in the show ring or a family home and has potential to train for therapy services.

You can test your dog’s mastery of the 10 recommended skills through AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program, which is conducted in-person using COVID best practices, or through the organization’s new Virtual Home Manners (VHM) program, offered online. Whether in person or online, an AKC-approved evaluator observes you and your furry pal to assess performance and provide feedback.

See an example of CGC test preparation in action here.

3) Test for Problem Solving

How does your furry friend prefer to solve problems? Discover the answer using an online tool called Dognition.

Originally developed by Brian Hare, director and founder of the Duke University Canine Cognition Center, as a citizen science data collection project, the program is now available online for a subscription fee. You and your dog are guided through a series of game-based tests designed to reveal your dog’s “genius” profile.

Is he or she a collaborative problem solver or an independent thinker? A social butterfly or a brainiac? This is your chance to confirm you have a “socialite,” “renaissance dog,” or “Einstein” on your hands.

See how it works by taking this sample test.

4) Test of Bonding Style

Do you live with a “velcro” dog? Or—at the other end of the scale—a dog who remains aloof?

The nature of a dog’s emotional “attachment” style can be assessed with help from a test originally designed for young children and their parents. Known as Ainsworth’s Strange Situation, this test requires an accomplice unknown to the dog.

In it, your dog’s reaction to the stranger under various conditions is noted, as is the dog’s reaction when you return. Results of strange situation testing remain open to interpretation, but securely attached, well-adjusted dogs are typically interested and curious about new experiences yet also return to their humans for comfort.

Attachment testing for dogs is generally considered a research tool, as described here.

5) Test of Behavior

How would you describe your dog? Fearful? Bold? Clingy? Restless?

The Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ) asks us to detail our dog’s behavior in a standardized way that’s useful to veterinarians and researchers. Since being developed by James Serpell and Yuying Hsu at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003, C-BARQ has been validated, used in hundreds of studies, and completed by tens of thousands of people.

Data collected by C-BARQ helps us better understand dog behavior and identify a dog’s special skills and aptitudes. For example, compared to ordinary pets, search and rescue dogs score lower on aggression toward strangers and dogs, plus higher on factors such as energy, confidence, and trainability. Variations of C-BARQ are used with puppies, to help identify strong candidates for service dogs.

A study published this year in Applied Animal Behaviour Science suggests a test called Behavior and Personality Assessment in Dogs (BPH), may hold promise in a variety of applications. Swedish researcher Kenth Svartberg validated the BPH based on data from 12,117 dogs, finding validity in constructs related to sociability, playfulness, and other factors.

6) Test of Heritage

Ever wonder who your dog is, deep down, on a biological basis?

For a few hundred dollars, you can satisfy your curiosity about a beloved dog’s unique heritage. Genetic testing has become widely available through at-home saliva test kits and DNA test panels. The AKC has introductory information for those considering this route.

For quicker, more general insights into your dog's heritage, The Dog Key is a free interactive test developed by canine behavior consultant and applied ethologist Kim Brophey. Click on the shape of your dog’s body, head, and ears and within a minute, you’ll get highlights of your dog’s personality based on breed group. This tool describes breed-related behaviors and what that suggests about your furry friend's strengths and challenges.

The benefit of genetic heritage testing—beyond satisfying our curiosity—is that it can equip us to care for dogs as individuals. Genetics, for example, may help reveal breed-related illness. Genetics can also illuminate the roots of behavior mysteries. By recognizing hard-wired behaviors, we can offer our dogs appropriate outlets for their natural drives.

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