What are the Critical Periods in a puppy's development? What are the tests which can help determine a puppy's temperment. Read how this review of the literature helped the author in selecting a puppy.

A Novice Looks At Puppy Aptitude Testing
By Melissa Bartlett
Reprinted from Kees News - August 84 issue

Melissa Bartlett, MS, OTR has a masters degree in Occupation Therapy from Virginia Commonwealth University and is presently working at the Oswego County Mental Health Center is Oswego N.Y.

I learned my first lesson in puppy testing at the tender age of eleven. After noticing an ad in the Sunday newspaper for Belgian Sheepdog puppies, I pleaded with my parents and finally talked them into letting me get a purebred dog to show and train "all on my own". We set off in the family car, our spirits and expectations high. When we arrived, the owner of the dam showed me a blue ribbon the bitch had won but warned me not to get "my face too close to her". We went out back to see the pups, and I tried to scrutinize the ten wiggling, wagging bundles of black fluff. It was nearly impossible to tell the difference from one pup to the next and their wild antics and clambering didn't help. One male, however, stood out because he was taller than the others and his ears were already standing. "I like that big one," I said. "Why honey, he is the pick of the litter," said the owner of the bitch, and sensing my interest, she began rattling off the good qualities of that puppy. The pup, however, hung back warily despite my coaxing and finally went off to a corner of the makeshift run and crawled behind some boards. I followed him but he refused to come out. When I reached in to pet him, he growled.

To make a long story short, I purchased, and triumphantly carried home the reluctant "pick of the litter". As it turned out, he was so nervous he could never keep weight on, he paced constantly, fought any strange dog, male or female, hid behind chairs and shivered when strangers came into the house, and growled at anyone including family members if they approached his bed. This was despite obedience classes, consultations with professionals, and so forth. Two years later, I tearfully parted with my pet when he began jumping the fence and biting children at an elementary school a couple of blocks away.

The lesson I learned was: no matter what the dog looks like, one first has to be able to live with him. Never pick a puppy for looks alone.

In the years that followed, I continued my interest in purebred dogs, especially in the sport of obedience training. I owned several other dogs of various breeds, but the question still remained with me: How do you pick the puppy with the best temperament?

The very first difficulty I encountered was the wide variations in what people meant by "good" temperament. One breeder might say a good-tempered dog was assertive and protective, and another would say the same dog was vicious Some breeders would describe a good-tempered dog as easy-going and gentle, and others would disparage the dog as "soft".

In Belgian Tervurns, the breed Standard calls for a dog which is "aloof" with strangers. One owner proudly explained this characteristic to me while his bitch tucked her tail and tried to hide behind him. Most breeders I talked to were sincere in their belief that their dog's temperament was "good" and were willing to guarantee temperament on puppies they sold. However, it was extremely confusing and difficult for me, as a novice, to sort out exactly what each breeder meant when he said "good temperament" .In my efforts to find a convenient way to test a puppy's temperament, I not only did a great deal of reading but also was lucky enough to be involved in testing several litters. I feel that had I known this information earlier many mistakes could have been avoided. After participating in a number of "kitchen-table debates", I gradually began to sort out information. As soon as someone quoted a source or a theory I scurried off to the library and read the book.

One of the first things to come to light was that in puppy temperament testing, there are several inherent problems. (1) What is a "good temperament? (2) How much of a puppy's temperament is hereditary? (3) How much influence does environment have on the puppy's temperament? (4) How can we accurately predict temperament of the adult dog?

What became obvious after a time was that in general, "good" temperament in a dog is well-suited for the owner's preference and purposes. "Good" temperament in a dog for a quite, inactive older person in an apartment will be different from "good" temperament in a dog for a military K-9 corps handler.

Because of this, it is more useful to define traits or components of temperament and what one can expect from combinations of traits, rather than to say this temperament is good, this one is bad. In choosing a puppy an understanding of what traits suit the owner and handler is essential.

An understanding of the traits themselves and what traits were genetically selected for in the different breeds is also important. The tendency to freeze when scenting a bird is selected for in Pointers, the tendency to "eye" and circle has been selected for in Sheepdogs, the tendency to hunt by sight in Greyhounds, and so on. These tendencies, although undeveloped, can be observed in most dogs, but selective breeding has enhanced them.

In addition to these breed traits, there are basic traits found in every dog which are good indicators for how well the dog will adapt to living with humans.

Willaim Campbell, Dog Behavior Consultant, has listed behavioral traits which are common to all breeds and which influence temperament.
  1. Excitability vs. Inhabitability: This trait is an inherited tendency which in the excitable dog makes him extremely responsive to external stimuli. Field trial retrievers are selected for this trait because they need to be constantly aware of the hunt, the fall of the bird, etc.

    The inhibited dog shows more self control. This dog is more easily trained to react only upon certain cues. Campbell cites the Schutzhund German Shepherd as an example.

    The balance between excitability and inhabitability is a poised, assured dog. The extreme of excitability would be a wild uncontrollable dog. The extreme of inhabitability would be the withdrawn, rigid and lethargic dog.

  2. Active vs. Passive Defense Reflexes: This trait is the inherited tendency to react to stress by biting, freezing or running away. The dog with passive defense reflexes can be induced to bite only with difficulty or under extreme duress.

    The field trial retriever has been selected for passive defense reflex so as to avoid killing wounded birds, etc. On the other hand, the Schutzhund Shepherd has been selected for active defense reflexes so he can easily be trained for protection. This is combined with his tendency towards inhabitability and allows the owner to train the dog to attack only in specific situations.

  3. Dominant vs. Submissive: The dominant dog is the one which would grow up to be the pack-leader if he and the other puppies had been left to grow up on their own in the wild. He shows the behavioral tendency to dominate. This trait is expressed by biting, growling, mounting, direct eye contact, walking with head up, tail up, hackles up, etc. The dominant dog will have first pick of the food, places to sleep, etc. Dominance has been selected for in Fox Terriers, originally bred to drag foxes from their dens.

    As Campbell points out, the dominant dog may challenge his human master and needs consistent, firm, calm handling. Lack of leadership on the owner's part with such a dog will result in the dog's assuming leadership. A dog's attempts to lead in today's hectic, complex society usually result in maladaptive responses such as overprotectiveness, nervousness, refusal to obey, and interfering with owner's interactions with other people.

    Submissiveness is evident in the dog, which accepts leadership. This is expressed in behavioral terms as nudging with the nose, pawing, tail down, ears down, lack of fighting, crouching and rolling over on the back, lack of eye contact, submitting to command. This dog can be influenced easily by the leader. This trait has been selected for in Spaniels who were originally bred to crouch while hunters shot or netted the birds.

    The submissive dog generally responds to a human leader. The extremely submissive on the other hand, which reacts to the slightest stress by crouching or tail tucking, may be difficult to train. A lot of encouragement and very gentle handling is needed to build confidence and to help it adapt to the stresses of living in the average household.

  4. INDEPEDENCE vs. SOCIAL ATTRACTION: The independent dog is not interested in human beings. He may be poorly socialized or simply a loner. This dog may work or hunt well on his own. This trait was selected for in the Basenji, for example, a dog which originally hunted alone with a bell around its neck; the humans followed the sound of the bell to the game.

    The socially attracted dog shows interest in people, enjoys being petted, follows human beings easily, and in general wants to be where they are. Poodles have been selected for this trait. They are tuned in to people and make good pets for this reason, which may explain why they have been number 1 in registrations for the last 18 years.
It is obvious that the combination of traits or tendencies with which a puppy is born will go into its temperament. The particular combination will result in a dog more suited for some things than others. For example, just because the dog has active defense reflexes doesn't mean he will be a good guard dog. If he is highly excitable and very independent, this dog may respond to any and all stimuli, be unresponsive to training, and also bite under the slightest stress.

I now realize that my "pick of the litter" puppy was exactly such a dog. His constant activity, lack of interest in being petted, deep-rooted suspicion of any and all people, combined with his tendency to bite under stress, all fit into this pattern. Since he over-reacted to almost any stimuli (noises outside, vacuum sweepers, radios, any movement such as a napkin falling, a person sneezing, doors opening etc., etc.) and since he often perceived such stimuli as a threat, he was extremely difficult to live with. I now understand that such a dog requires special handling techniques which would be beyond the ability of the average eleven year old, to say the least!

In addition, Humphrey and Warner in their book "Working Dogs" suggest two other important inherited characteristics.
  1. Sound sensitivity: The sound sensitive dog shows excessive fear, crouching, urinating, running away when confronted with a loud or sharp sound; the dog may overreact to gunshots, shouted commands, etc.

  2. Touch Sensitivity vs. insensitivity: The touch sensitive dog will be difficult to train with the standard training collar because the correction-snap sets off the dog's defense reflexes (biting, freezing or running away).

    The touch insensitive dog shows little response to physical stimuli. A mighty yank on the training collar, yields little if any response. Touch insensitivity was selected for in the pit-fighting dogs, in order for them to continue fighting despite severe wounds.
What is commonly called a "hard" dog is often a combination of dominant, and touch insensitive. This dog shows a strong tendency to lead, and will be difficult to train. When the owner attempts to assert himself through a corrective snap on the training collar, the dog doesn't respond because it cannot feel the collar. To get results, the owner will have to resort to more forceful methods of correction, or use a different stimuli.

An owner of an Irish Setter was once heard to say in despair, "The only thing that damn dog understands is pain. You have to belt him with a 2 x 4 to get anything through that thick head of his". The dog turned out to be dominant, and touch insensitive. The dog did not respond to the correction which he never felt unless it was unusually harsh, which in turn made his gentle owner feel terribly guilty. Food turned out to be a more successful stimulus to get her dog to obey commands.

I could now see from my discussions and reading that I was getting somewhere in terms of dealing with the knotty problem of temperament and its hereditary origin.

"But doesn't environment play a large part in how a dog develops temperamentally?" I asked. Anyone can easily cite a dozen examples of friendly puppies who turned out mean because of teasing, cruel treatment, or misguided handling. Other examples include wild, mistreated or problem animals who developed into fine pets and working dogs with proper treatment and environment. The Royal Air Force K-9 Corps has a motto "A handler always ends up with the dog he deserves", suggesting that the handler is entirely responsible for his dog's performance, quality, etc.

A dog, however, is not a clean slate when he is born; he possesses inborn tendencies and characteristics. If this were not true there would be no breed traits and any dog would be as easy to train for field trials, ratting, and guiding the blind as any other. However, it has come to light that environment plays a tremendous part in developing a dog's potential. As Dr. Michael Fox puts it in "Understanding your Dog":

"Genetic factors are transmitted by inheritance, but the traits themselves are modified by interacting genetic and environmental factors. Training and early experience greatly influence these traits..."
In the light of research on dogs done at Bar Harbor by Drs. Scott and Fuller, it has been determined that the influence on temperament occurs much earlier (3-13 weeks) in dogs than previously suspected. The early environment and learning of the puppy is the most important. In these critical stages of the dog, the environment and experiences have the most lasting impression on the dog. A traumatic event in the periods may forever influence the dog. The effect may be modified through training but the dog may never reach its potential had that traumatic event not occurred.

The following is a brief synopsis of the critical stages of the dog as revealed by the research of Scott and Fuller.

Stage I
1-3 weeks (1-20 days) The puppy needs warmth, food, sleep and his mother. Neurologically very primitive, the puppy responds by reflex and essentially it is unable to learn.

4th week (21-28 days) The puppy needs its mother most at this time. It is a period of extremely rapid sensory development. Neurologically the brain is suddenly able to receive messages; the circuits are "turned on". Weaning should not take place at this time; the puppy is extremely vulnerable.

5th-7th week (29-49 days) The puppy needs his mother and litter-mates. Dogs removed from the litter at this period tend to be unable to socialize with other dogs, may fight, refuse to breed, etc. Contact with humans and gentle training is beneficial and helps the pup set the stage for more intense contact with humans later on.

7th week (49th-56th day) This is the ideal time for the puppy to transfer his loyalty to his new owner. Mentally he is able to learn whatever any adult dog can learn, his being is neurologically complete. However, physically he will not be able to do the tasks of an adult dog. For example he can't jump one and a half times his height with the dumbbell in his mouth, but he can learn the exercise if it is scaled down to his size. Socialization and training should continue on a regular basis. Bonds formed at this time are extremely strong.

8-10 weeks (57-70 days) This is the fear-imprinting period. Any traumatic experience such as shipping, ear cropping, severe punishment, etc. may have a lasting effect on the dog. New experiences must be non-fear producing. Proper training and socialization should continue.

11-16 weeks (71-112 days) The puppy continues to learn from his experiences. If left with other dogs, he may become imprint only to dogs; taking his leadership from them and never developing a strong relationship with human beings. Lack of socialization with humans will result in shy behaviour such as found in wild animals. Lack of exposure to other environments and exploration may result in "kennel syndrome", where the dog is unable to cope with any change from his routine environment.

Clarence Pfaffenberger was able to put the critical stages of puppy development into practical application in the breeding program of Guide Dogs for the Blind. He used Scott and Fuller's research and supplemented it with specially developed puppy tests to pinpoint the potential guide dogs in a litter at approximately 8 weeks of age. Through planned breeding, careful attention to development, and puppy testing he raised the percentage of successful guide dogs in the breeding program from 9% to 90%.

An experiment of Clarence Pfaffenberger's for example, demonstrates the importance of early socialization. After testing the population of 154 puppies who were all trained later for guide work he found: "of the puppies who had passed their tests and been placed in homes the first week after the conclusion of the tests, ninety percent became guide dogs; those who were in the kennel more than one week and less than two weeks faired almost but not quite as well; those left in the kennel more than two weeks but less than three, showed only about 57% guide dogs; of those who were in the kennel more than three weeks after the tests, only 30% became guide dogs."(The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior) The break in socialization between testing and placing at this critical point (after 7-8 weeks) resulted in dogs who could not take the responsibility for a blind master, while their litter mates whose socialization had not been interrupted, succeeded at the task.

By using Campbell, Pfaffenberger and Working Dogs, the Volhards developed a system for testing puppies which would: 1) indicate the dog's basic temperament traits, and 2) indicate the dog with the most obedience potential.

All of Campbell's tests are included since these are indicators of how the pup will adapt to living with human beings. Most of the dogs in the U.S. today are first and foremost family companions, a fact which seems to have been largely ignored by breeders of show, field trial, and guard dogs.

There are three tests, which are from Pfaffenberger, to indicate the aptitude the puppy has for obedience work. (Pfaffenberger describes a number of other tests indicative of aptitude for guide work where it is critical that a dog be able to make intelligent decisions in response to unexpected situations. If he is guiding a blind master, his master's life may depend upon it. This ability is not a matter of life and death in the obedience ring, although exhibitors sometimes seem to think so). One test is from Working Dogs, where in 1934, a test was suggested for touch sensitivity in the German Shepherd. A slightly modified version is included in the Volhard tests.

The result it called the Puppy Aptitude Test (PAT), since it indicates which pup has the most aptitude for the desired task or purpose. The test is administered in a standard fashion to minimize human error. Conditions under which testing take place are as follows:
  1. Ideally, puppies are tested in the 7th week, preferably the 49th day. At 6 weeks or earlier the puppy's neurological connections are not fully developed. (If the test is conducted between 8-10 weeks, the puppy is in the fear imprint stage and special care must be taken not to frighten it.)

  2. Puppies are tested individually, away from dam and littermates, in an area new to them and relatively free from distractions. It could be a porch, garage, living room, yard or whatever. Puppies should be tested before a meal, when they are awake and lively, and not on a day when they have been wormed or given their puppy shots.

  3. The sequence of the tests is the same for all pups and is designed to alternate a slightly stressful test with a neutral or pleasant one.

  4. There is less chance for human error, or the puppies being influenced by a familiar person, if the tests are administered by someone other than the owner of the litter. A friend of the owner, or the prospective buyer can easily learn to give the test.

  5. I found it helpful to arrange the tests in a concise chart form following the order in which they are given. In addition, since I found it difficult to use Campbell's scoring code, I simply gave each response a number. While testing numerous puppies, the Volhards found that a number of puppies showed responses not on Campbell's test. These observations are included in the test with an apostrophe in order to differentiate them from Campbell's original tests. The Pfaffenberger tests were also given a number so that all scores can be compared and a chart was devised for checking a puppy's total performance at a glance.

  6. Also included in the Obedience Aptitude Tests is a section on structure. Over 60 breeds conform to what is called "conventional body type", that it, 45 degree shoulder layback and 90 degree angulation front and rear. The greater the deviation from this norm the less efficiently the dog will be able to perform obedience exercises. Other impediments to efficiently are HD, cowhocks, eastie-westie feet, crossing in front or rear when gaiting. A simple guide to follow for puppies at this age (7-8 weeks) is "what you see is what you get" notwithstanding the all-too-familiar assurance "don't worry, he'll grow out of it". Be particularly wary of the statement, "he's not much of a conformation dog but he'll do fine in obedience." This could mean the dog is perhaps mismarked or has light eyes, but is structurally sound. However, often it means the dog has a serious structural fault. This dog will be unable to take the strenuousness of training and competing in the obedience ring.

    If you feel that evaluation structure accurately is above your head, seek competent help.

  7. Last but not least, the prospective puppy tester must have a chance to observe the parents of the litter, preferably both parents but at least the dam. If the sire and/or dam have characteristics which are not desirable there exists a good chance some, if not all, of the puppies will have inherited these undesirable traits. The fact that the breeder of my "pick of the litter" puppy warned me not to get my face close to the dam should have been a tip off to watch for excitability and a tendency to bite in the puppies.

    The safest and easiest thing to do when faced with parent dogs of undesirable temperament is simply to look for another litter of pups whose sire and dam more closely conform to your ideals. If you must have a pup from this litter pay particular attention to the test scores of the litter and do not select a pup which shows any tendency towards undesirable traits.

1. Social Attraction: From a few feet away the tester coaxes the pup towards her.

3. Restraint: The tester gently rolls the pup on its back and holds it there for a full 30 sec

6. Retrieving: The tester attracts the pup's attention with a piece of crumpled paper.

8. Sound sensitivity: An assistant strikes a metal spoon on a pan lid to make a sharp noise.

9. Sight Sensitivity: A large towel tied to a string is jerked along the floor in front of the pup. One reaction to the towel is to attack!

2. Following: The tester walks away form the pup in a normal manner.

4. Social Dominance: The tester gently strokes the pup until a recognizable behavior is established.

5. Elevation Dominance: With fingers interlaced just under the pups rib cage, the tester elevates the pup off the ground for 30 seconds.

7. Touch Sensitivity: The tester holds the webbing between the toes of the pups front foot. She gradually increases pressure as she counts to 10, and stops as soon as the pup shows discomfort.

The following is a concise chart explaining each test and the scoring, a sample score sheet and an interpretation of the scores:
Place puppy in test area. From a few feet away the tester coaxes the pup to her/him by clapping hands gently and kneeling down. Tester must coax in a direction away from the point where it entered the testing area.
Degree of social attraction, confidence or dependence. Came readily, tail up, jumped, bit at hands.(1)
Came readily, tail up, pawed, licked at hands.(2)
* Came readily, tail up.(3)
Came readily, tail down.(4)
Came hesitant, tail down.(5)
Didn't come at all.(6)
Stand up and walk away from the pup in a normal manner. Make sure the pup sees you walk away
Degree of following attraction. Not following indicated independence. Followed readily, tail up, got underfoot, bit at feet.(1)
Followed readily, tail up, got underfoot.(2)
* Followed readily, tail up.(3)
Followed readily, tail down.(4)
Followed hesitantly, tail down.(5)
No follow or went away.(6)
Crouch down and gently roll the pup on his back and hold it with one hand for a full 30 seconds.
Degree of dominant or submissive tendency. How it accepts stress, when socially/physically dominated. Struggled fiercely, flailed, bit.(1)
Struggled fiercely, flailed.(2)
* Settled, struggled, settled with some eye contact.(3)
Struggled then settled.(4)
No struggle.(5)
* No struggle, straining to avoid eye contact.(6)
Let pup stand up and gently stroke him from the head to back while you crouch beside him. Continue stroking until a recognizable behavior is established.
Degree of acceptance of social dominance. Pup may try to dominate by jumping and nipping or is independent and walks away. Jumped, pawed, bit, growled.(1)
Jumped, pawed.(2)
* Cuddles up to tester and tries to lick face.(3)
Squirmed, licked at hands.(4)
Rolled over, licked at hands.(5)
Went away and stayed away.(6)
Bend over and cradle the pup under its belly, fingers interlaced, palms up and elevate it just off the ground. Hold it there for 30 seconds.
Degree of accepting dominance while in position of no control. Struggled fiercely, bit, growled.(1)
Struggled fiercely.(2)
* No struggle, relaxed.(3)
Struggled, settled, licked.(4)
No struggle, licked at hands.(5)
* No struggle, froze.(6)
Crouch beside pup and attract his attention with crumpled up paper ball. When the pup shows interest and is watching, toss the object 4-6 feet in front of pup.
Degree of willingness to work with a human. High correlation between ability to retrieve and successful guide dogs, obedience dogs, field trial dogs. Chases object, picks up object and runs away.(1)
Chases object, stands over object does not return.(2)
Chases object and returns with object to tester.(3)
Chases object and returns without object to tester.(4)
Starts to chase object, loses interest.(5)
Does not chase object.(6)
Take puppy's webbing of one front foot and press between finger and thumb lightly then more firmly till you get a response, while you count slowly to 10. Stop as soon as puppy pulls away, or shows discomfort.
Degree of sensitivity to touch. 8-10 counts before response.(1)
6-7 counts before response.(2)
5-6 counts before response.(3)
2-4 counts before response.(4)
1-2 counts before response.(5)
Place pup in the center of area, tester or assistant makes a sharp noise a few feet from the puppy. A large metal spoon struck sharply on a metal pan twice works well.
Degree of sensitivity to sound. (Also can be a rudimentary test for deafness). Listens, locates sound, walks towards it barking.(1)
Listens, locates sound, barks.(2)
Listens, locates sound, shows curiosity and walks toward sound.(3)
Listens, locates the sound.(4)
Cringes, backs off, hides.(5)
Ignores sound, shows no curiosity.(6)
Place pup in center of room. Tie a string around a large towel and jerk it across the floor a few feet away from puppy.
Degree of intelligent response to strange object. Looks, attacks and bites.(1)
Looks, barks and tail up.(2)
Looks curiously, attempts to investigate.(3)
Looks, barks, tail-tuck.(4)
Runs away, hides.(5)
The puppy is gently set in a natural stance and evaluated for structure in the following categories:
Straight front, Straight rear
Shoulder layback, Front angulation
Croup angulation, Rear angulation
(See Diagram Below)
Degree of structural soundness. Good structure is necessary. The puppy is correct in structure.(good)
The puppy has a slight fault or deviation.(fair)
The puppy has extreme fault or deviation.(poor)