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How to Test a Puppy’s Temperament

Before you bring a new dog into your home, consider how the pup's personality will mesh with your own — and with those who share your household.

The three temperament types you'll find among dogs are are

  • Active: Pups with an active temperament are smart and interactive, which means a lot of work but also a lot of fun. Spirited and intelligent, active pups are well appreciated by those owners who have the time and determination needed to train them.

  • Neutral: Neutral puppies are relaxed and undemanding — sort of the regular guys of the dog world.

  • Passive: Passive and shy puppies appreciate love and support but are fearful of change, so they do best in consistent environments.

If possible, temperament-test each of your prospective puppies to assess his or her personality and how each will mesh with your lifestyle. Ask the breeder whether a quiet area is available to handle puppies individually, or use an isolated corner of their resting area and do each of the following texts, giving the fuzzball an A (active), N (neutral) or P (passive) for each activity:

  1. Observe for a few minutes.

    You can tell a lot about your puppy before you’ve even said hello. Watch your puppy if he’s playing with other puppies. What is his personality? Is he bullying or being bullied? Does he prefer jumping into group activities (A), hanging in the midst of the activity (N), or staying on the sidelines (P)? Is he stealing the bones (A) or submitting when approached (N or P)?

  2. Play.

    When you first take a puppy aside, play with him. Is he hyper (A), easygoing (N), or does he just want to be petted (P)? Bring out some toys. Does he show interest in them? Does he show you what he has (N), instigate tug of war (A), or covet the object immediately? Coveting is an early sign of possessiveness, which may lead to aggression.

  3. Cradle.

    Cradle your puppy in your arms. Does he relax (P), wiggle a bit and then relax (N), or kick like crazy (A)? Which action matches your expectations?

    Don’t choose an A type if you have children.

  4. Call back.

    Using a treat or a squeak toy, call to the puppy as you back away from him. Does he race after you while jumping or nipping your ankles (A), follow happily (N), or hesitate and need coaxing (P)?

  5. Tuck and pat.

    Kneeling on the floor or sitting in a chair, settle the puppy between your legs. Pet him in long gentle strokes as you praise him softly. Does he wriggle free as he nips (A), wriggle and then relax (N), or simply melt in your embrace (P)?

  6. Bend over.

    Stand up, stretch, and relax. Now go to your puppy and lean over to pet him. Your doing this may seem overwhelming to the pup because you’re so large and he’s so small. Does he jump up to your face (A), cower in confusion (P), or just relax and let it happen (N)?

  7. Nose kiss.

    Cradle your puppy’s face in your hands and kiss him on the nose. Does he bite you back (A), accept the smooch calmly or return the interaction with a soft bite or kiss (N), or pull back in confusion (P)?

  8. Toe squeeze.

    In this exercise, you’re testing your puppy’s reaction and sensitivity to discomfort. While petting the puppy, gently squeeze the skin between his toes. Does he attack your hand? If so, he’s definitely an A type with high sensitivity. A neutral puppy may lick or mouth gently, whereas a passive puppy will cringe fearfully.

  9. Startle sound.

    Take a bunch of keys, and when your prospective puppy least expects it, rattle them above his head. Gauge his reaction: Attacking the keys gets an A; a nonchalant glance, an N; and a fear reaction noted by cowering or withdrawal, a P.

  10. Crash test.

    Stand and wait until your puppy is no longer interested in you. Suddenly fall to the ground as if you’ve tripped and exclaim “Ouch!” Does the puppy race over and pounce (A), come to sniff or lick your face (N), or cower and run in fear (P)?

  11. Uplift.

    Lift your puppy 4 inches off the floor by cradling his midsection. Hold him there for at least 5 seconds. Does he wriggle and bite furiously (A)? Does he relax and look around (N)? Does he look fearful and constrict his body posture (P)?

Don’t be surprised if you get mixed results. Tips for interpreting them:

  • All A’s: This dominant puppy is bright and interactive. Raising him will take concentration, consistency, and time. His favorite expression: “What’s Next?”

  • All N’s: Easygoing and contained, this puppy will be pleasant and self-assured, though perhaps not terribly motivated to follow your agenda when it conflicts with his own. His favorite expression: “Is this absolutely necessary?”

  • All P’s: This puppy has a weak self-esteem and needs your reassurance to feel safe. Without proper lessons and socialization, he’ll be shy. His favorite expression: “It’s been three minutes, do you still love me?”

  • Mix of A and N: This active puppy will want to be in the middle of everything but will show slightly more impulse control than a full-on Active pup when stimulated. His favorite expression: “Let’s do it again!”

  • Mix of N and P: This self-assured puppy will be easygoing and gentle yet with a stronger sense of self than a completely passive pup. Because he’s more composed, he’ll be an ideal puppy for a calm house with or without older children. Favorite expression: “Another backscratching please!”

Don’t settle for a puppy who doesn’t quite suit you just because you’ve been looking for a long time. Finding the right puppy is worth the wait!

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