*If you’re reading this it might be because I’m getting ready to post some information about temperament evaluations on your litter*
How much can we tell about a dog’s future temperament from early puppy evaluations? Well, that is definitely a topic of much debate. Some extraordinary top trainers will take whatever puppy is leftover from a litter that has been picked through – and they have nothing but champion obedience dog after champion.
But they are getting “leftovers” from well-bred litters with excellent parents. These litters, where careful line breeding has been done, yield siblings that are incredibly alike. It is not the same thing as selecting from a crossbred litter or from a breeder that does not utilize intelligent line breeding (much wider variability in temperaments. Siblings are not nearly as alike or as predictable.)
Other dog trainers and handlers feel that some useful and important things can be learned about dogs while they are still young puppies. I happen to fall in this group. I feel that by testing a young puppy with (relatively speaking) little world experience we can learn a lot about that pup’s innate temperament.
So Explain What These Evaluations Are
I like a good analogy. Let’s use one here: You have a four year old child that is gearing up for kindergarten in a year. You’ve done your research and you’ve selected an incredible education facility that promises to do right by your child following all current science and using love and gentleness to nurture a love of learning. Your child attends and flourishes.
At the end of this program the educators have your child evaluated for IQ. And there is an additional component to this evaluation; it is also a bit about the child’s personality.
So the child graduates the program and now you have a good baseline understanding of the child’s innate strengths and maybe potential weaknesses. You’re armed with this information which is true to a certain extent…
How Accurate Are They Exactly?
The evaluations only measure one snapshot in time and there are some inherent flaws in the evaluations being used as a predictor for the future. Children grow, learn and change continually. Strengths, weaknesses and behaviors could change dramatically based on future experiences in life. The same is absolutely true for our dogs.
Another flaw is built into the fact that we’re evaluating growing beings. Maybe the child (or puppy) being tested simply hasn’t developed that part of his brain yet. Everyone develops at a different rate. We only have vague guidelines for what is average.
These temperament evaluations can be useful tools. But we have to recognize their inherent flaws so that we do not use them to limit the individual being tested. They should be used for initial guidance in puppy selection and most importantly for educational growth.
And always remember that no one can really ever put the potential of a child on paper. A puppy is certainly not as complex and amazing as a human child, but still their full potential cannot be measured and put on paper with 100% accuracy.
It is All About How You Use it
You wouldn’t use the results to put limits on your child. For example you wouldn’t say “Oh, well he definitely has a weakness in spatial relations, so he will never be good at that”
WHAM! Door closed.
It would be the wrong use of the information and most certainly isn’t the point of the evaluation. But the test will help the parents by giving them some indication of what to expect to see during the child’s continuing education. The point here is to understand and work with the child in this area to help him out if need be. It isn’t meant to limit the child.
Another mistake would occur should the parents say “He showed good scores in mathematics so he will be great in math” and leave it at that. But that won’t be true at all unless the child is encouraged in math and given a good education. The test only gives us potential. It is up to the parents and future educators to pick up where the preschool left off in order to see that potential fulfilled.
A puppy is most certainly less complex than a human child but you get the idea.
The Importance of Immediate Continued Education
A puppy’s good breeding helps, early stimulation helps, early environment enrichment helps and then the puppy goes to his new home. Those little pieces add up to a piece of the puzzle but ultimately “who” the puppy becomes is very largely determined by what happens after the puppy goes to his new home. You sent your child to a fantastic preschool and the educator (that’s me) has worked very hard to ensure your baby has had the very best start he can have. But now it is up to you.
Early Socialization and Puppy Training
The new family that brings their sweet puppy home now has the responsibility of picking up where I’ve left off with the process. If an owner chooses not to properly socialize and educate the puppy immediately then all these temperament evaluations are completely for naught. The tests become obsolete. They mean absolutely nothing, zero and zilch.
Let’s continue our previous analogy: You’ve picked up your graduate on his last day of preschool. You’re armed with the results of the evaluations and your kiddo has been doing really well and is ready for kindergarten, which is starting immediately.
Your child’s classmate also goes home graduated and with a bright, promising future. But instead of enrollment in school those parents choose to delay providing an education for the child. No school. No books. No guided learning of any kind. Perhaps this is what the child’s parents have read or heard or learned was truly best for their child. The child has free play for the next four years.
Now the child is 9 years old but isn’t behaving as expected. The parents decide it is time to give the child a guided education. But the child has some problems receiving and retaining that education. The child struggles to learn to read, write and learn language properly. Perhaps the parents are unaware that they’ve missed a very critical window in their child’s brain development that allows the child to learn and understand these things easily and well.
Our puppy evaluations are general guides that are only useful if used while launching purposeful continued education. The same way the child’s evaluation would be a useful tool for the parents as they began kindergarten.
Furthermore while the child may not have been learning things like reading and writing he has been learning something during this time. Experiences have been had and learning has happened. It just hasn’t been guided or supervised learning. The child has learned lots of things that aren’t true at all, in fact. And mostly he has been learning some pretty bad habits.
Quick pause in analogy: your puppy is the same in these respects. If you aren’t teaching her she is teaching herself. And she very well could be teaching herself stuff you do not want her to learn. And some of the stuff she is learning isn’t true at all, like “no one is in charge here” or “other dogs are scary” or “strange people are scary” or “I should greet other dogs by jumping on them and not politely sniffing” (which causes dog fights) and so on.
Un-pause: The child is really struggling and his behavior is incongruous with what was expected. Could the parents go back to the preschool evaluation papers and believe that the results were dramatically incorrect and the evaluations themselves are therefore inaccurate or faulty?
They could not. The evaluations are not a glimpse into a crystal ball of the future regardless of what happens in the interim. The idea is that continued education will take advantage of the knowledge to help the child (or puppy) achieve their potential.
So What Will You Do?
Your puppy is just like our make-believe kid in many ways. One big difference is that those four years in human school is equivalent to about 6 months in puppy life.
When you pick your sweet little puppy up you begin your adventure! Your puppy’s education in your care must begin with “kindergarten” (if you want a good comparison). And it must begin immediately.
This doesn’t mean you have to pay for a class that is so-titled (although I definitely encourage them if you have the time and the means). Read puppy books based on real science. Learn about what socialization means for your new puppy and get that done before your puppy’s socialization window closes (between 12-16 weeks of age). And remember that puppy kindergarten is fun. It is finger-painting and playdates, not algebra. But don’t leave it out or underestimate its value!
Socialize Immediately? But What About Vaccines?
Sometimes breeders or veterinarians mistakenly tell new owners not to take their puppies out or allow people and other dogs over until the puppy has completed the full vaccine protocol around 16 weeks of age – and sometimes later, depending on each vet’s schedule or how reactive the pup is to shots.
If you wait this long to socialize your puppy you’re allowing a valuable window to close forever. You can work hard to change things afterward but you’ll miss a critical period in the puppy’s development that can never be replaced.
Don’t Take My Word for It
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has taken the stance that socialization is far too critical to pass up due to the risk of potential infection. They are supported by the top minds in animal behavior and dog training and I enthusiastically follow their guidance.
Other studies indicate that the risk of contracting deadly viruses like Parvo is not greater for puppies that attend social events than it is for puppies that do not attend such events. The risk of developing problematic behaviors due to a lack of socialization, on the other hand, is much higher for those puppies skipping the events.
Ask a veterinary behaviorist or get direct support and guidance from a local veterinarian who is up to date on the science of animal behavior and follows the AVSAB’s guidelines.
You wouldn’t keep a human baby locked up until all childhood immunizations were fully complete… would you? Think about how detrimental it would be to a human child’s social skills and confidence in themselves and the world around them if they were never out of their bedroom until they were about 5 years old.
See? I told you I liked analogies. They help us see how absurd some of these recommendations really are when actually considered. Surely we aren’t going to take our unvaccinated baby into a place with lots of known cases of polio or pertussis (as an example) but we are going to ensure our babies and toddlers have appropriate, safe and guided interactions with lots of people, places, experiences and so forth; in fact we know that the more experiences and exposure the better.
Like a child, your puppy will not thrive as well if he is locked up until after 16 weeks of age. You will most definitely see the consequences of doing this.
For some dogs the consequences aren’t too terrible. Some can really “bounce back” and the effects are not totally devastating.
For others it can mean expensive rehabilitative training or a trip to the pound. Which case will your pup turn out to be if socialization is ignored? That is taking a roll of the dice. There is no way to predict the outcome and the only way to find out is “the hard way”.
Utilize Your Good Common Sense
Common sense must reign supreme. Take your puppy out but avoid places where sick dogs might have been. Stay off the floors at vet hospitals and ask them to sanitize the tables in front of you. Stay out of dog parks or grassy areas that are designated for dogs to eliminate on. When walking the sidewalks avoid dog poop that some jerk left on the ground. Avoid pet stores that sell dogs like the plague. If you take your puppy into a big-box type pet store you can put him in a cart on a blanket or carry him to be extra careful.
Surely you have friends and neighbors that have vaccinated and healthy dogs that can be played with. And then there are safe puppy kindergarten classes and so forth.
Take your puppy with you everywhere. If you’re unsure about the safety of a location (barring the obvious banned ones) then carry the puppy and wash your hands and wipe the soles of your shoes down with a Clorox solution before going back into your car or home. Wash puppy paws too. Most infections stem from stepping in the feces left by an infected dog.
Get your puppy and get out there and socialize, socialize, socialize! Safe and fun experiences are good for everyone and part of the fun of having a new puppy. Enjoy socializing your puppy and he will thank you for it with years of confident, happy behavior.
Temperament evaluations can help you select a puppy and get to know your selected puppy as he or she grows. As you have read they are not a means to define a puppy in a way that locks the puppy in forever. They are growing, fluid little beings! Fresh, furry clay I place lovingly in your hands.
I mostly hope that reading the evaluations is a fun experience for you while you’re waiting that *forever* period to get your new furry baby. I hope they help foster a connection between you and your puppy while he is still in my care. I want them to help you know your puppy as well as I know him. And it is joyful and exciting when you bring him home and see the funny and endearing things he does that I reported.
And more than anything I hope they encourage you to enjoy your puppy socializing and training adventure that you’re getting ready to embark on. I hope they help you get fired up and energized to bring your puppy home and help him reach his furry companion canine potential.
Because I love these little fluff balls for two whole months before they become your little fluff balls forever. And I want him to stay your little fluff ball for a long canine lifetime, providing a happy and rewarding experience for you both. Because ultimately that is what it is all about; not color, not bone structure and not how fast he can learn to perform tricks, but the unique connection between human and dog.