Temperament Tests for Picking a Puppy
A temperament test is not a crystal ball, but it can help you gain insights into a puppy's (or dog's) personality. Keep in mind that the puppy's behavior as an adult will depend on many factors, including his life experiences and the parenting and training he receives from his pet parents (that's you!).
There are five general tests that can be performed on puppies. They will help you determine:
- Dependence versus independence
- Submissiveness versus dominance
- Prey drive
- Retrieval drive
- Sensitivity to sound
Two other tests that you can perform include:
- Gently squeezing the puppy's toes to measure if he yelps and jerks his foot back wildly, pulls his foot back calmly, or growls and tries to bite you. Of course, the preferred response is that he pulls his foot back calmly.
- You can also test food aggression by putting a small can of dog food and letting the puppy eat at it before pushing it away or picking it up (see responses below in the older puppie and dog section).
You may already know what characteristics you want in a puppy, but you need to know how to pick out those traits while looking at a litter of puppies or a lineup of dogs at a shelter.
Just remember that in new situations, dogs may act timid and submissive, but it does not necessarily mean that is their normal temperament. It just means that the dog needs more socialization. These tests are not definite, but they should give you some idea as to the general temperament of the puppy.
Dominance Vs. Independence
These tests evaluate how emotionally dependent the puppy will be on his relationship with pet parents and other members of "pack," whether that be with visitors or roommates. For example, is the puppy going to grow up a "lone ranger?" Or will he want to spend most of his time with people?
- Crouch down approximately six feet away from the puppy, clap your hands, and call the puppy in a non-threatening voice. Observe whether the puppy comes to you.
- Walk several steps away from the puppy and observe whether the puppy follows you.
- Puppies that readily follow you and come when called have a desire to be with people and are eager to please.
- Very dependent puppies are more likely than independent puppies to develop behavior problems if left alone all day.
- Very independent puppies may be more resistant to learning commands by may still have a strong aptitude for training.
- Most puppies' behavior falls somewhere between these two extremes.
Submissiveness Vs. Dominance
These tests evaluate where the puppy falls on the spectrum between submissiveness and dominance. Is the puppy naturally submissive to people, or does he want to be the leader of the pack?
Do one of the following:
- Pick up the puppy and hold him belly-up. (Be sure to support his head, torso, and legs in your arms.)
- Place the puppy on his side on the floor and hold him gently in this position for 30 seconds.
- Place your hands under the puppy's torso and lift him slightly off the floor. Hold him in this position for 30 seconds.
- Crouch beside the puppy and stroke him along the length of his body for several minutes.
Caution: Never force the puppy to flip over if he is not willing. Observe how the puppy responds to being in these positions. (Personally, I do not let a puppy up if he is resisting, as that tends to tell him that he wins and is allowed to be dominant over you.)
How much resistance does the puppy display during the test?
- A puppy that does not resist being handled in these positions will probably be very accepting of human leadership and training.
- A puppy that wiggles significantly, growls, or bites will probably grow up to be a dominant dog and will require firm, confident canine education. Highly dominant dogs are generally not appropriate for inexperienced people
These tests are designed to measure the strength of the puppy's prey drive. IE the puppy's desire to chase and catch animals.
- Observe the puppy's reaction to the presence of a cat.
- Ask someone to tie a stuffed toy to a string and run back and forth in front of the puppy, pulling the toy behind the puppy.
- Growling, whining, and straining against the leash may indicate a strong prey drive.
- Puppies with a strong prey drive may be more distracted by sights, sounds, and odors than other dogs, and therefore may have more difficulty learning to come when called. They may not be appropriate for families that have cats or other small animals as pets.
This test assesses the puppy's interest in running after an object, picking it up, and returning it to you.
- Throw a toy or crumpled up piece of paper a few feet in front of the puppy.
Does the puppy...
- Chase after the object, pick it up, and bring it back?
- Pick it up and run away?
- Ignore the object all together?
- Research suggests that puppies with a strong retrieval drive have an aptitude for training as service dogs.
- Running away with the object may indicate that the puppy is dominant.
Sensitivity to Sound
This test assesses how the puppy reacts to unexpected noises in the environment.
- Stand near the puppy while another person makes a loud noice (bang a metal spoon against another metal object or rattling a set of keys).
- Observe how the puppy reacts to the sound.
- Puppies that cringe or run away from the sound may be prone to nervousness. These puppies are probably most suitable for a quiet home environment (without younger children).
Older Puppies and Dogs
Because generally, the term puppy refers to dogs that are under six months old, you may be interested in temperament testing puppies that are a big older, if not a younger (or even older) dog.
The goal is to find a dog that is friendly and trainable without being skittish or aggressive, so you want to cross off older puppies or dogs that reacts aggressively to you or anyone during any stage of the following tests.
Remember that aggressive behavior includes staring, standing stiffly at attention, possibly with a raised slightly wagging tail, lifting or twitching the lips to show teeth, growling even if the tail is wagging, and snapping or biting. If you are unsure of a particular pup or dog, ask an experienced dog trainer to evaluate the particular dog.
In the tests below, the responses of the dog are ordered from fearful to dominant. The moderate, or preferred, response is in italics.
- When you first look at the dog, whether in a run, kennel, or if the dog is brought to you, does he back away from you? Approach you in a friendly manner, with a slightly lowered head and wagging tail? Stand stiffly at attention and watch you?
- Put the dog in a flat collar attached to a 4-foot leash and walk around the room to see if the dog will follow you. Doe he plant his feet and refuse to move? Move towards you when you call him in a friendly voice? Lunge against the leash or bark wildly?
- Stroke the dog's back. Does he flinch or cower? Wag his tail and stay close to you? Move away from your touch or ignore you?
- Ask someone to make a sudden noise, such as hitting a metal desk or chair. Does the dog cower and try to run? Startle, then look toward the noise or at you? Bark wildly or lunge at the noise?
- While petting the dog, run your hand down each leg to the foot and pick up the foot for a brief moment. Run you hands up the dog's neck to his ears and stroke them. Does he flinch and jump when you try to touch his feet or ears? Allow you to touch them without making a big fuss? Struggle or growl when you try to touch them?
- Put a small amount of canned dog food in a dish on the floor. Let the dog smell or start to eat the food, then push the dish away from him with a broom or long stick. Does the dog cower? Watch the dish move or follow it to continue eating? Growl, bark, or attack the stick?
- Take the dog for a walk outside with a flat buckle collar and short leash. Does he seem skittish or frightened? Happy and excited? Does he lunge against the leash or bark continuously? While walking the dog observe his reactions to other people, cars, and/or animals. Is he nervous? Interested but controllable? Hyperactive or threatening?
Remember that these tests are not definitive. Many times older puppies and dogs at shelters, or even at a breeder's home, may seem timid and fearful, but that does not necessarily mean that is his normal temperament. Take into account the dogs from shelters that go out on adoption day; if you were to perform some of these tests on those dogs who are in a brand new environment, you will probably get more timid responses that preferred responses, which does not necessarily mean that is the dog's normal behavior.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.