How to Test and Select a Puppy for Temperament
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electing a puppy is a fun and emotional experience that dog owners remember for a long time. But getting a dog or puppy on impulse is rarely a good idea.

Nowadays, dogs are more often selected for appearance than for function or temperament. Most people select the breed first. Some future dog parents do their homework and try to establish which breeds are more suited to their lifestyle, energy levels, and experience. Many people just select a dog based on cuteness factors or esthetic preferences.

The puppy you choose may be the one that first jumped on your lap, the one whose demeanor made you melt, or the one that looked the most fun and boisterous of the bunch. A few months later, serious behavior issues appear, and you ask yourself how the cute puppy you picked at the breeder ended up becoming that uncontrollable little devil.

Pups in a litter may all look alike, but at 8 weeks of age, their temperament is already unique and can be a good predictor of their future mindset and adult behavior.

The purpose of testing a puppy is to help a potential owner choose the pup most adapted to the home environment and the family in which he is called to live. It allows to predict behavior and trainability, or at least predict potential dominance or aggression tendencies.

The problem with modern dog breeding

One of the most unfortunate trends in modern dog breeding is the obsession with producing dogs according to specific breed standards that are based on appearance rather than temperament. This practice, promoted by dog shows, encourages breeding pet dogs that are too genetically closely related.

A breed is created by mating dogs in a genetic line from a limited group of individuals. Genes are passed down from one generation to another. Each individual receives two versions of each gene from both parent. If the versions of a gene are different, one will be the dominant gene. Biochemically, the genetic variation can either induce a function in a cell, which is either advantageous or detrimental. This is called a dominant mutation. That dominant mutation can be benign — it can refer to any physical characteristic like coat color— or it can refer to a disease or a behavioral abnormality.

In other words, mating dogs that are closely related genetically can perpetuate genetic defects, pathological behavioral problems, and illnesses.

One classic example of a genetically inherited behavioral problem is the "Sudden Rage Syndrome" found on occasions in English Cocker spaniels of the golden variety. A faulty dominant gene has been propagated over multiple generations of purebred Cocker Spaniels. Dogs that suffer from this rare form of aggression are typically affectionate and well-mannered canines who can suddenly turn ferociously on people for no apparent reason.

Breeding to achieve specific physical breed standards can also negatively affect a dog's health. A regrettable example is the sloping back, stooped hind legs, and resulting abnormal gait seen in German shepherds. According to several veterinarians, this breed's "feature" cause hyperextension of the hind legs and can make dogs prone to chronic back disorders such as hip dysplasia. In 2016 the Crufts dog show was at the heart of such a controversy.

This German shepherd with a heavily sloping back and painful gait started the Crufts Dog Show controversy - Dog Learner
This German shepherd with a heavily sloping back and painful gait started the Crufts controversy
The physical changes of the German Shepherd breed in the 125 years since it was created

Assessing a puppy's temperament

Working dogs, on the other hand, are more carefully bred and generally healthier. Therapy dogs, police dogs, or guide dogs usually come from dedicated breeding programs where puppy testing is conducted routinely. Future guide dogs, for example, are initially assessed as puppies around 7-8 weeks and tested again for the final selection training at 14 months. Police dogs from working lines Belgian or Slovakian shepherds are tested and selected at 9 or 10 months. For the reasons evoked above, in the U.S. where 90% of the police dogs are purchased from European breeders, trainers have stopped importing German shepherds.

According to Dr Voith, a renown canine behaviorist, it is critically important that pups are adopted at around seven to eight weeks of age, during the peak of the socialization period. We know from studies that dominance and submission behaviors among pups usually develop between four and six weeks of age, that human bonds develop best between six and eight weeks, and that fear imprinting most often occurs between eight and ten weeks.

The first Puppy Assessment Test (PAT) was developed in the 1970s. One of the most well-known protocols is the test developed by psychologist William Campbell. Another popular and more comprehensive protocol is the Volhard’s Puppy Aptitude Test. Most breeding programs have developed their own variations of the tests, but the criteria for evaluating temperament are fairly standard.

Puppy testing methodology

Testing a puppy is simple and can be done by anyone who is familiar with the protocol.

Aptitude tests are carried out in a safe and separate enclosed test area on pups at around eight weeks of age, out of sight of the mother, littermates, or distractions. Each pup is tested individually by a tester unknown to the puppy, and handled gently at all times. The test can measure a puppy’s emotional stability, sociability, shyness, dominant or submissive tendencies, and independence.

The Volhard’s Puppy Aptitude Test is one of the most comprehensive and systematic. It scores the pup on a scale from 1 to 6 for the following components:

  1. Social Attraction: The tester claps his hands gently to get the pup's attention
  2. Following: The tester walks away from the pup to see if he spontaneously follows
  3. Restraint: The pup is rolled on his back and held gently in that position for 30 seconds.
  4. Social Dominance: The tester gently strokes the pup from the top of his head, down his back towards his tail for 30 seconds.
  5. Elevation Dominance: The pup is cradled under his belly and held just off the ground for 30 seconds.
  6. Retrieving - The pup is attracted to a crumpled up piece of paper that the tester throws within four feet in front of the puppy to see if it is retrieved.
  7. Touch, sound, and sight sensitivity - The pup is subjected to various stimuli to see if he is startled, stimulated, or interested.
  8. Stability - An umbrella is opened about five feet from the puppy and gently placed on the ground to evaluate the degree of startle response to a strange object.
Puppy temperament testing can be done at 7-8 weeks - Dog Learner
Puppy temperament testing can be done at 7-8 weeks

Test interpretation

If you test a whole litter, the assessment should be scored on a numeric scale with specific criteria, but if you just want to have a global idea about a particular pup's temperament you can also do the test in a more informal way to get an overall impression of the puppy.

With the Volhard’s test, the scores are not averaged. Each test is scored separately and interpreted on its own merits. The more balanced pups will score mostly 3's or 4's.

A dog scoring mostly 1 or 2's is highly reactive and has the potential to be a pack leader and a predisposition to show dominance and aggressiveness. It should only be placed with an experienced handler where the dog will be trained on a regular basis.

On the other end of the scale, a puppy that scores mostly 5's or 6's is poorly reactive, aloof, and so independent that he is going to bond with great difficulty.


If you want a healthy and balanced pup, your best bet is to conduct your own research about the breeder, and test the puppy that you have selected to ensure you didn't miss anything abnormal in his behavior. Temperament should always come before appearance.

The selection of a puppy should be done after having well researched the characteristics of the breed, in temperament, trainability, and genetic health risks. Ideally, you should also ask to see the pup's parents (or least the mother) and littermates.

Health problems among purebreds are the product of both inbreeding and bad genetic luck. A responsible breeder who is not obsessed with show dogs and breed standards will develop healthy breeds with sound temperament. Health screening tests and DNA tests should be well documented and not just taken in good faith.

Within a breed, and even among littermates, there can be some significant differences in temperament between pups. Some differences are genetic and more permanently anchored in the dog's temperament, others are learned and can evolve gradually.

Puppy assessment tests are usually better at predicting genetically inherited behavioral traits. They are not always an accurate predictor of how the puppy will turn out as an adult because a puppy's temperament is partly conditioned by learning between 2 and 12 months of age. However, several studies have shown that pups that test positive for aggressive dominance tend to remain dominant as they grow older.

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