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.
Harry Steinman on February 11, 2015:
Dogs are not pack animals; they are scavenger animals. The author misuses the word, "dominance". Dominance refers to behavior aimed at attaining or retaining valuable resources. It does not refer to social standing. Otherwise, this is an acceptable primer.
noble chief on January 22, 2012:
We just brought home a border collie that just turned eight weeks old. We introduced Amigo to our neighbors. the man, almost sitting on the ground, gentle pulled the dog by his upper front legs and the dog yelped loudly and we were in a shock. The man let him go. While I tried to get the dog to come to me as I was standing near our close neighbors, I was not able to get the dog any closer to him or his wife. There were two cats standing near our neighbors one ignored the dog and the other would have been confrontational. As soon as I started for home, he followed me and didn't look back. I am curious about the dogs reaction. Also the wife is very ill. Would that be another reason for the dog to stay far away. These are very good animal care-takers.
stone soup from Ocean Shores, Washington on December 01, 2011:
This is a great article! We have eight babies, six boys and two girls; all of them have such different personalities. While finding homes your tests can really help us get a grip on which puppy should go where.
We have one with a bum front leg named Casanova. We are waiting to see how much trouble it is going to give him (they are only a week and a half old). He would make a good companion dog, he is super sweet, but not if he is higher maintenace than the person can deal with. Thank you again for this informative article!
lundmusik from Tucson AZ on August 30, 2011:
thanks for all the recommendations,, and insights,, dogs certainly can be more complicated than commonly thought....
if you like,, please tell me what you think about my puppy training advice re temperament... thx
L A Dreamin from Pennsylvania on May 13, 2011:
I think the first step to having your best friend is to pick the right puppy. I think you gave great guidelines to follow to do that. Very informative hub!
FixYourDogProblem on June 07, 2010:
Great hub, choosing the right puppy for your family,level of dog experience and your environment is really important. It's much better to choose wisely in the first place than to work on changing the behavior later.
Whitney (author) from Georgia on April 28, 2010:
Puppy temperament tests can tell you whether a pup is prone to dominance or submission, although training can alter some of those tendencies. It is good to perform the tests especially for breeds that are prone to being hard-headed, dominant, etc, as not everyone should raise all types of breeds, especially those people who are are not as experienced. I have come across many pups who have visible dominant traits at 6-8 weeks; and these puppies are not those who are ideal to be homed with inexperienced people. They were not necessarily aggressive, but dominant towards the other puppies in the litter.
I don't watch any TV shows that are of dog training, so that is not where this came from. This has been up for a long time, and I have never watched any of the training shows.
TangoCharlie27 on April 28, 2010:
After reading Coppinger's book, I really don't believe puupy tests tell us anything of the dog the puppy will become.
Also, can you give me an example of a dog displaying dominance, in your opinion? I think all dominance talk recently is due to a certain tv program where the presenter wrongly labels dogs 'dominant'.
I once had a scared dog who had separation anxiety called dominant. Simply as he was laying across the threshold of the room! Castration was recommended which was crazy. What little testostrone the dog had should not be removed as it would only make him more anxious.
Whitney (author) from Georgia on April 27, 2010:
I agree that no dog breed should be labeled as dominant, but that doesn't mean that inheritance isn't the cause of dominance. Two dominant parents can have dominant puppies. Aggression and dominance are commonly confused. Dominance is assertiveness, but there are different degrees of it. Some dogs can be quite dominant, yet not necessarily aggressive.
A breed and a breeding is not the same.
TangoCharlie27 on April 27, 2010:
Thanks Whitney. I'd be interested in hearing your definition of dominance.
For dominance, isn't it easier to say 'self confident'. I truly believe labeling a dog or breed 'dominant' creates a whole new set of problems.
Whitney (author) from Georgia on April 27, 2010:
Thank you for your comment. Some dogs are more dominant by nature than others, which in turn is why genetics can be considered a cause. Yes, there are more factors that can be causes.
TangoCharlie27 on April 27, 2010:
Dominance is 'an inherent trait'??
Where is the evidence that points to this? Dominance is a very complex subject and imo not a trait at all? It is something that occurs between two animals and often a resource will be the cause, therefore it is the environment that effects it. Not an inherent trait.
Bryanp. I would suggest checking the mother or parents out. Was there any health issues (hips etc) or history of aggression? The puppy that you get can be what you make it depending how you socialise it and train it.
bryanp on April 10, 2010:
great help for me!
I will be buying a German shepherd pup soon.
jackinabox on June 16, 2009:
Nice hub. Super tips for making sure you get a pup that fits your skills and temperament.
stacyjwx from MA on September 12, 2008:
This is a great hub! Thanks for the excellent information!
Whitney (author) from Georgia on June 23, 2008:
I haven't seen the videos as I'm not a big Cesar Millan fan, although I have read his first book. I'll tell you that he's not the dog training god he thinks he is, but hopefully you'll get something out of the videos.
Dominance isn't necessarily a bad trait, but for inexperienced dog owners it's not a trait you want to have in your first real dog. Same with stubborness, which can be attributed slightly to dominance, but isn't going to go away even if you assert your pack learder skills.
belief713 from Earth on June 22, 2008:
OK. It's funny because I was just looking at buying Cesar Millan's training videos on becoming the pack leader (or something like that) because I like his show and his work with pits. And I've noticed some resistence in our dog as far as submission or not realizing that he isn't the pack leader. That's something I'm definitely going to have to train us all on for our well being and his because of the breed he is.
Well, I feel better and guess I misunderstood your hub. I was thinking those were bad traits (they can be if not groomed properly), but in my case, that's just his personality.
He was our first Pit and after having a Boston Terrier and Dachshund, it was a bit different - although I have to say his temperament and the Dachshund's is very similar.
I'll remember these tests when we get ready for another dog. Thanks...
Whitney (author) from Georgia on June 22, 2008:
Yes, these tests are not really necessary if you've had your dog for a long time. They're geared for when you pick out a puppy or an older dog from a breeder or a shelter. There's really no sense in temperament testing your own dog that you've had for years since a pup. You can't change dominance, as it's an inherent trait. The only thing that you can do is to ensure that the dog understands that he is not the pack leader. If you and your family have not proven yourselves as the pack leaders, he will try to take the place. This is actually true of even non-dominant dogs. You need to just keep up constant training and socializing, even though the dog is 4, it's still necessary. Because the mix of the dog, in a way he's predisposed to being dominant, as both breeds have high percentages of dominant traits; although that does not mean that all the pups in the litter were dominant, just that in a ay he's predisposed to it. You really can't fix dominance, but you can avoid mishaps by proper training and socialization. The stubborness, is something that a quick search before you got the dog, would have told you is a trait among both breeds. I can tell you my very submissive APBT is stubborn; that's something that you can't really avoid in the breed, as I've never met a Pit Bull or mix thereof that wasn't stubborn to some degree. It's a trait that less experienced dog keepers are not prepared for (I'm not saying you are less experienced, either; I'm just making a generalization.)
belief713 from Earth on June 21, 2008:
OK, so I haven't even tested my dog yet, but I already know the answers to most of these questions. He's aggressive and stubborn, but great with people for the most part. So, he's a pretty dominant dog. Any ideas on how to fix this (he's a 4 year old pit/staffordshire terrier mix)? LOL
Lilymag from Upstate New York on June 05, 2008:
Very nice hub, I admire your passion and drive of getting the word out about training and care of our wonderful friends! Kudos to you also for getting the word out about pittys and that they are not all bad! Your baby is beautiful!
Whitney (author) from Georgia on May 17, 2008:
ngureco, definitely different breeds have different trats. I actually recently composed a hub about the AKC dog groups and general traits to the main groups. You may find that interesting.
That you Steph. Yes that's my pup. I wish I had pictures of her with her litter when I was trying out some of these tests. And, yes at the breeder's I was doing these tests. I know he thought I was crazy. Ha. The breeder had a gorgeous male that adored me, but he was overly dominant, and I couldn't risk him getting a little older and wrestling with my yorkie, who's currently 8 years old.
Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on May 17, 2008:
Super Hub! This is really important for prospective owners to know. I love all the photos of you and your dog - she is such a sweety.
ngureco on May 16, 2008:
Good information here you've provided Whitney. Different breeds of dogs have different traits and personalities. I like the tail-wagging, happy dog with a mind of its own - one who get a whiff of scent and will wander in search.
C.S.Alexis from NW Indiana on May 16, 2008:
This is good advice even for those of us who may have forgotten a thing or two about our pups. My dogs are both about 7 or 8 and I do not think much about the personality but that is because we know each other so well. This could also be useful if you were pet setting or just visiting. It is good to try to understand those around us, animals included.
Whitney (author) from Georgia on May 16, 2008:
Thank you both.
solarshingles from london on May 16, 2008:
Whitney, you are such an expert for dogs and many other pets! I admire your passion. Nobody could write so passionate, positive and attractive, if not for the love, respect and knowledge about them.
rodney southern from Greensboro, NC on May 16, 2008:
Great hub like always; Well done.