Picking a Puppy: Part 3 – Puppy Personality Testing

Did you miss the previous PICKING A PUPPY installments?
Picking a Puppy, Part 1: Timing & Picking a Puppy, Part 2: Meet the Parents, Boy or Girl


The idea of giving a puppy a few simple tests has gained popularity in the dog world. The best known series of tests is called “Volhard testing,” named after the couple who standardized their own testing techniques to identify a dog’s personality. However, there are any number of similar canine tests aimed at the same goal: devising a yardstick to be a reliable predictor of a puppy’s current and future personality.

The reasoning behind such tests is the practical purpose of finding out a puppy’s “dominance level,” or how headstrong he is by nature. An extremely bold dog is going to be a handful to train, while at the other end of the spectrum the very shy puppy—who can be startled by his own shadow— will be difficult to train for different reasons. The tests also give a sense of a puppy’s level of interest in people, which will affect his trainability and how easily he’ll become a member of your family.

Age for Testing

Seven weeks—forty-nine days to be exact—is considered to be the ideal age for a puppy to be evaluated away from the litter. Except for a small amount of learned behavior, a seven-week-old puppy is thought to be a clean slate, meaning that testing at this time is supposed to give a true reading of his nature.

Take a moment to watch the whole litter without interacting with them. Are most of them uncomfortable with you being there—are they barking or running away? That would be such a bad sign that you should just walk away from the whole litter, since it indicates that this is a line of breeding that turns out suspicious dogs or that this breeder hasn’t socialized the puppies. In either case, it makes it an uphill situation for you and that puppy—puppy—and why load the dice against yourself going in?

Puppy-testing Scenarios

There are many variations on how puppies may respond to any of these “pop tests,” but I include only two ends of the spectrum: anything in between is your judgment call. But in the case of very dominant or very submissive dogs, you can predict that they will behave almost the same way in every situation. The independent dog will ignore most of what you’re doing and go her own way; the very shy dog will tremble, pee and/ or cringe submissively. Avoid both these extremes, because otherwise you could have a lifetime of extra effort dealing with the simplest issues. You can try some or all of these experiments, but don’t get too serious about them. Unless a puppy is consistently off the chart at either end of the spectrum (in which case you have to hope there’s someone out there who will love her), you can do a fine job raising any puppy. Common wisdom is that you should avoid any personality extremes in a pup: not the laid-back puppy, but not the most forward and pushy one, either. Other than that, try some of the little tests that follow—“Pop Tests for Pups,” you might call them—and see which appeals to you as a way to get to know a puppy quickly.

Puppy Testing Rules

  • The person doing the testing should be a stranger to the puppies.
  • The tester should be confident about executing the exercises that follow and feel he knows what he is doing.
  • The test area should be a room unfamiliar to the pups.
  • The test time should be when the puppies are at their most active.
  • Puppies should be tested individually so that the results aren’t skewed by the confidence-boost of having littermates there.

Test #1: Hold the puppy in your arms.
Shows whether a dog accepts social domination.

Bend down and firmly stroke from the puppy’s head down to the top of his shoulders. A dog’s head, neck and shoulders are dominant areas: when two dogs meet, the higher-ranking one will often put his paw or chin across the withers (the ridge between the shoulder bones) of the other.

An ideal puppy will probably not object to this. He might whine, wiggle or stiffen for a moment, but then he’ll relax and even lick you.

A dominant puppy will likely object to your dominating stroking of him—he may growl or try to jump on you. He may panic, struggle or freeze and not snap out of it.

Test #2: Pet the puppy but don’t hold him: speak warmly.
Measures for curiosity and eagerness about people. Does he enjoy human affection enough to work for it in training?

Bend down, clap your hands, but don’t call to the puppy right away—just watch. An ideal puppy comes right over, will stay with you, wagging his tail. A dominant puppy may bite at you or wander away disinterested.

Test #3: Call the puppy to you: crouch down, clap your hands, whistle, sound encouraging.

Bend down, open your arms for the most welcoming position. An ideal puppy will come over with tail wagging, confident, cheerful. A dominant puppy might ignore you, or come straight at you and nip, jump or bump into you when she gets there.

Test #4: Will he follow you?

Stroke the puppy, walk away, then see how readily he follows. An ideal puppy follows you.

A dominant puppy follows, but so closely that he gets underfoot and might even try to bite at your feet or clothes.

Test #5: Hold the puppy off the floor: cradle your hands under his stomach.
What does the puppy do when she has no control and you have total control? Gently lift her a few inches off the ground and hold the position for fifteen seconds.

An ideal puppy struggles a little, then relaxes in your hands.

A dominant puppy will struggle and fight and may bark, whine or try to bite your hands.

Test #6: Sit down and hold the puppy on her back in your lap: stroke her belly, speak reassuringly.
What is her reaction to being gently restrained?

An ideal puppy will struggle briefly then relax.

A dominant puppy will thrash around to get off her back and may vocalize or bite.

Test #7: Retrieving. Set the puppy on the floor, get her attention by waving a ball or toy, and then roll it across the floor. Make enthusiastic, encouraging, “Come on girl!” noises to bring it back.

An ideal puppy will chase the object, play with it and maybe even bring it back to you if you clap your hands and whistle. She’ll let you take it away without too much objection.

A dominant puppy will chase the object and take off with it, ignoring you when you try to recall her. If you try to take it back she won’t relinquish it and may growl.

Next Week’s Installment: Picking a Puppy: Part 4: BUYING A PUPPY LONG DISTANCE & SOCIALIZATION. . . .

Copyright © Tracie Hotchner – Originally appeared in The Dog Bible: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know by Tracie Hotchner