I've been performing puppy aptitude testing, sometimes called "personality profiles," since the 1970s. The tests have been compiled from a number of sources, and different breeders perform different combinations to assess the characteristics they look for in a puppy. Most tests are geared to a combination of pet-related attributes such as attachment to people, willingness, energy level, and the like.
Last week, I went to Connecticut with a friend to test a litter of Chinook puppies to choose which one would come home with me. Unfortunately, the test site was problematic, and the first two puppies we tried to test were too distracted to play the game with me - they simply left the test area. Normally that would mean they lacked any attachment to or interest in people - which isn't a characteristic that I would want in my dog. In this case, however, we didn't judge the puppies for this. The issue was that the rest of the litter was not far away, confined in an exercise pen, vocalizing and playing just a short distance from where we were trying to conduct the tests. The two puppies we tried to test first simply left to be with their siblings.
Without being able to test, we decided to let the puppies out together, watch and interact with them as they desired. From that observation, it was clear which puppy would be ours. "Larry" is active, friendly, curious, bright, interested in food (easier for training), and physically balanced and sound.
Had I been able to perform the tests, this is what I would have done:
Testing starts with the puppy being placed down about 3 feet away from the tester - who should be a stranger to the puppies - crouched down and calling to the puppy, encouraging it to come. After greeting the puppy briefly, the tester then stands up and walks away, encouraging the puppy to follow along. These two tests gauge the puppy's "social attraction," or interest in interacting with people.
Next the tester gently rolls the puppy over onto its back, to see the puppy's reaction to being upside down and gently held in position. Following this, the puppy is stroked lightly to see how he recovers from being held belly-up.
The next test is one of my favorites. The tester balls up a small piece of plain paper, gets the puppy interested in it, and tosses it 3 to 4 feet away. Some puppies will chase after it and bring it back to the tester. Others chase it and take it away to chew on their own, and still others will simply ignore the paper. My preferred response is the first, because there is a correlation at this age between retrieving and "willingness." In other words, a puppy that brings the paper back to the tester might be a little easier to train. If a puppy doesn't retrieve the paper, that doesn't mean he'll be difficult to train or can't be taught to retrieve, but demonstrating "willingness" can be helpful.
The next three tests are to gauge the puppy's reaction to sight, sound and startling stimuli. Sound sensitivity is especially important to test because there is a strong correlation between congenital sound sensitivity and shyness. In other words, a puppy that reacts to a sound such as the banging of a pot with a spoon by running away and trying to hide will likely be timid throughout his life. That doesn't mean he can't be a wonderful pet and companion, but rather that his owner will need to understand and work with his inherent timidity.
The last test that I perform is one that I got from hunting dog trainers' tests. I set up a barrier that the puppy has to figure out how to get around to get out. I love this test because it gives an indication of the puppy's problem-solving ability as well as how the puppy reacts to frustration.
Looked at them as a whole, these puppy tests provide a window into the puppy's inherent personality and temperament. Little is etched in stone at this age, but this insight can be extremely helpful in both the selection and rearing of a puppy.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.