PICK OF THE LITTER
by Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

If you are looking for a puppy, the most dangerous thing you can do is to go and see a litter 'just to take a look'. Once you are actually in the presence of those fuzzy, squirmy, cute little creatures, all your common sense goes right out the window. It's as if you become unable to make logical, rational decisions. It's also difficult to impossible to walk away empty-handed. After experiencing a few moments of 'puppy love' most people don't want to go home alone. This is what causes people to make poor choices when choosing a puppy. Puppies are so sweet and appealing and we get caught up in the excitement of the moment. Rather than making a clear, considered, objective decision with our heads, we make an emotional one with our hearts.

The most important thing to remember when you are considering bringing a puppy into your home is that you are making a long-term commitment to another living creature. You may be sharing your life with this pet for the next 15 years, so it's important to choose very, very carefully. This is your chance to actually choose a family member, rather than taking whatever you get. A quick, ill-considered decision can lead to much heartache and unhappiness. However, a good choice can add much enjoyment and happiness to your life for years to come. So, the key question is, how do you make a good choice? That's what this chapter is about; choosing the right puppy for you.

Temperament Tests

After doing background research you have probably narrowed your focus down to one or two breeds or types of dogs. Now you may actually be going to talk to some breeders and look at some litters. At this point, your goal is to find the absolutely perfect puppy for you and your lifestyle. Pups of the same breed, even within the same litter, can be very, very different from one another. One way to make an educated decision is to complete a series of simple behavioral tests on the puppies you are considering. Their responses to these tests will help you narrow down your choices.

Puppy temperament tests have been around for some time. The purpose of such testing is twofold. First, to gain information about the pup's current personality and behavior. These tests can help to determine how active, bold, or curious the puppy is at the moment. Second, to make predictions about how the puppy may behave as an adult. These types of tests were first used by those who were breeding and raising 'service' dogs to help them decide which puppies were likely to be successful in their future work. For most pet owners, the purpose of puppy testing is to determine whether this pup is the right 'fit' for the owner's lifestyle.

Temperament tests are thought to indicate some of the personality traits and behavioral tendencies that the adult dog will possess. The term temperament refers to inborn tendencies. Temperament can be thought of as the raw material that is inherited by the puppy from the parents. It gives behavior a slight 'push' in a certain direction, but isn't the only determinant of how your dog will act as an adult. Temperament combines with environment and learning to form the actual behavior of the dog. However, to have the best chance at a successful relationship with your dog, it helps to know and understand his basic temperament.

If possible, try to see the parents or other close relatives of the puppy. While their behavior is individual and based on their environment and training as well as on their temperament, you can still gain some important information by seeing them. Because of the close genetic relatedness between the pup, his parents, and his siblings, you can get a basic idea of possible adult personality by seeing his close adult relatives. Besides personality characteristics, you can also get an idea of your pup's eventual size and coat.

In humans, two characteristics that seem to be strong temperamental tendencies are activity level and level of shyness/outgoingness. It is possible that this is true in dogs as well. Very early in life you can see real differences in these characteristics between individuals. For most pet owners, a dog who is moderate on both of these characteristics would be the best choice. A dog whose falls in the mid-range on these characteristics would be best-suited to most homes: not hyperactive, not a couch potato, not a wallflower, not a social butterfly. For those who want performance dogs for work or sport, it might be desirable to choose a dog who is likely to have a higher level of these characteristics, depending on the intended activity.

In attempting to predict a puppy's possible future behavior from his test scores we are performing what psychologists call an aptitude test. Aptitude tests measure the likelihood that the animal will be successful in his intended function. In humans, aptitude tests are used to measure the probability that advanced training in a particular area will be useful. For example, tests can be given to help people learn more about their talents and skills when deciding on career training. An aptitude test may indicate that you would be best suited for training as a surgeon or a teacher or an actor. In temperament testing puppies, we are typically trying to determine their aptitude to be good family companions and screen out those who will not.

What Makes a Good Pet Dog?

Before we begin puppy testing, we need to consider the characteristics that make a dog a good pet and companion. These are the characteristics we should test for. First, even though it seems obvious, we want a dog who is comfortable around people and who is reasonably friendly. It's important to keep this critical characteristic in mind. Puppies who are shy may become fear aggressive later on. Puppies who are overwhelmingly needy and clingy will have trouble adjusting to being alone, even for short periods. Puppies who are very pushy and domineering can end up frightening or harming people.

Second, we want a dog who reacts to new or unusual events with reasonable caution, but who is also curious and confident. Strange things will happen to your dog. People dressed in unusual clothing or costumes may bend over to pet him. Someone may push a rattling baby carriage towards him. Children will run up behind him screaming and yelling. In any of these cases, and in many others, we want a dog who reacts appropriately. If a puppy's first reaction is to snap, growl, or bite, someone will be hurt eventually. While it is acceptable, and reasonable, for a puppy to be startled by unusual events, he should recover from them quickly. Given a bit of recovery time, a pup with a stable personality should approach and investigate the source of the startle.

Third, we want a puppy who can accept being handled and restrained as needed. Throughout their lives, dogs need to be comfortable with human contact and manipulation. They will need veterinary care, grooming, and day to day handling. It's no fun to live with a dog who is 'touchy'. Dogs who react to normal touch with undue fear or undue aggression will not make good family pets. They may always require careful and special handling.

Finally, we want a puppy who enjoys learning and is relatively easy to train. A puppy who is curious and interested in the world around him, but able to focus on one task at a time, will be fairly trainable. It also helps to have a puppy who enjoys a wide variety of food treats and toys (these can be used as rewards during training).

Breed & Type Characteristics

While all dogs of a particular breed or type are not the same, they may have some similar behavioral tendencies. When testing puppies, it is important to keep in mind some of the more common responses for the breed or type. For example, herding dogs (Border Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, Belgian Sheepdogs, etc.) tend to be more reactive to sight and sound than some other types. They may display a more pronounced reaction. Be careful of overly sensitive or fearful dogs of this type. Also, herding dogs can tend to be noisy and barky. Avoid very vocal herding dog puppies.

Dogs who have been bred to be guardians and protectors tend to be a bit more serious than some others (Rottweilers, Dobermans, etc.) They may be bold and extremely confident. Be aware that these tendencies can, at an exaggerated level, become pushiness and obnoxiousness. Dogs like this tend to 'take over' if given an opportunity. The boldest, most confident puppy of this type is not necessarily a good choice for the average pet owner.

Small, toy breeds can have a tendency to be barky and snappy. Do not choose a toy dog who is fearful and unsure. This dog will not be a good companion, and may become a fear biter over time.

Most retrieving dogs are energetic and active. Make sure your physical health and lifestyle allows you the time and energy for this type of dog. Also be aware that these dogs can be physically dangerous to young children and frail or older people. In their excitement and exhuberance, they are not aware of their own strength. A retriever needs to learn physical limits and self-control at a young age.

Whenever you are testing or evaluating a dog, keep in mind the characteristics typical of his breed and type.

Preparing for the Test

Most currently available puppy temperament tests attempt to measure the same general personality and behavioral factors. These include (in no particular order):

1. Sociability and following (desire to be with humans)
2. Curiousity about novel events
3. Shyness/Outgoingness
4. Reaction to and ability to recover from surprise/startle
5. Desire to work with people
6. Reaction to restraint/discomfort/handling
7. Desire to chase and fetch (prey drive)
8. Trainability
9. Physical activity level

Most trainers and breeders agree that the ideal age for temperament testing is around seven to eight weeks of age. Puppies much younger don't have the mental and physical development necessary to complete the tests. It's possible to test older dogs and puppies, but keep in mind that the older animal has already had learning experiences which may influence the results.

You'll probably be performing your puppy testing at the breeder's home. You'll need to have a few pieces of equipment available, as well as some open floor space for the testing. To prepare for the testing you will need:

A set of keys.
A small squeaky toy or a small ball.
An umbrella.
A towel and a 6 ft. piece of string or rope.
Small, soft food treats.
Pieces of different colored soft yarn or ribbon (one for each puppy tested).
Copies of the test (one for each puppy tested) & a pencil.
Watch with a second hand or a stopwatch.

Each puppy should be tested individually, out of sight and hearing of his or her litter mates and other pets in the household. The day of the testing should be a calm, quiet one for the puppies. Puppies should not have grooming, veterinary care, or any other exciting activity on that day. Try to test the puppies when they are at their most active, before a meal.

Begin testing each puppy by taking him or her to the testing area. Loosely tie one of the colored strings around the puppy's neck or on the collar and note the color on your score sheet. Also note the sex of the puppy and any distinguishing or unusual physical features of the pup. To make your test a valid one, handle each puppy in the same exact way throughout the testing procedure. Perform each test and mark down the results before moving on to the next test. Make any comments on unusual behavior or reactions at the bottom of the sheet.

When observing the puppy's reaction to each test, you are relying on your interpretation of the pup's behavior. This can be a difficult judgement call. For example, it is sometimes hard to tell the beginnings of aggression from extreme playfulness. A thorough understanding of canine behavior and body language can be quite useful here. If you are not sure how to categorize the response, retest while having a knowledgeable dog person observe (breeder or trainer).

A good breeder can also be an excellent resource for further information about the puppies and their normal behavior. Listen carefully to the breeder's advice.

*A note on scoring. For each test the puppy can score low (1), moderate (2), or high (3). A low score indicates either an extreme reaction in either direction. For example, the puppy either does not react at all, or wildly overreacts. A moderate score indicates an acceptable and expected reaction. A high score indicates an ideal reaction.

THE TESTS

1. Activity & Curiousity Level.

Place the puppy in the middle of the testing area. Watch him without interference or interaction for at least 2 minutes. If the puppy approaches you, be still and ignore him.

SCORING:

Low score (1). Puppy does not move about or explore the environment. Puppy actively avoids you. Puppy displays extremely high level of activity by running wildly and/or jumping.

Moderate score (2). Puppy remains still for a few moments, then slowly begins to sniff and/or move about. Puppy approaches you or objects in the room cautiously.

High score (3). Puppy confidently moves about, exploring the new area. Puppy sniffs objects and may physically interact with them. For example, putting front paws up on a chair to further investigate. Puppy may approach you and attempt to gain attention.

2. Social Attraction.

Take the puppy into the testing area and set him on the floor. Move at least 10 feet away, kneel down, clap your hands, and call "here puppy, puppy" in a happy, inviting voice.

SCORING:

Low score (1). Puppy ignores you, attempts to hide, approaches slightly then retreats, looks around frantically, tries to escape testing area.

Moderate score (2). Puppy approaches you slowly and cautiously, but deliberately.

High score (3). Puppy quickly and happily runs to you with tail up and wagging.

3. Following.

Quickly move away from the puppy, calling and encouraging him to follow. Move at least 10 feet away.

SCORING:

Low score (1). Puppy runs in other direction, ignores you, sits still and watches you without moving, sniffs the ground. Puppy runs to you and jumps on you, growling and/or nipping.

Moderate score (2). Puppy cautiously moves towards you but may not actually reach you. Puppy shows great interest, but is slightly cautious in approaching.

High score (3). Puppy quickly and enthusiastically runs after you. Puppy may jump up on you in excitement.

4. Restraint.

While sitting on the floor, entice the puppy close to you and wrap your arms around his chest, gently preventing him from moving away. Hold puppy for 30 seconds.

SCORING:

Low score (1). The puppy panics and struggles violently. Puppy scratches and/or attempts to bite. Release the puppy immediately! Puppy trembles and shakes the entire time you hold him.

Moderate score (2). Puppy struggles initially, but quickly relaxes in your arms.

High score (3). Puppy immediately relaxes in your arms. Puppy may lick you and voluntarily move closer.

5. Handling.

While sitting on the floor, stroke and pet puppy. Puppy may be held in your lap or on the floor close to you. Gently stroke the head and ears, down the spine, the tail, and each leg and foot. You may talk softly to the dog during this test.

SCORING:

Low score (1). Puppy actively resists and attempts to escape. Puppy attempts to bite or nip. Release the puppy immediately! Puppy remains still, but stiff. Puppy trembles and shakes.

Moderate score (2). Puppy intially resists, but quickly relaxes. Puppy may have one or two 'sensitive' areas, but does not actively object to the handling.

High score (3). Puppy relaxes and allows all handling. Puppy seems to enjoy the attention.

6. Sound Sensitivity.

When the puppy is not looking at you, drop a set of keys at least 12 feet behind him.

SCORING:

Low score (1). Puppy jumps, shakes, trembles. Puppy attempts to run and hide. Puppy attacks the keys growling and biting (the puppy seems intensely focused and his body is stiff, his tail may be held straight up). Puppy barks uncontrollably.

Moderate score (2). Puppy startles, but recovers within 20 seconds. Puppy looks, but does not approach the keys or approaches keys very cautiously.

High score (3). Puppy startles, but recovers within 10 seconds. Puppy approaches and investigates keys (sniffing and/or pawing) without fear.

7. Sight Sensitivity.

Tie a string or rope around the towel. Quickly pull the towel on a string across the floor in front of the puppy. Once puppy moves towards the towel, stop pulling and let it be still.

SCORING:

Low score (1). Puppy looks at towel, but shows no active interest. Puppy does not move towards the towel. Puppy runs or backs away from the towel. Puppy viciously attacks the towel, growling, barking and/or biting. The puppy's body is stiff. His tail may be held upright and still, or he may make quick jerky motions with it.

Moderate score (2). Puppy approaches the moving towel. Puppy may grab and shake the towel. Puppy ignores towel once it stops moving.

High score (3). Puppy playfully and enthusiastically chases and grabs the towel. He may jump and pounce. Puppy may continue to play with the towel once it stops moving.

8. Fetch Test.

Show the puppy a ball or squeaky toy. In a pinch, a wadded up piece of paper will do. Attract the puppy's attention to the object by bounding the ball, squeaking the toy, or crumpling the paper. Make sure the puppy is paying attention to the object before it is thrown. Throw the object 6 to 8 feet in front of the puppy and verbally encourage him to "get it!"

SCORING:

Low score (1). Puppy completely ignores thrown object. Puppy watches object, but does not show any interest in moving towards it. Puppy seems fearful of object. Puppy approaches object and guards or protects it with a stiff stance and possible growling.

Moderate score (2). Puppy shows interest in object. Puppy begins to approach thrown object, then stops. Puppy approaches and investigates thrown object.

High score (3). Puppy shows great interest in thrown object. Puppy chases object and picks it up. Puppy may run around the room or return towards the tester with the object.

9. Reaction to Surprise/Startle.

About 6 feet away, and slightly to the side of the puppy, open an umbrella and place it on the floor. DO NOT approach the puppy with the open umbrella or wave it at him.

SCORING:

Low score (1). Puppy runs in fright. Puppy seems 'frozen' and stiff. Puppy attacks umbrella while barking or growling. Puppy backs away from umbrella while barking or growling. Puppy does not startle, but does not show any interest in the umbrella either.

Moderate score (2). Puppy startles at first, but recovers within 20 seconds. Puppy shows interest in the umbrella, and may approach cautiously.

High score (3). Puppy startles at first, but recovers within 10 seconds. Puppy shows great interest in the umbrella and approaches without fear.

10. Trainability.

Have several small, soft food treats in your hand. Feed several to the puppy. Then show him a treat and hold it slightly over his head. Next, show him a treat and hold it on the floor in your fingers.

SCORING:

Low score (1). Puppy ignores food treats. Puppy does not follow the movement of the treats with his eyes. Puppy moves away from the tester and the treats.

Moderate score (2). Puppy shows interest in food treats, but loses it quickly. Puppy follows food treats with his eyes. Puppy moves slightly towards food treats, but may become distracted. Puppy nips, jumps, and/or scratches at your hand in an attempt to get the treats.

High score (3). Puppy quickly and enthusiastically approaches the food treats. Puppy follows the food treats with his eyes and body. Puppy focuses intently on the hand holding the treats.

*Note: If the puppy shows no interest in the food treats, re-test using a squeaky toy.

SCORE SHEET SCORE

SEX __________

COLOR __________

MARKINGS ____________________

Test #1 (Activity & Curiousity Level). _______
Test #2. (Social Attraction). _______
Test #3. (Following). _______
Test #4. (Restraint). _______
Test #5. (Handling). _______
Test #6. (Sound Sensitivity). _______
Test #7. (Sight Sensitivity). _______
Test #8. (Fetch Test). _______
Test #9. (Reaction to Startle/Surprise). _______
Test #10. (Trainability). _______

TOTAL SCORE: _______

COMMENTS:

Interpreting the Score:

Each puppy's score can range from a low of 10 to a high of 30. The higher the score, the more ideal the puppy's responses on the tests.

10-14 No way! This puppy will NOT make a good companion. All his responses are inappropriate.

15-19 Low. This puppy's reactions are slightly better, but not great. He will require lots of work and effort, and may never have appropriate reactions and behaviors.

20-24 Average. While the responses are in the normal range, this puppy may need some extra effort, so may be best for an experienced owner.

25-30 Great! This puppy had appropriate and ideal responses to the tests. He should make a good family companion.

Conclusions

While puppy testing is not a strict scientific endeavor, it can be very helpful for making a decision about which puppy to adopt. Keep in mind that puppies can test differently on different days, or even at different times of day. If you are unsure about a particular puppy, repeat the test in a day or so. The current owner or breeder can provide more information by answering questions about the puppy's normal and usual behavior and personality as well.

Remember, adopting a puppy is a big committment of time, energy, and money. Make your choice wisely and thoughtfully. The right pup for you is out there. Don't be in a big rush. Take your time. A good choice will bring you enjoyment for many years.

For Further Reading

The following resources contain information about puppy temperament tests:

Bartlett, Melissa. A Novice Looks at Puppy Aptitude Testing. From the American Kennel Club Gazette. (March, 1979).

Bartlett, Melissa. Puppy Aptitude Testing. From the American Kennel Club Gazette. (March, 1985).

Campbell, William. Behavior Problems in Dogs, 3rd ed. 1999. Behavior Systems.

Clothier, Suzanne. Understanding Puppy Testing. 1996. Flying Dog Press.

Coren, Stanley. The Intelligence of Dogs. 1994. The Free Press.

Pfaffenberger, Clarence. The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior. 1963. Howell Book House.

Scott, John Paul & Fuller, John. L. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. 1965. The University of Chicago Press.

Tamases Fisher, Gail & Volhard, Wendy. Puppy Personality Profile. From the American Kennel Club Gazette. (February, 1987).

 

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