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Understanding Personality and Temperament Traits of Puppies

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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When you select a new pup, you want one that has a personality that meshes well with your family and your lifestyle. For example, you may prefer a calm and confident dog that is sensitive and socially appropriate. Or maybe you want a dog that is more energetic. You may be able to predict some rudimentary aspects of a dog's personality but accurate forecasts are almost impossible. As Yogi Berra once said, "Predictions are difficult, especially when the involve the future."

For those who believe in temperament testing (and that's not everyone), it is generally held that the first meaningful temperament test should be performed at the magical age of seven weeks. Some believe that if you miss this exact time by even a couple of days, the results will be meaningless. This is untrue. The seven-week mark was established as the earliest time to appreciate fearfulness in pups. Testing before seven weeks might not give such an accurate prediction of subsequent fearfulness, but after seven weeks the result of testing would be, if anything, a more accurate predictor.

Ideally, pups should be evaluated twice: once at seven weeks and again at 10 to 12 weeks. The results of the testing should be compared to assess the development of personality traits.

Factors that Determine Personality

Genetics – the breed and breed line – have a powerful influence on personality. The American Kennel Club divides its groups along according to purpose and thus personality. Sporting breeds, for example, tend to be active, energetic dogs with a strong desire to please their owners. Terriers are intense and persistent, doing best when they have a function to perform. Scent hounds focus on scent trails and are hard to distract. When working they seem independent and in a world of their own.

But dog personalities aren't purely determined by genetics. Nurture (experience) also plays a large part in how dogs personalities evolve. This is one reason why there's a wide array of individual personalities. Some cocker spaniels are friendly and almost overly deferential, while other are short-fused and have unstable personalities.

A dog that is raised by the bitch, along with its littermates, and has constant positive interactions with people and other animals during the first 3 to 4 months of life, will be more stable than a dog plucked from its family and isolated in a cage for weeks like a battery chicken. Being raised properly contributes to a dog's confidence, sociability, and stability of mood. It also positively effects its intellectual development. Regular handling and grooming of pups by owners and the dam facilitates optimal neuronal development. The bottom line is that a pup raised in a warm, loving family environment is likely to be more tolerant and accepting, and a better problemsolver.

The Personality Testing

Most evaluators conduct tests to determine a dog's level of confidence or dominance, sociability with people and other dogs, fearfulness, sensitivity, and reactivity. There are a variety of ways in which these characteristics are tested.

If you ask ten puppy temperament evaluators you will be told ten different ways to conduct these evaluations. Testing methods are up to the individual and evaluation is unique to the evaluator. However, certain tests do seem to feature quite prevalently in most evaluators' repertoires.

Tests for Dominance

a) The alpha role. The puppy is gently rolled onto its back in the crook of the evaluator's arm. The evaluator then rests a hand on the pup's chest and looks into its eyes for a few long seconds. If the pup immediately struggles to get free, refusing to be held in the cradled position, it is considered to be dominant and willful. A dog that does not struggle, but simply accepts the imposition, is considered to be more respectful of human authority and may thus be more easily trainable.

b) The suspension test. The puppy is gently elevated by the evaluator, allowing its hind legs to dangle free. The under-the-armpits lift is performed for just a few seconds with the pup held out at arm's length. A pup that kicks and struggles to get free is considered willful and dominant. Hanging limp means the pup is respectful and deferent to human authority.

Fearfulness

Any one of a number of tests can be employed to predict fearfulness. Evaluators may drop keys behind the pup while he is walking along to see whether it a) doesn't care, b) shows mild interest, or c) practically jumps out of his skin. This test determines sound sensitivity, a component of fearfulness. Another test involves unfurling an umbrella in front of the pup to evaluate its startle reaction to this unfamiliar object.

Sociability

Sociability can be estimated by arranging for social exchanges with other dogs and noting the pup's reactions. Barking or balking are signs of apprehension and do not bode well for future interactions with other dogs. Mild interest or enthusiastic interactions with other dogs are positive findings that bode well for the future. Similar tests can be performed employing people of different shapes and sizes, dress and color, sex, and appearance. Evaluation of the pup's response is the same as with other dogs.

Another aspect of sociability tests involves putting the pup in the center of an arena or room, then walking away to see whether the pup follows. Following is a good sign, which indicates attachment to people; indifference or walking in the opposite direction is not so good.

Testing Adult Dogs

The temperament tests performed in adult dogs are similar to those in pups, though care must be taken in performing certain procedures, like rolling an adult dog onto his back if there is any indication of aggression. Other limitations also apply. For example, since you probably couldn't cradle a 75-pound golden retriever in your arms unless you're a weight lifter, the procedure is normally carried out on the floor.

Dogs that refuse to be rolled are supposed to be willful or dominant, tense and perhaps anxious. Those that allow this interaction are laid back and of good humor. Again, exercise extreme caution when performing this move if there is any suspicion of aggression. It may be best to perform this move in the presence of a knowledgeable instructor.

Lifting an adult dog off the floor under the armpits is also sometimes not possible. A compromise is to hold the dog gently by both front paws (or forearms) and slowly elevate the dog into a dancing position. Acceptance is good. Rebelliousness is bad.

The other tests of sociability and fearfulness may also be engaged and evaluators can get as sophisticated as they like with these tests. The dog can be confronted by a man with a hat and walking stick and the man can then slowly raise the stick to shoulder level, taking note of the dog's reaction.

The extent of the testing depends only on the time available and the experience and patience of the evaluator. Most of the time, a pretty good idea of the temperament of an adult dog can be obtained within a 15-minute evaluation period. For those thoroughly used to this type of testing, it is often possible to get a good idea of how a dog is going to react by observing its expressions and body language during interactions. As silly as this may sound, some dogs do seem to have smiling faces, laughing eyes, and pose no threat. They may radiate affection and self-assuredness. Other dogs give away their suspicious nature by furtive looks and slinking postures even before testing has commenced.

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