How to Test a Puppy's Temperament and Personality

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Woman plays with dog on couch
Woman Plays With Dog On Couch

Think of puppy temperament testing as a canine crystal ball used to identify your puppy’s personality in order to predict—and so manage—potential problems. Temperament tests can measure a puppy’s stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness.

Every pup in a litter is different, and where you find your puppy also impacts behavior. Figuring out a puppy’s potential helps to match it to the best owner and helps owners pick the perfect match. There are ranges of behaviors, of course, and some pups may be more or less shy or outgoing. But if the pup shows unprovoked aggression, panics and cannot overcome this, or exhibits strong avoidance, then that is a pup that may need more rehabilitation work or socialization than most owners are able to provide.

Kinds Of Tests

There is no one-size-fits-all test. Some tests are used by breeders to assess Schutzhund performance or tracking ability. Shelters use temperament tests to measure general temperament and suitability for adoption. Others may test dogs for their therapy or assistance dog potential. Most also test for aggression.

Ask your breeder or shelter what temperament tests, if any, have been performed and the result. They may use these tests to help choose a puppy for you based on what you are looking for, your experience with dogs, and the type of home environment you are able to provide. For instance, an experienced dog owner would do better handling a pushy puppy, and a fenced yard might be required for a “nosy” breed obsessed with running off after scents.

white and black dog sitting on floor beside baskteball ball
white and black dog sitting on floor beside baskteball ball

Tests Are Not Perfect

Personality and temperament are not set in stone at birth. Early experience, socialization, development, and the consequences of learning all impact your puppy’s future behavior.

Resistance to handling, possessive aggression, territorial vocalization, excessive reactivity, and many forms of fear might not emerge until the dog is older. Shelter pups (especially older ones) you may test can display fearfulness or aggression in the shelter, but then, behave very differently once out of the stress of an overwhelming environment.

You can start testing puppies as early as 7 weeks old, but, if you can test puppies as late as possible—at 3 to 4 months—your tests may be more accurate. A good thing with these tests is that if you can recognize the potential for negative behaviors from assessment indicators, then you can diminish or negate these behaviors with interventions such as socialization and proper training.

Five Puppy Assessment Tests

You can perform these simple puppy assessments for puppies over age 7 weeks.

close photo of long-coated beige dog sniffing the floor
close photo of long-coated beige dog sniffing the floor
long-coated brown dog on snowy field
long-coated brown dog on snowy field
adult beige short-coated dog near MacBook Pro
adult beige short-coated dog near MacBook Pro
  • Test No. 1 for independent-mindedness: Cradle the puppy on its back like a baby, place a hand gently on its chest, and look directly in its eyes. Pups that accept this handling are considered biddable, while those that resist are more likely to be independent-minded.
  • Test No. 2 for independent-mindedness: Hold pup suspended under its armpits with hind legs dangling, while looking directly in its eyes. Those pups that submit are said to have a low score for willfulness, while those that struggle may want to do things their own way.
  • Noise sensitivity test: Drop keys or a tin pan to test the dog for noise sensitivity. Sound sensitivity in puppies is a strong emotional or physical response to a sudden or loud sound within the environment. You want the dog to react and acknowledge that the sound occurred, but the puppy should not be cowering or apparently losing its mind.
  • People-friendly test: See how the pup reacts to a stranger entering the room or to being left alone in the room. Does the puppy run and greet or cower and cry? You want a puppy to be fully socialized with people by 3 months of age.

One more test that is helpful for assessing older puppies can go a long way to help you ascertain whether a dog is more independent, prone to attachment issues and separation anxiety, or more calm and easygoing. Place the individual puppy with his breeder (or shelter worker) in a room with new toys, and see how the pup reacts when the person leaves. Pups usually fall into three broad categories:

  • Independent: The puppy could not care less when the person left or came back. This may indicate a tendency toward more independent, willful behavior, or improper bonding.
  • Super needy: The dog whined and ignored toys when the person left and clung to the person when present. This may suggest overattachment issues that can be predictive of future separation anxiety.
  • Middle of the road: The pup paid attention to the person coming and going, but was not traumatized and enjoyed the toys. This suggests a healthy attachment and an easygoing personality without the need for either firmness or coddling.