Written by Deborah Neufeld
I like to puppy test. I have puppy-tested a number of litters for friends and other folks, and I always marvel at the responses. Some puppies have exhibited the best qualities one could look for in a competition dog, and others indicated a wonderful companion. Sometimes the responses are a bit odd, sparking the tester to wonder what happened to cause them. One puppy I remember had a hard time participating in the test as he kept going to a wall and leaning against it. Once we observed the litter together after the individual testing, it was clear why the pup had developed such a response. This puppy had become the one that several other pups in the litter bullied. His response was to go to a wall, lean against it and wait for them to beat him up. Once away from his littermates he was free to develop normally. Observing interactions within the litter can sometimes explain as much as the individual testing.
Puppy testing isn’t the only criteria one should use in picking a puppy, but it certainly gives you insight into the inner workings of the pup at the time of the test. I worked with a Hearing Dog program for many years that used a version of the Volhard puppy test on dogs up to two years of age. The test was incredibly accurate, correctly assessing the dog’s potential to certify as a hearing dog. The main point of the puppy test, though, is that it only tells you about the pup at the time of the test – it cannot tell you how the pup will end up based on environment and training. I also never discount the natural attraction between the puppy and his human. If you really like the pup from the start you will be a lot more invested in working through training issues as they arise.
When I tested a previous Boxer at 8 weeks of age, she had no social attraction to people at all. She wouldn’t come to me or anyone else, much less follow me. Something in my gut was telling me this wasn’t the personality I wanted. I decided to take her anyway, figuring we would bond once I got her home. A couple of weeks later and no closer to making a connection with this puppy, I realized that I would need more of a comprehensive plan to work with her. As she was quite independent and wanted nothing to do with me or my husband, choosing to stick with the other dogs instead, we adopted a plan of “nothing for free”. All things in her world came through people. Toys, walks, playing and freedom all came with a price – contact with the “undesirable” humans. Every bite of food was hand fed, and she resented it. At first Tia would come several feet away and bark at her dinner as if to say “hey food, come over here so I don’t have to go near that human”. She wouldn’t even look at me, and seemed offended at having to eat from my hand. Gradually she became more comfortable with my presence and we formed a bond, but it would be a couple of years before she would come to mildly enjoy petting. Initially she would shrink from being touched by anyone and would “shake it off” after being pet. Tia was quite a test of my knowledge and abilities. I hope I never have to tackle such a problem again, but she taught me volumes on how to build a strong relationship. Had I not puppy tested her, it might have taken me a lot longer to figure out the problem and to make a plan of how to deal with it. She certainly wasn’t the dog of my dreams, but now I can’t imagine my life without having had her in it.
The real dog of my dreams came into my life as a matter of circumstance. I had my first litter of Boxer puppies (one of only two litters I bred in 30 years). I had planned to keep one for Conformation and Obedience. She was a lovely little girl I named Liza Jane – so sweet and pretty, but not too bright. Her sister I called Java because she was a dark brindle. Java got her sister’s brains and then some! She was problem solving at 6 weeks old. She could break out of most crates, open doors as soon as she was tall enough to reach them, and she could figure out a way to get whatever she wanted. I quickly determined that she would be too smart for the average pet owner and would probably end up at the shelter, so we made the decision to keep her.
To say that she was a challenge would be an understatement. She tested me every day in every way on everything. Java was a nightmare dog, demanding my full attention just to keep her under control. Training her was practically a full-time job. As time passed and we came to know each other, we became pretty much inseparable. Not only did we do Obedience, she did tricks and pet therapy and she became a great ambassador for her breed. It wasn’t until the end of her life that I realized I had the dog of my dreams all along. I just didn’t know it until then.
A puppy test can’t tell you if a puppy will end up being perfect for you, or a disaster waiting to happen – or sometimes a bit of both. What it can do is give you a snapshot of the puppy’s character at that instant. Most importantly, it can tell you the direction to take in order to mold that puppy into the very best partner you can have. And that partner might just end up being the dog of your dreams. After all, seldom do we know in the beginning where any relationship will take us. The destination is important only because of the journey that takes us there. For the most part, I believe a dog can become the dog of our dreams based on our investment in each other. They’re not born being “perfect” for us. We have to forge a path together, just like any good partnership.
While each section of the puppy test provides valuable information, there are key features that I find particularly important. First and foremost is social attraction to people. If the pup is independent and does not desire the company of humans, training becomes a much more complicated and creative process to find ways of engaging the dog to work with us. Social attraction to people means our attention is something the dog finds reinforcing and will work to get. This is part of why certain breeds are considered “Obedience breeds”. A higher percentage of dogs in those breeds have a desire to please us, and to earn attention from us. This characteristic is number one on my preference list. Having owned a dog with NO social attraction to people, I can tell you that sociability to people is paramount for me.
Second on my list would be lack of sensitivity to sounds or sights. If the pup startles easily, he may have difficulty working in a trial environment. Although such problems can be worked through, it is an exhausting process and one that I prefer to avoid.
Third is willingness to accept a correction – or really anything the dog finds objectionable. There is a part of the test where the pup is rolled onto his back and held gently for 30 seconds. When he is allowed to get up, the part of the test immediately following it is to stroke the pup down his back from head to tail 3 times and see how he responds. Does he cuddle up and try to make friends after the harrowing experience of being upside down for half a minute? Or does he “head for the hills” and write you off along with his bad experience? I’ve seen pups get up from the roll over and try to leave the room, wanting nothing more to do with the tester. A pup who responds this way will have a very hard time dealing with anything unpleasant, whether it is a correction from his handler or something unfortunate that happens in his environment. Some pups with this kind of issue will even hold onto resentment against the handler for clipping his nails. Call it “forgiveness” if you will, but partnerships don’t thrive on such rigid attitudes.
The final preference would be to have a natural retrieve. A natural retrieve is certainly not a prerequisite, but it is a nice perk. It’s true, almost any dog can be taught to retrieve, and even if the dog is a natural retriever I go through the same process of teaching the retrieve. The first Seeing Eye dog programs discovered a link between a natural retrieve, and the probability that the dog would certify as a service dog. Perhaps it has to do with a sense of cooperation, or an extension of sociability or biddability. Whatever the reason, it is a nice benefit.
The reason puppy tests are given at 7 weeks is that it is presumed that training has had the least influence on the pup. The idea is to get an assessment of the pup’s “default programming” before training and environment affects his responses. However, by that time many good breeders have alredy worked on handling, socialization, and some training. And again, the Hearing Dog program I worked with found the test to be remarkably accurate on dogs of any age (although 2 years was the limit to enter their program), regardless of their background, training, or lack thereof.
Bottom line is, do what works for you and enjoy the process. It’s a new adventure with every dog we train. Enjoy the journey!
Good training, everyone!