How to Test a Puppy’s Temperament - dummies

How to Test a Puppy’s Temperament

By Sarah Hodgson

This article gives you 10 quick puppy temperament tests, which you can administer while you’re deciding whether you and a puppy are compatible. Of course, you can’t get a completely accurate snapshot of your adult dog — other factors are equally if not more important, like socialization, training, and consistency — but these tests are a good way for you to determine each candidate’s sensitivities and get a realistic view of their early conditioning.

If you’re testing an 8-week-old puppy (a common age for puppies to become available), remember that their brain won’t be fully aroused or awake until they’re 12 weeks old. Try to schedule your visit just before feeding or stay for a few hours to watch them during various activities. Test your puppy when they’re active, not when they’re tired or sleepy.

If you have children, involve them. If you have other pets, ask if you can bring them. Some facility staff or breeders may balk, but it’s essential that your puppy meet and make a connection to every member of your family. You want your puppy to succeed in your home environment, which means getting along with your sometimes-disgruntled resident schnauzer or your shy 6-year-old son. Finding a puppy who best suits their temperaments can be a plus because not every puppy personality will jive with them. Let children older than 5 take part in the exercises and ask whether other pets can meet your chosen candidates.

A puppy’s breed influences their reaction to many of these tests and can skew the results. A retriever breed is more interactive, a terrier is squirmier when restrained (terriers like to stand firm), and smaller breeds are more hesitant when bent over (they’re so tiny and you’re so big) and more reactive to loud noises.

Use the puppy scorecard

Bring the form shown in the following figure with you when you’re testing puppies.

puppy assessment form
Use this assessment form whenever you’re testing puppies.

Score each puppy’s response to test items with the following scale:

A = Active N = Neutral P = Passive

Active puppies are smart and full of fun, which means there will suddenly be a whole lot of life going on under your roof. Spirited and intelligent, active pups are adored by owners who have the time and determination needed to train and socialize them. Neutral puppies are relaxed and undemanding — sort of the regular guys of the dog world. Passive and shy puppies appreciate love and support but are fearful of change, so they do best in consistent environments and with people who have the patience and time for extra socialization.

How to perform the puppy temperament tests

If possible, do these gentle exercises with each prospective puppy to assess their socialization to everyday handling and sensory comfort levels (how well they adapt to sudden sounds, sights, and commotion, in other words). This will give you insight into the puppy’s personality and how they will mesh with your lifestyle:

1. Observe.

You can tell a lot about a puppy before you’ve even said hello. Watch the puppy, for up to 30 minutes when possible, if they’re playing with other puppies in order to observe their personality. Do they prefer jumping into group activities (A), hanging in the midst of the activity (N), or staying on the sidelines (P)? Are they stealing the bones (A) or submitting when approached (N or P)? After you’ve observed the pup for a few minutes, assign them a score in the first column.

2. Play.

When you first take a puppy aside, play with them, offering both treats and toys if permitted. Do they squirm to get away from you, look anxiously for their littermates, or engage and climb on you like a long-lost friend? Rate their energy level and persistence: Are they hyper or demanding (A), easygoing (N), or just wanting to be petted (P)? Bring out some toys. Do they show interest in them? Do they share willingly, instigate tug-of-war (A), or covet the object immediately? Coveting is an early sign of possessiveness, which may lead to aggression.

If being able to play a particular game with your puppy is important to you, see how the pup does with a related toy or activity.

3. Cradle.

Cradle the puppy in your arms. Do they relax (P), wiggle a bit, and then relax (N) — or kick like crazy (A)? Which action matches your expectations? See how quickly the puppy recovers after being put down; recovery is measured by how quickly they return to you and willingly takes a treat or engages with a toy.

cradle puppy temperament test
Illustration by Barbara Frake

Performing the cradle test.

Don’t choose an A type if you have children. That type is bright and engaging, which is a plus if you’re sporty or you want to be involved in obedience or sportier activities like agility or freestyle.

4. Call back.

While holding out a treat or a squeak toy, call to the puppy as you back away from them. Do they 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 them in long, gentle strokes as you praise them softly. Do they wriggle free as they nip (A), wriggle and then relax (N), or simply melt in your embrace (P)?

6. Bend over.

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

7. Hold the back leg.

In this exercise, you’re testing the puppy’s reaction and sensitivity to discomfort. While petting the puppy, gently lift the back-right leg 2 inches off the floor and hold it for a count of 5 seconds (although either leg would do). Do they react defensively? If so, they’re definitely an A type with high pain sensitivity. An N puppy may lick or place their mouth on you gently, whereas a P puppy will show concern.

When choosing a puppy for a home with young children, I look for a puppy who has a very low sensitivity to touch — one who barely notices a toe squeeze and doesn’t ruffle at being petted the wrong way or restrained for a short burst of time (fewer than 5 seconds).

8. Startle with sound.

When your prospective puppy least expects it, tap two metal spoons together behind their back, then drop them 3 inches from where they’re standing. Gauge their reaction: Do they startle and freeze? How quickly do they recover to explore the spoons or take a treat from your hand? If the puppy shows intense spoon interest, score A; a nonchalant glance, an N; and a fear reaction noted by cowering or withdrawal, a P.

9. Do the crash test.

Stand and wait until the puppy is no longer interested in you. Suddenly fall to the ground 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)?

crash test for puppy temperament
Illustration by Barbara Frake

Falling down for the crash test.

If you have a family, choose a puppy who rolls with unpredicted reactions and noise. You have enough on your hands without your puppy getting involved.

10. Uplift.

Lift the puppy 4 inches off the floor by cradling their midsection. Hold them there for at least 5 seconds. Do they wriggle and bite furiously (A)? Do they relax and look around (N)? Do they look fearful and constrict their body posture (P)?

uplift puppy temperament test
Illustration by Barbara Frake

Checking the puppy’s reaction to the uplift test.

When testing giant breeds, the uplift may not be physically possible. (They’re heavy even at 8 weeks.) You can modify this test by standing behind the puppy and, with two hands supporting their ribcage, gently lifting their front legs 3 inches off the ground.

Rating the results

After you’ve completed the tests in the preceding section, see how many of each letter (A, N, or P) the puppy scored. Don’t be surprised if you get mixed results. Here are some tips for interpreting the tallied score:

  • All A: This interactive puppy is bright and self-assured. Raising them will take concentration, consistency, and time. Their favorite expression: “What’s next?”
  • All N: Easygoing and contained, this puppy will be pleasant and self-assured, though perhaps not motivated to follow your agenda when it conflicts with their own. Their favorite expression: “Is this necessary?”
  • All P: This puppy has weak self-esteem and needs your reassurance to feel safe. Without proper lessons and socialization, they’ll be shy. Their 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 when stimulated. Their favorite expression: “Let’s do it again!”
  • Mix of N and P: This puppy will be easygoing and gentle, yet with a stronger sense of self than a completely passive pup. Because they’re more composed, they’ll be an ideal puppy for a calm house with or without older children. Favorite expression: “Another back-scratching, please.”

If you’ve found a puppy whose score matches what you’re looking for, great! If not, keep looking. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t settle for a puppy who doesn’t quite suit you, just because you’ve been looking for a long time.