Last month I wrote a post about what I look for in a breeder. This one discusses the natural follow-up question: What do I look for in a dog?
Well, exterior matters. Yes, I am that shallow, but honestly, who can claim that visual attraction doesn’t make it easier to clean up poop and barf or muddy paw prints on the duvet cover, dish out money for stuff the poochini absolutely must have, and go for a walky in pouring rain, freezing temperatures or in the middle of the night. Puppies are so darn cute on purpose. It’s a calculated move so that we fall in love, and care for them even when they’re baaaaad.
Personally, I prefer longer hair to shorter, and medium size dogs to giants and minis. Said that, there are exceptions: I have a great affinity for Newfs and Saints, and shorthaired heelers and Catahoulas – that is because I like the mottled and merled look.
As far as I am concerned, it is okay to value the facade, cause beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Dogs I find irresistibly gorgeous others snub, so in the end every look will find its lover.
Enough superficial talk. Truth is that more than looks, temperament matters. The funny thing is that I like sweet-natured and super friendly pooches, ones that are a bit on the shy, timid and submissive side, and ones that have a certain confident edge. The sweet ones because they are so easy to live with, the shy ones draw out my nurturing instinct, and the ones with attitude I like, hm, difficult to articulate why cause I don’t really know. I just do.
When I look for a pup for meself, I don’t assess consciously because I, blink, know when it’s the right one. That is the best explanation I can give. For layfolk, breeders, humane societies and rescue groups, testing for temperament is a great way to gain valuable information that can increase the odds that a pup finds her best possible human match.
The most common temp. test for puppies is probably the Volhard Aptitude Test. You can Google that if you like, but frankly I don’t like it much. Testing happens when the puppies are 49 days old because they are: “neurologically complete and not yet tainted by learning”. I have no problem with evaluating puppies at 7 weeks of age, but the reason Volhard gives doesn’t make sense to me. Does she mean that a puppy, regardless of breed, prior to the precise 49th day of life, is only governed by his genetic make-up, and only from day 50 onward will experience affect him? Maybe I am slow thinker, but I am not getting it.
What bothers me more though is Volhard’s emphasis to test for dominance and submission. For starters, dogs are innately deferent to humans, but aside from that, do you really believe that rolling a 7-week-old pup on his back, or lifting his front end off the ground, will provide predictable information if he’ll aggressively challenge you sometime in the future? Think about it: here is a pup suddenly separated from his mom and littermates (Volhard recommends that the pups are tested one at a time, and that both tester and testing area are unfamiliar), finds himself in a new setting and is handled by a complete stranger, and if he struggles when coerced on his back or lifted, he gets the “dominant” label. What you are really measuring is anxiety and fear, not dominance. The puppy who is most insecure might panic and do everything to get away, including bite.
According to experts, dominance toward dogs can’t accurately be determined at that age either. Mech, the ultimate authority on wolves, couldn’t in wolf pubs, and “The Domestic Dog” states that the relationship amongst dog littermates is highly unstable until they are about 11 weeks old. In studies, they found that today’s top pup is often tomorrow’s bottom one.
Another part of Volhard’s aptitude test I dislike is squeezing the webbing between the puppy’s toes to check for touch sensitivity and pain threshold to determine what kind of training is required. If you’ve followed my writings for a while, you may have noticed that I am one of those imbalanced, close-minded people who promote only one kind of training – motivational positive reinforcement. But for a balanced trainer who applies every method and uses every tool, including a variety of aversive ones, how a pup responds to pressure and pain is important information, cause a “dominant” dog who resists coercive handling AND is unimpressed and undeterred by an unpleasant consequence can present a challenge for these people. Since I don’t train with force and pain, testing what it takes to make a puppy whimper is not needed. In fact, the last thing I want is that the first learning experience (on day 49) a pup has in association with a stranger is tainted.
I don’t follow Volhard’s recommendations, but like her I evaluate each puppy separately. Testing doesn’t have to take place in an unfamiliar space, and I request the human caregiver to be present, because a very important trait I am checking for is social bonding and willingness to seek information from a human. Owner attention is the foundation of all training. Because I am a brand new person, I don’t expect the wee baby to instantly connect with me (although some do), follow me, or even “work for me” and retrieve a crumbled piece of paper I tossed, but he should connect with the caregiver: offer eye contact, check in, and follow the person he is familiar with – periodically, and especially when in conflict and confused.
A puppy that curiously investigates me right away, and only rarely checks in with the caregiver, indicates confidence. Conversely, one who is reluctant to approach me and seeks refuge with the familiar person is cautious. Neither is necessarily problematic. Unlike the word dominance that raises a red flag in people, confidence simply means that the pup is more outgoing and less prone to be fearful. Since most behavioral issues are rooted in fear and anxiety, and not dominance, confidence isn’t a bad thing. Caution isn’t either, but it means that the pup’s exposure to new situations needs to be done carefully, that’s all.
More troublesome is a pup who is neither curious in me, nor in the caregiver, but panics right away and wants to flee. That was the case with one in the last litter I assessed. She couldn’t be consoled or redirected, just wanted to get out of dodge. Furthermore, when we took her back to her littermates and mom, she didn’t seek closeness with them either, but stayed a distance away – hiding. That pup I was worried about, but I can tell you that she was adopted into the best possibly family.
Once a pup trusts me, I check what motivates him. Finding out what floats his boat is important info for motivational trainers, and owners who wanna be the alpha, cause whoever controls the resources is boss. Making access to whatever the dog wants contingent on behavior is the most effective and humane way to train, and the fasted route to authentic companionship with the human in the lead.
Anything is possible with a pup that is curious, motivated, eager to connect with his human and seeking information from her, so that is really all I need to know. But I also handle the pup - his body, head, face, ears, feet and tail, and if he rolls on his back voluntarily I will make note of that. There is nothing wrong with a dog that is authentically submissive, but I don’t force it. I do lean slightly over the pup though, because a) I am a natural leaner anyway, and b) most people are and will lean over a puppy. Handling and leaning lets me know if there is a problem zone that warrants extra attention, and maybe desensitizing or counterconditioning.
Because I check for motivation, I come equipped with food and toys. Once I found something the puppy really, really likes, I withhold it to assess frustration level, inhibition, determination and self-control.
Lastly, but most importantly, I always get the caregiver’s observations. They are with the puppies daily, and should be aware if one is particularly sound or motion sensitive, often seeks distance from others, or regularly possess over food and other stuff.
Although I don’t believe that 49-day-old puppies are uncorrupted by experiences during the imprinting period, what older dogs learned based on their interactions with people and dogs are much more deep-seated. A dog can have learned to be suspicious, guarded, aloof, reactive, fake-submissive or aggressive when those behaviors were reinforced. In addition, there are a variety of physical issues that influence behavior, but that evaluators might not be aware of or pay any attention to. The dog could be hungry, wormy, itchy, sore, or hormonally imbalanced. For example, progesterone has a calming, sedative effect, and a female shortly after being spayed can be more aggressive due to the progesterone drop.
So, a temp. test done with a stray or surrendered older dog might not reveal his authentic personality and true potential. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to assess anyway, and most shelters do, because it reveals tendencies and extreme expressions. Most shelters adopted Volhard, Emily Weiss, or Sue Sternberg’s way of testing.
Like the Puppy Aptitude test, Volhard emphasizes dominance and recommends putting a dog in a down position and then rolling him on his back. Although it’s not funny, her conclusion that “if he bites he is not the dog for you” made me grin. Who’da thought! She also says that if he runs away he is also not a dog for you. He is supposed to lick your face when you sit beside him and forgive you.
I also dislike Emily Weiss’ SAFER test. It is short, sets dogs up to fail, and some are euthanized for objecting having the webbing between their toes squeezed. Darn dogs who dare to struggle when pain is applied.
Emily Weiss, like Sue Sternberg, assesses for resource guarding. Sue Sternberg developed that test, and the Assess-A-Hand, a rubber, real looking hand on a stick that is used to push the food bowl away, or the dog’s face away from the food, or to pet the dog across his back while he eats. In other words, first the dog is offered high value food he typically doesn’t get, and then is taunted with the hand to evaluate how he reacts. That the pooch perhaps experienced neglect and hunger, had to fight to survive, and might be anxious because he is aware that other dogs, potential resource competitors, are in the vicinity, is typically not taken into account if he growls, snaps or bites the hand.
You might have guessed, I dislike that test as well. Aside from the fact that it sets dogs up to fail, passing it isn’t a clear indication that he would not defend resources other than food. He could not be hungry or not liking the food, he might be too stressed to eat or senses the tester’s confidence, doesn’t feel good, or is generally not that food motivated. Once in a home and moved from his favorite resting spot, or approached when he has a yummy bone dug from the compost, or confronted by a child and real hand, he could react. And the opposite often also is the case: a dog who growled in the shelter stops aggressing once he is relaxed in a home and experiences resource security; trusts that food is always available and not contested.
Said that, I do like to get an idea how a dog feels about resources, but add food to the bowl while the dog eats, instead of pushing him away. A person approaching is enough for an insecure dog to become tense, and that is really all I need to know: is my dog fearful to lose a resource when a person approaches, and if yes, I need to address it on that level – from the point of fear and insecurity, not dominance. By adding food, I at least won't make matters worse and confirm to him once more that people near his loot is bad news.
The point with any test is to determine as accurately as possible how a dog behaves in normal, every day life situations. That is really all one can do because one can never test for every possible eventuality. Regarding food, real life is casually talking and using the space where the dog eats, because the family getting ready in the morning while the pooch has his breakfast in the kitchen resembles what happens in many homes. Common sense dictates that other than that, a dog should be left to eat in peace. Supervising, and educating children when, and when not to pat the dog, is the parents’ job and part of good dog ownership.
Like with the pup, when I evaluate an older dog I want to know his level of interest in humans, and his willingness to follow them mentally. Is the dog curious about me? Offers eye contact and connects with his caregiver? If yes, is he clingy? Does he switch attention between me, and his familiar person? Or is he avoiding and ignoring us, fixating on the environment?
Like with the pup, I want to find out what motivates him, and then I withhold access to see to what length he goes to gain access. Does he back away a tad, look at me and submissively solicit? Is he pushy – if yes does he back off when I walk into his space? Is he persistent? Or does he lose interest quickly and walk away? Does he offer obedience behaviors he has in his repertoire? Does he look at the caregiver for information?
I handle the dog as much as I can safely, and without causing pain try to find something that annoys him, to find out to what length he goes to make me stop. And like leaning over a puppy because most people do that, I check how my adult feels when I grab his collar, cause most people will do that, too. That is real life.
And I try to rile him up to see what it takes for him to settle.
Again, like with the puppy, the best evaluation comes from the people who interact daily with the pooch. Ideally, there should be a log kept for each shelter dog, and every person who interacts with that dog should make entries right afterward.
How dogs act can depend on the person they are interacting with. Some behave differently with assertive humans or good handlers; know the difference between experts and rookies. A variety of people noting their experiences gives clearer information how the dog will act with someone who is less skilled, and writing it down might show a pattern of behaviors easily missed with just oral communication.
The goal of any testing is to find the perfect match between dog and the people he’s going to live with for the next decade or more. Because most people in North America live in urban and suburban settings, that is where shelter staff and volunteers should walk and observe.
How does the dog use his senses? Sniffs, listens, watches? Is he connecting to the handler around environmental distractions? Voluntarily, or with prompting? What do I have to do to get his attention when: there is a dog, cyclist, child playing?
Does the dog want to chase things in motion? If yes, can I redirect him? What does it take?
Is my dog easily startled, or trigger reactive - to dogs, kids, men? How? Avoiding, lunging, barking? What is the distance and time before my dog relaxes again?
When I test I keep each dog’s unique genetic make-up and individual past experiences in mind, and always aim to contribute to his welfare, instead of adding to his stress. I don’t want my puppy to learn that unfamiliar humans mean pressure and discomfort, and I don’t want to increase a shelter dog’s anxiety by provoking him until I get an unwanted reaction. Increased stress, decreased trust, and negative associations to a training type facility where assessments often take place, or people that do them, add extra hurdles the well-meaning family that adopts the pooch has to overcome.
How valuable of a future behavior predictor is a temperament test? Definitely not conclusive, because behavior is always dictated by a combination of nature, nurture and present environment – some say predominantly present environment, which of course is dynamic.
So, the purpose really is to find out if the dog is likely going to be a safe and enjoyable companion for his humans and society at large, and if there are issues, what it would likely take to modify them. It is not, and can’t be, a guaranty for life that the dog, in every conceivable situation, will never cause problems.