Puppy Aptitude Tests: Choosing a Puppy That Best Suits You

Tracy Libby

Puppy Aptitude Test

Few events rival bringing home a new puppy, but did you know that the cutest puppy may not be the best one for you? Of course, all puppies are cute, but they also grow into adult dogs with their own personalities, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. What if you could see into a puppy's future to determine his future behavior? It's possible, thanks to puppy aptitude testing.

Puppy aptitude testing dates back to the 1930s, but it was in the 1970s that Wendy and Joachim Volhard, internationally recognized experts on canine behavior, developed the popular Puppy Aptitude Test (PAT). The sole purpose of PAT is to help breeders, trainers, and owners select the right puppy for the right home.

An alternative to PAT is P.A.W.S. Working Dog Evaluation, which evaluates possessiveness, attention, willingness, and strength (PAWS). Unlike PAT, which is geared primarily toward pet dogs, PAWS tests prey drive—a dog's natural desire to chase, capture, and kill prey. Prey drive is completely natural and forms the foundation for a wide variety of canine jobs, such as obedience, herding, search and rescue, and so forth.

That said, the phrase puppy aptitude test is a bit of a misnomer. The process is not a test. No one wins or loses. It's not based on a pass or fail system, nor governed by any organization. Testers need not be board certified in animal behavior or possess a Ph.D. in genetics. The test is relatively simple to perform and anyone with commonsense can do it. However, it's helpful if you seek out an experienced tester—or at least someone with a bit of canine and testing knowledge.

Timing Is Everything

The concept behind puppy testing is that a puppy's brain is neurologically complete at 49 days of age—that is, he emits the brain waves of an adult dog. Yet his brain is a blank page, minimally affected by experience and learning. Aptitude tests performed at 7 weeks of age reveal the raw material of the puppy's individual temperament. At this age, puppies have learned to use the inherited behaviors that make them dogs, but they have not yet had a range of experience to influence the test results. In other words, they have not yet learned any annoying or undesired habits, so an experienced tester can objectively evaluate their personality and temperament.

If testing is done later, say at 8, 10, or 12 weeks, it's compromised by intervening experiences that may influence a puppy's responses. It then becomes difficult to ascertain a true reading of behavioral tendencies. For example, by 16 weeks a puppy may be well on his way to learning the annoying behavior of ignoring the "come" command. Or he may have been exposed to situations during the "fear period" (between 8 and 10 weeks) that affect his willingness to please, follow, approach strangers, or retrieve objects.

Of course, as with anything pertaining to dogs, different opinions abound. Opponents of PAT cite the potential lack of consistency and tester knowledge, while others pooh-pooh the entire concept. Many experienced breeders come up with their own system of evaluation, and they will tell you the best predictor of a puppy's future behavior are his parents. Because temperament is inherited, experts say your best source of "puppy temperament testing" is to look at puppy's ancestors.

What Does This Mean to You?

Puppy aptitude testing evaluates a puppy's behavioral tendencies ranging from social attraction (degree of social attraction to people, confidence or dependence), to retrieving, to sound and sight sensitivity. The test parts are done consecutively and in a specific order. The "scores" are tallied and a pattern of inherited behavioral tendencies becomes visible. Remember, it's not a pass or fail system, and no puppy test is absolute. But when applied correctly, puppy aptitude tests provide breeders and trainers with an objective approach for evaluation and understanding individual behavioral tendencies—a window, so to speak, into the puppy's future. For example, is he bossy? Bold? Independent? Does he charge into a room full of energy and self-confidence? Is he aggressive? Is he timid or aloof? Nervous? Is he inquisitive, curious, fearful or timid?

Many breeders characterize a puppy as sweet, faithful, lovable, quiet, and so forth, but such words don't give much objective information on the puppy's temperament, inherited tendencies, or working ability. In other words, how your puppy is likely to perceive and interact with the world as an adult dog. For example, a high-drive, high-energy dog may do well with an energetic, type-A owner who likes to hike, jog, swim, and so forth, but will most assuredly clash with a sedentary or novice owner. An extremely noise-sensitive dog may do well in a calm environment but would surely be terrified in a dynamic dog sport environment. Likewise, a fearful or shy dog is not likely to flourish in a home filled with rambunctious, noisy kids.

Doing Your Part

Puppy aptitude testing will help to evaluate a puppy's inherited behavioral tendencies, but it's important that you look at your own personality too. Are you outgoing? Quiet? Are you active, or more of a couch potato? Do you jump out of bed full of energy, or do you require a double latte before facing your day?

If a particular breed interests you, find out first what the dog was originally bred to do, be it herding, retrieving, going to ground, etc. Understanding a breed's history and origin will give you a good idea of his future characteristics. Remember, the majority of today's retrievers, hounds, terriers, and herding dogs descended from strong working ancestry. Most breeds were bred for a specific full-time job that required enormous amounts of energy, drive, stamina, courage, tenacity, and intelligence. The qualities that make them superior working dogs are the very qualities that can make them unsuitable as urban pets.

Keep in mind, the puppy you choose will be with you for 12 or 15 years. Be smart. Do your homework and pick a puppy (or adult dog) who meshes with your personality and lifestyle. Understanding a puppy's inherited behavioral tendencies will go a long way in making your life—and your dog's life—more enjoyable. 

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