by Naomi Kane, first published in Dogs in Canada
Which one to keep? The burning question that keeps breeders awake at night and sending pictures to our similarly afflicted fellows. What do you think of the one with the pink collar? Is orange girl the best? Which pup should go to the nice older couple who live downtown and which pup should go to the family with young kids?
Breeders are assessing their pups every day watching, measuring, judging and hoping. We all want a crystal ball that will tell us exactly how each pup will turn out when full grown. Every breeder knows what they want to see, perfect angulation, correct size, excellent coat and fabulous temperament, essentially the embodiment of the dreams we had when we planned the litter. Puppy Evaluations and Puppy Aptitude Testing are some of the tools breeders use to assess potential in pups.
In terms of conformation there are different theories as to when is the best time to choose your next Best in Show contender. Some breeders swear they can pick that pup in the first twenty four hours of it’s life. The idea is that the basic proportions and angulation can be seen when the puppy is “wet” i.e. just born. Dee Devins of Tokabout Afghans has been using this method for many years and she says “The earlier the better before they learn to tense up you support the puppy under the chest and head and under the butt and let the legs hang down. They are little limp noodles, totally relaxed and you can see length of neck and back as well as angulation and even ear set by looking at the distance across the skull. We also stack the puppy week by week for an on going evaluation.” Final decisions on which pup goes where will be made at about eight weeks or even later based on watching the development of the litter and getting to know the personalities of the pups since structure is not the only thing that breeders are looking at.
Pat and the late Bob Hastings used their extensive experience handling and breeding and judging to put together the Puppy Puzzle Evaluation. They contend that the perfect time to assess a puppy is at eight weeks old plus or minus three days. The idea is that at this time in a puppy’s development you get a snapshot of what their adult proportions will be. The Hasting method also contains a temperament portion to assess the puppy’s adaptation to a new environment and handling by a person unknown to the pup.
How good are these tests at predicting adult conformation? In terms of basic angulation and structural proportions the evaluations are good predictors. Breeder and veterinarian Alison Gowan says “Within the litter the evaluations stand. The one I pick as the best pup in the litter remains my first pick when grown. At maturity, the basic structure is generally what I expected but the amount of substance on the finished dog can be difficult to predict.” For size of bone, bite, curl of tail or lack thereof, coat quality and size the evaluations don’t tell us anything.
Probably the best way to choose your next champion is to keep the entire litter or at least your favorite two or three for as long as you can before deciding. There are upsides and downsides to this method since pups bond with each other and getting that early socialization is more work. If you have large or giant breed with large litters the costs escalate enormously as do the housing requirements. Breeders of toy breeds have an advantage in this case and routinely keep pups longer.
Puppy aptitude or temperament tests have evolved over the years in an attempt to predict whether a particular pup will be a good guide dog, police dog, dog sport competitor or family companion. These tests are designed to look at a pup’s interaction with people and reaction to different stresses and stimuli and the idea is that the responses of the puppy will be a good predictor of what kind of adult the pup will grow up to be. There are many tests out there and they are fairly similar but probably the best known is the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test or PAT.
Puppies are brought individually to a place they have never been before and are tested by somebody they are unfamiliar with sometimes with the owner/breeder in the area sometimes without. Typical tests are things like seeing if the puppy will approach the strange person and with what kind of demeanor. Does the pup fling itself at that new person and start chewing fingers and shoe laces or does the pup approach cautiously or not at all? The theory is depending on the way the puppy reacts to different stimuli you can predict whether the adult dog will be a challenge to train or an easy family companion. The Volhards recommend testing on the 49th day exactly.
So how good are these tests at predicting adult behaviour?
Assessing puppies for temperament is often inconclusive because of the way the different tests are administered. Each test location is different and each tester has a personal bias and can interpret behaviour slightly differently. Also different breeds will react differently to the tests. If you throw a toy for a Whippet you will get a different reaction than if you throw a toy for a Labrador retriever or a Leonberger. If a Leonberger doesn’t retrieve the toy what does that tell you about the puppy? If you know Leos you know that is totally normal behaviour for them. If a Whippet doesn’t retrieve that is also normal, although if the Whippet does not chase that would be very unusual. In both cases the test doesn’t prove anything about the working ability of either breed since neither of them are natural retrievers. Mind you the natural ability to retrieve and the desire to do it again and again would make at least one aspect of Obedience training easier.
Studies have been done to look at the predictive value of these puppy temperament tests and in all cases the predictive value has been either none at all or very low. In a study by R. Beaudet, A. Chalifoux and A. Dallaire in 1994 they found significant behavioral changes in pups tested at seven weeks and then again at sixteen weeks. They found that dominance behaviour in the seven weeks pups shifted toward neutrality or submission at sixteen weeks in thirty four out of the thirty nine puppies tested. The other five puppies went in the other direction but the study does not indicate whether that was from submission to neutrality or neutrality to dominance. A study done by Goddard and Beilharz in 1986 found some predictive value but they used a series of different tests performed weekly and started when pups where twelve weeks old.
Essentially it seems that temperament testing of seven or eight week old puppies doesn’t tell us much at all although testing of older puppies has shown some predictive value. Guide Dog breeding programs don’t do testing as such, the dogs pass or fail depending on their ability to take on responsibility and “selectively disobey” a command when necessary. That can only be ascertained when the dog is mature enough to learn a pretty complex set of commands and behaviours and takes place when the dogs are well over a year old.
All that said any breeder will tell you that they can see personality in pups and even though no scientist has yet come up with a way to prove it there are certain traits that can be seen. Any breeder knows the puppy that “draws the eye” the one that says “look at me” almost from birth will be a dog that commands attention through personality as much as any physical attribute when it is mature. No single evaluation will tell you everything. Simply stacking a pup and going over it motionless will not tell you much about how the puppy moves. Looking at a puppy’s reaction to stimuli on one day is pretty inconclusive. There is no substitute for watching and evaluating every puppy over a period of time. Puppies constantly change the smallest puppy becomes the largest, the largest suddenly becomes middle of the pack and the best head now looks awful. In many breeds the colours change as well, pups with great masks become adults with broken masks and pups with strong clear colour become washed out adults. The confidant so called dominant puppy hides under a chair when taken to the test site, but grows up to be an outgoing happy adult.
As much as we all wish there was a one hundred percent reliable way to predict the future personality and looks of our puppies, tests and evaluations can give us a glimpse but only time can give us the whole picture.