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Do Puppy Personality Tests Predict Adult Dog Behaviors?
A new study tests the validity of puppy temperament testing.
Published on July 22, 2014 by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C. in Canine Corner

Like many people who are concerned about selecting the best puppy to fit their needs, I visit the breeder and
spend time with all of the pups in the litter before making my selection. As part of my process of choosing I
always give the puppies some form of personality or temperament test. The characteristics that I test for are
sociability and a lack of fearfulness. I test the puppies at around seven weeks of age. This is a typical age of
testing for people who are also trying to select the working dogs for specific purposes. Obviously, the earlier
that dogs with appropriate temperaments can be selected for certain service jobs, the better things will go in
the long run. Fewer man-hours will be wasted and less money will need to be spent training dogs that will
ultimately prove not to be capable of doing the required work. For this reason many attempts have been
made to design tests that can validly measure the personality of puppies. For example Clarence
Pfaffenberger, one of the most important figures in the development of training and selection programs for
guide dogs for blind people, used a variety of tests to select dogs for this task. He claimed that a young
puppy's willingness to retrieve playfully thrown objects was the best single indicator of whether it would grow
up to be a good working dog and used this as one of the criteria in selecting guide dogs. Because of his
suggestion I always throw in a test of a dog's willingness to retrieve.

A couple of years ago when I was getting my current Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley, I tested his litter.
There were two males who attracted me and seemed relatively equivalent. However one of the pups actually
chased a thrown item, picked it up, and brought it part way back to me and this tipped the scales in his
favor. Now, some two years later, I am not so impressed about the validity of the retrieving test since I have
been spending many hours trying to teach this same dog basic retrieving for obedience trials with remarkably
little success.

There have been many questions that have been raised about the validity of puppy temperament testing and
its ability (or inability) to predict adult behavior. A recent study published in the journal PLoS ONE* by a
team of researchers from the Clever Dog Lab at the Messerli Research Institute, which is part of University of
Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, provides additional information about puppy testing. The team was led by
Stefanie Riemer. As is typical of the research coming out of that institute the test subjects were Border
Collies after all it is the Clever Dog Lab (click here for why). The team tested dogs at three stages of life,
very young or neonatal (2 to 10 days of age), puppies (40 to 50 days), and adults 1 to 2 years of age. The
tests were modified and selected to be appropriate to the age of the dogs being tested.

When I first encountered this research report I had little hope that the neonatal tests would be of any
predictive value since the researchers made some major extrapolations in interpreting the meaning of test
results at this stage of life. For example, the idea that the force with which the puppy sucks at a finger would
be a prediction of later playfulness and motivation, or that the sounds made by these newborn dogs would
predict how much a seven week old puppy would struggle when it was restrained and how much an adult dog
would bark or growl during a simulated approach of a threatening person seemed to be quite an interpretive
stretch to me. Since their data showed that these neonatal tests proved to have virtually no ability to predict
later behavior we can just drop them from further discussion here.

Of much more interest to me was the relationship between the puppy tests at age 6 to 7 weeks and whether
they predicted the behavior of the adult dogs. There were a broad range of tests and measures taken. We
can roughly group them as tests of sociability (for example whether the dog approaches a stranger and
greets them and so forth), exploratory behavior (whether the dog moves around and investigates the new
environment), responses to novel situations (such as when presented with a strange mechanical toy and
moves erratically around the room), or responses to threats such as being stared at or approached in a
threatening crouch, and some other items as well. Although the statistical analyses of the data from the 50
dogs tested as puppies and adults was quite sophisticated, in the end the results showed that the tests had
little predictive ability. The only thing that comes out of this is the observation that the puppies that engage

in a lot of exploratory behavior turned into the adults who explored their environment a lot. Sociability,
fearfulness, irritability and all of the other tests were virtually a washout when it comes to predicting adult
behavior from tests administered when a puppy is 40 to 50 days of age. This clearly explains why my dog's
retrieving behavior as a puppy was not an accurate forecast that he would avidly retrieve when he was an

This whole discussion of testing puppies reminds me of a friend who has had a number of dogs with good
stable temperaments. Many of her dogs have gone on to do quite well in obedience competitions. I once
asked her, How do you usually test the personality of the puppies that you are thinking about getting?

She smiled and explained to me, I lift each puppy up, hold his or her face near me and look the pup in the
eye. The first puppy that doesnt act fearful or annoyed, and licks my face is usually the one that I go home

I suspect that the good temperaments of her dogs has had more to do with how she rears and trains them
once she has taken them home rather than with the accuracy of her testing procedures (click here for more
on rearing effects). On the other hand, it is rather pleasant looking closely into the face of a puppy. Who
knows, at least according to this recent research, it might work as well as some of the other tests of canine
temperament currently in use.

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