BARKS from the Guild March 2016 Issue - Nature vs. Nurture March 05 2016

Gail Radtke discusses the significance of genetics, early learning and environment in terms of relevance to puppy temperament testing.


How to know if your dog would be a good therapy dog

As an evaluator for the St. John Ambulance (SJA) Therapy Dog Program and a professional dog trainer, I often hear something along the lines of: “My puppy is super friendly, she would make such a great therapy dog!”

A few years back SJA did actually allow dogs at the age of one year to be evaluated and enter the program. More recently, however, they have changed their policy to stipulate that dogs must be a minimum of two years of age to start training. The rationale for the decision is a greater awareness that dogs are still maturing and developing at such a young age, and that behavior can change a great deal during this developmental time period. This prompted me to consider the validity of puppy temperament testing and how accurate this might be in predicting future behavior and personality.

Temperament testing involves conducting a series of exercises and tests that the pup must complete. For example, some tests try to determine a pup’s response to noise or whether he is confident or fearful. There are many more tests that are specific to the pup’s future job, such as becoming a police, military or guide dog.

The research on puppy temperament testing is conflicting. There appears to be no concluding evidence that testing at a young age can determine the outcome of a pup’s adult behavior. According to Asher et al. (2015), “conducting assessments on juvenile or young adult dogs, rather than dogs less than 12 weeks of age, could improve a test’s predictive value.” Developmental factors and age “can be expected to have major effects on behavior, and temporal stability over the short term does not preclude behavioral changes over the long term.” (Riemer et al., 2014). Taylor & Mills (2006) stated that it is “of concern to find that not only are many tests not apparently designed in consultation with behavioral scientists, but also that they have not been presented formally in scientific literature.”

Often we see puppies for sale stating that they have been temperament tested, yet the potential owner has little to no understanding of the types of testing that would be required to qualify the test as valid. Dogs have four periods of development: neonatal, transitional, socialization, and juvenile. Within each of these stages are sub-stages such as the fear imprint stage, occurring between 8-10 weeks of age and starting again at 6 months of age. During this stage puppies are highly sensitive to environmental stimuli (Aloff, 2011). Testing a puppy at such a young age would not necessarily reflect the environmental experiences that will influence future behavior. Regarding, for example, a puppy that is not fearful at 11 weeks of age, one cannot reliably predict that the dog will not become fearful as an adult. We have to consider how dogs learn and how behavior is shaped through experience. A dog can be conditioned to become fearful or aggressive by being exposed to a stimulus he is uncomfortable with - even if he was a happy-go-lucky puppy. It goes back to the age old argument of nature vs. nurture. How much of personality and temperament is determined by genetics or experience? Kaminski & Marshall (2014) state that puppy testing is important but emphasize that it must be retested in puppy-hood, at a juvenile age, and later in adulthood.

Getting a puppy that has been temperament tested may sound appealing but we need to look deeper into how and why the testing was done, who conducted the test and whether it has any validity. This takes me back to the many comments I hear from dog owners who say their puppy would make a great therapy dog because he is so social. Owners often ask my opinion on whether their dog would make a good therapy dog; my answer can only be, “It all depends.” Even if a puppy is tested at a young age (normally between 6-10 weeks of age) and passes, this does not factor in the development stages still to come and the environmental experiences the pup will go through into adulthood, which will all help shape his ultimate behavior and temperament.

One does not have to look far to find an enormous amount of puppy temperament tests available on the internet but we would have to ask how valid they are based on the scientific re-search available. Why then do so many breeders and trainers offer them? In my opinion, “temperament tested puppies” sounds impressive, designed to be appealing to existing or potential puppy owners.

My advice to people that want to pursue future therapy dog work is to ensure their puppy has ample opportunity to learn via positive association from as many experiences as possible. Edu-cating owners on puppy development and how to avoid negative experiences is important, as is, of course, making sure they work with a force-free trainer. Just because your pup aced the temperament test, it does not mean you are home free all the way into adulthood. There are too many changes are ahead for your pup.



Aloff, B. (2011). Puppy Problems. Washington: Dogwise Publishing

Asher, L., Blythe, S., Roberts, R., Toothill, L., Craigon, P., Evans, K.,Green, M., & England, G. (2013). A standardized behavior testfor potential guide dog puppies: Methods and associations withsubsequent success in guide dog training. Journal of Veterinary Behavior:Clinical Applications and Research, 8(6), 431–438. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101237

Harvey, N.D., Craigon, P.J., Sommerville, R., McMillan, C., Green,M., England, G. & Asher, L. (2015).Test-retest reliability and predictivevalidity of a juvenile guide dog behavior test. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 0(0).

Kaminski, J & Marshall, P (2014). The Social Dog. San Diego, CA:Academic PressRiemer, S., Muller, C., Viranyl, Z., Huber, L., & Range, F. (2014).The Predictive Value of Early Behavioral Assessments in PetDogs – A Longitudinal Study from Neonates to Adults. PLoSONE 9(7): e101237. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101237

Taylor, K,. & Mills, D. (2006, November). The development andassessment of temperament tests for adult companion dogs.Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research1(3), 94–108. doi: