Is Temperament Testing Really Worth the Effort?

This is another post that’s probably going to upset a few people. It’s about the predictiveness of puppy temperament testing.

Temperament testing has been an important fixture in determining suitability of dogs for service work, therapy work, police and military service, and even for companion dogs.

I started temperament testing in the 1990s in the belief that it was the only responsible way to place a puppy. All of the other good breeders did it, my mentors did it (including those involved with major service dog organizations and the US Department of Defense puppy raising program), so I did it.

But like many things involved in breeding, it’s not necessarily a sound practice simply because everyone is doing it. We also need to look at the science.

Back then, we didn’t have much, if any, science, we just had the best efforts of the best in the business. Now we have some studies to look at, so let’s take a look at what they say.

Do puppy temperament tests actually predict adult behavior?

Service Dog organizations have a great deal invested in the performance of adult dogs, have regimented puppy rearing programs, and are able to collect data and do follow up, so much of the results and studies we have are from service dog organizations.

There are more than a few studies available. Here are some highlights, and you can pour through the references if you really want to get lost in the weeds.

  • In 1997, a study was performed on 630 eight-week-old German Shepherd puppies born into a service dog program with a follow-up evaluation at 14-19 months. The ability of the testers to predict adult behavior from puppy temperament tests was “negligible and the puppy test was therefore not found useful in predicting adult suitability for service dog work.”[1] In fact, the correlation of behavior from puppyhood to adulthood was “exactly what would be expected by pure chance.” The authors conclude “… adult behaviour cannot be predicted as early as at eight weeks of age. Breeding programs aimed to improve behaviour in dogs may not be based on information collected on tests performed as early as at eight weeks of age.” This study also found that maternal effects are present in puppies, but that effect wanes once the puppies reach full adulthood.

  • In 2013, a study of 465 puppies in a guide dog program found low predictability between puppy temperament and certification as guide dogs as adults. The most predictive characteristic in the test was not success, but failure.[2]

  • A study in 2014 evaluated 134 Border Collie puppies at days 2-10, days 40-50, and then again at 1.5-2 years. There was little correlation between puppy evaluation results and behavior at 1.5-2 years. Only exploratory behavior was found to be correlated into adulthood. The study concluded “the predictive validity of early tests for predicting specific behavioural traits in adult pet dogs is limited.”[3] The really interesting thing about this study is that fear in puppies was NOT correlated with fear in adulthood. In fact, the inverse was shown and some of the most fearful puppies ended up being the most friendly adults.

  • Fearfulness is somewhat predictive at 3 months of age, but prediction accuracy improved with age.[4] The same researchers conducted another study two years later and concluded that none of the tests they performed were predictive of ability to learn specific tasks.[5]

  • Another guide dog program study concluded that “when applied at 7 weeks of age without an additional criterion, the test has no predictive value regarding future social tendencies.”[6]

  • In a study of specific AKC breeds, tests were interestingly predictive of breed, the were not, however, predictive of adult temperament. “the puppy temperament scores were unreliable in predicting adult temperament.”[7]

  • A few characteristics, such as playfulness,[8] have some correlation.

A couple of studies had results that conflicted with those I list above.