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Puppy Temperament Testing

 
 

The value of a test comes in the validity of that assessment.  For that reason, I struggle with the idea of “temperament tests” for puppies, regardless of who may perform the examination.

To validate a test, one needs to keep as many variables constant besides the elements one is studying.  My experience tells me that the moment a puppy leaves the breeder’s home, all bets are off regarding the environment in which the puppy will exist (both psychological environment – which is dominated by the relationships that the humans in its life will form with it as well as the physical environment – which includes the way it is managed in its world).  Once variables as profound as relationship with other living creatures and the environment in which it lives are “out of control” within a study, the validity of the original test is tainted.  That is not because the original testing protocol is “bad”, but because the whole point of the test is to “predict” the future behavior of the puppy. 

When the puppies go off with unique individuals, those folks raise the puppies in dissimilar ways.   This creates a huge “noise cloud” around the actual behavior that one is hoping to predict.  That makes it nearly impossible to travel to a point in the future, relative to the original Test date, and compare the puppies from a litter versus the Test’s “predictions for future behavior”.  The variables which were not controlled for the period of time between the original test and the re-examination make the results of the re-examination useless, in my opinion.  

I hear a lot about Puppy Temperament Tests, but I rarely read about the more important aspect than that first data point: the future examination of the adult dog versus the prediction of the Test and versus the other puppies in the litter which tested differently.  I wonder how often that is actually done.  If it is performed, I wonder what that protocol is and how those results are scored. 

I am a strong believer in the idea that genes control behavior.  I own herding dogs.  You don’t get herding behavior at a level that is acceptable for true livestock management if you do not breed for it.  You can’t just take any-ol’-dog and expect it will perform herding work.  Behavior is heritable.  It’s obvious when one watches the way that an untrained Great Pyrenees interacts around sheep and the way an untrained Border Collie does.  They are at complete opposite ends of the behavioral spectrum.  I could no more “train” a Great Pyrenees to herd as I could train my Border Collie to “guard” the flock.  So, I wholly embrace the idea that behavior is heritable.

However, regardless of whether a dog has DNA code designed to make it behave in particular ways, my personal opinion, which is based on years of experience working with dogs and their people, is that the human element in a dog’s behavior is not only profound but has more influence on the dog’s ultimate actions than does his genes.  How can I say this when I just stated that behavior is so profoundly controlled by a dog’s chromosomes?  I can say it because we can over-ride heritable “desires” through proper management, socialization and training.  I get calls from clients quite frequently that claim, “I know that my cattle dog is going to nip us in the heels because he is a herding dog…..but, my kids have bruises and I cannot take this, any more”.  Regardless of the dog’s heritage, I know we can expect it to be mannerly and self restrained enough to keep its teeth off humans.  A cattle dog does not have to bite humans in the heels.  I also know that correcting that anti-social behavior in a dog will not affect its desire to herd livestock.  The human has an influence over the dog’s behavior that is stronger than its genetic need to herd moving objects. 

Without a proper relationship with humans, a dog’s behavior can go awry, regardless of what the breeder did in the first 8-10 weeks of its life and despite the dog’s genetics.  Therefore, a puppy temperament test seems a senseless waste of time, in my opinion, if it is supposed to predict the dog's future behavior.  To me, the impact of a relationship with a human is so much more influential than the dog’s genetics or the puppy’s first 10 weeks, that the puppy test simply has little predictive value.

Ultimately, it is genes that control the dog’s response to a proper, respectful relationship with a human, in my opinion.  Dogs are not wild animals.  They require a type of training that, to me, is akin to proper parenting rather than a method that emulates the way that we must interact with wild Orcas to coerce desired behavior.  Dogs are hard-wired to seek, bond to and revere an authority figure and we can use that to our benefit when forging the proper rapport with them.  But, alas, many “new age” training philosophies do not seem to recognize dog as a highly unique species, and the dogs suffer from a lack of structure and feedback about their behavior.  They become unruly and the breeder is blamed for creating an ill mannered dog that simply needs someone to take the helm and impose her will upon the pup, a bit.  I don’t think that the original puppy temperament test was designed to predict how a dog will respond to a complete lack of leadership.  But, sadly, that is the fate of many dogs, today, that are subjected to “training” that lacks the most basic element that domestic dogs crave.

In addition to the lack of predictive value that a puppy temperament test has due to the inability to control important variables, the opposite effect can happen, as well.   I have had folks tell me, “Butch is just like you told me he was when he was just a baby puppy in the litter”.  Like most breeders who are familiar with raising puppies and watching them grow in their first 8-12 weeks, I do see differences in puppies.  I share a bit of that with the new owners.  And, voila! I instantly can cause those folks to believe that is who their puppy actually *is* and who he will grow up to be.  If you tell folks that their puppy is quite clever, they can actually alter their own perception of the puppy and consider it brilliant, just like you said it was going to be.  So, in reality, if one shares the results of a Temperament Test with the new owners, the tests immediately becomes null and void, from a scientific perspective.  It’s sort of like the placebo effect.

This is a link to a video of the DarnFar Boon x DarnFar Shimmer 2010 litter shot when the puppies were 25 days old.

The puppies were not yet 4 weeks old.  For their first two weeks they were sightless and could not hear.  At three weeks old, they were just starting to sit and make little barking sounds, but they could not walk properly.  These are really infantile animals that are still dependent upon their mother for psychological sustenance and nutrition, albeit I began supplementing with solid foods six days earlier. 

Watch the video and check out how willing these 25 day old puppies are to create a relationship with me, to be touched, to be manipulated even at their very young age.  This is not “trained” or “tamed” into them.  It is who they are as a species and it is the breeder’s responsibility to tap into this heritable drive at this age, to assure the best possible chance for the puppy to realize its true potential.  Then, realize that, in fact, if I place one of these precious gems in the wrong home (albeit, someone who seems mature, loving and devoted to the animal’s care and training), it can become completely anti-social and so uncomfortable in its own skin that it will require serious intervention and rehabilitation to become centered, again.   Fortunately, I think that dogs are designed to try to re-align to center and with our help, they are happy to get there, again. 

While temperament tests might have some value to some individuals, my personal experiences tells me that the relationship that a dog has with its humans is the most critical attribute for future success and happiness (of both human and dog), and placement decisions have the most profound bearing on the long term behavior of a pup.

 

 
     
     

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