Do Puppy Personality Tests Work?

Do puppy personality tests actually work?  According to some rather over-cited studies they don’t, but let’s take a closer look before we dismiss them.

do puppy personality tests work
Which Puppy Is Right for You?

Puppy temperament testing – if it works – would be one of the most important steps you could take to optimise your chances of finding THE puppy that could grow to become the dog of your dreams, and give you many years blissful canine companionship.   Personality varies widely within breeds too – in my Miniature Schnauzers for example we have everything from introverted scaredy-dogs to bold extroverts – so its wise to take breed behavioral stereotypes with a pinch of salt.  So while picking the right breed is important, such best laid plans can go awry if people don’t choose an individual with a personality that makes it a Perfect Match Puppy for their home environment and ownership objectives.

History of Puppy Temperament Testing

Puppy profiling was first used in 1963 by Clarence Pfaffenberger to select suitable puppies as candidates for further training as guide dogs for the blind and save wasting time and training costs on puppies with low prospects of graduating.  He found a high correlation between dogs that performed well at an early age and those that became guide dogs. While there is still a long way to go, many others have followed in his footsteps since then to further develop the science of puppy profiling.

By the 1970’s Michael Fox’s work had led to the widespread use of puppy tests to evaluate a puppy’s potential for good social behavior with humans and other dogs.   And by the 1990’s various protocols had been developed in an attempt to avoid future problems by selecting the right puppy or shelter dog for the right family, and to select the best service dogs for breeding.

But Do Puppy Personality Tests Work?

Despite a subsequent flurry of activity by scientists, some weren’t able to predict future temperament from their puppy testing experiments and reluctantly concluded that aptitude testing in puppies does not work.  This led to derision by some experts on the value of puppy personality assessments in general.

Margaret Young from North Carolina State University, for example, used the well-known Campbell puppy personality test in the early 1980s to assess 327 puppies at 6 to 8 weeks old, which she followed up at 3 years of age.  She found the tests to be unreliable, particularly at predicting social attraction or dominance/aggression in adult dogs.

However, a lot of the detractors of testing fail to take into account the role that post-testing, early experiences with humans have on shaping an adult dog’s personality.  Innate temperament tendencies discernable in puppies are not set in stone but amenable to positive experiences and susceptible to negative ones.  Retesting dogs when they are adults can only be a reliable test of puppy tests if all the dogs experienced the same upbringing in the intervening period – which of course is often not the case (e.g. as in Margaret Young’s work).

Indeed, Slabbert and Odendaal[1] discovered they could identify individuals with a high chance of becoming successful police dogs using personality assessments at 8 weeks of age.  Not surprisingly, the dogs tested were of the same breed, raised in a standardised way (designed to enhance their development) effectively “ironing out” their early experiences and confirming predictability of testing at the puppy stage.

In 2010 Malgorzata Goleman conducted puppy aptitude tests on 259 German Shepherd puppies ages from 6 to 9 weeks, and then reassessed 144 of them at 12 months of age.   Her results confirmed a strong correlation between the personality of puppies and the temperaments they displayed at maturity. Again, these dogs had relatively standardised rearing, all bred by professional breeders, with most going on with training for work as adults.  She found that puppy tests of innate predispositions to sociability, retrieving, catching and cooperating with people had a statistically strong correlation to their later performance.  Puppies that were more trusting and social at 6 to 9 weeks of age kept this quality as adults.  Dogs which, as puppies, showed a tendency towards retrieving kept it to adulthood and were found to be more compliant and cooperative towards training, even if they were not subsequently encouraged to do so by their owners.

To settle this question once and for all in 2013 Jamie Fratkin[2]  reviewed all the testing that had ever been done.  He found many examples of success, and suggested that the blanket idea that ‘puppy tests do not work’ needed to be reconsidered:

One of the core questions facing many working and companion dog organizations is whether ‘puppy tests’ are predictive of later adult behavior. Our results suggest that puppy personality is moderately consistent, and remains so, throughout the juvenile and into the adult period. This may especially true for particular personality dimensions, such as aggression or submissiveness, which appear to be as consistent as dimensions measured in adult dogs.

Puppy Personality Both Consistent and Malleable

As in adults, puppy personality can be characterized as being both moderately consistent as well as sometimes highly plastic, depending on the personality dimension of interest.  While some dimensions of early puppy personality have been shown to be moderately consistent with the dog it will grow to become, the way a dog is treated, particularly while it is still immature, undoubtedly has a powerful impact on shaping its natural psychology.   Both the first and second two months of a dog’s life are critically formative.

Veterinarian Bruce Fogle, in his excellent book “The Dog’s Mind”, summed it up this way:

“How a dog behaves at any given time in his life is a result of a constant and fluid interplay between his genetic potential and his environment” 

This is particularly true during puppyhood when the early development of the dog’s mind is taking place.

All this points to the importance of using puppy testing as just one step in the journey to find the perfect dog, in a continuum that takes all other crucial factors into full consideration:  its breed, its breeder, its litter, its personality, and how its potential as a companion is nurtured by the owner in the crucial weeks and months after taking their fluffy bundle home.  And while inherited temperament tendencies certainly play a part in the way a puppy performs in personality tests, such tests are also a measure of how well socialised the puppy has been by the breeder.

[2] Fratkin JL, Sinn DL, Patall EA, Gosling SD (2013) Personality Consistency in Dogs: A Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54907. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054907

[1] Slabbert JM, Odendaal JSJ (1999) Early prediction of adult police dog efficiency–a longitudinal study. Appl Anim Behav Sci 64: 269–288

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