Do Puppy Tests Predict Adult Dog Behaviour?

A new study follows dogs from neonates to adults to find out if puppy tests predict adult behaviour.

Golden retriever puppy nose to nose with its mother

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Lots of people want to know if a puppy’s behaviour will tell you what it will be like as an adult dog. From people choosing a pet dog from a breeder’s litter, to organizations training service, police or military dogs, making the right choice of puppy could really help later on. But there have long been concerns that puppy personality tests don’t necessarily predict adult behaviour.

So Stefanie Riemer et al of the Clever Dog Lab tested border collies as brand new puppies, older puppies, and adult dogs, to investigate.

Most previous studies have looked at dogs bred to be working dogs. This study is especially interesting for pet owners because it looked at pet dogs. 

99 neonate Border Collie puppies were tested between 2 and 10 days old. 93 of them, and a further 41 dogs, were tested at 40 – 50 days old. Finally, once all the dogs had found homes, 50 of them were tested again when they were between 1.5 and 2 years old.

The first two testing sessions took place at the breeders' homes, and the final session was conducted at the lab with the owner present.

The neonate tests included how hard the puppy would suck on the experimenter’s finger, how active the puppy was and how much noise it made when it was isolated from the mother. The puppy tests had 11 subscales that included a greeting test, a brief simulated veterinary exam, and how much the puppy would explore in a new room. The adult tests were part of a wider study, and included greeting and exploration tests, as well as response to a threatening approach.

The results showed very little correlation between tests at the different ages. In fact, the only significant correlation was on the exploration test for puppies and adults. 

The scientists say, “there was a lack of correspondence between the behaviour of neonates and the same dogs during the puppy and adult test, implying a lack of validity of this tool for making predictions regarding future behaviour. The results furthermore indicate low predictive validity of the puppy test conducted at 6–7 weeks of age, as activity during room exploration was the only behaviour that was significantly related between the puppy test and the adult test.”

A useful note for future research is that the strength of sucking in neonates was related to weight, and so this needs to be taken into account if this test is used. One problem the scientists note is that the tests were structured to the age of the puppy, and so were not the same at each age. Identical tests would be more likely to correlate.

A happy Golden Retriever puppy lies on the floor
Photo: Africa Studio; top, Mikkel Brigandt (both Shutterstock)

The finding that puppy behaviour does not predict the behaviour of an adult dog will disappoint many. But the flipside is there is much that owners can do to influence the behaviour of their dog, which surely is a good thing.

The scientists say this is not really surprising, given how much puppies change in the time from newborns to becoming an adult dog. Many people are aware of the idea of a sensitive period when it is important to socialize puppies, and it should be noted that the puppy tests took place during this period. 

In addition, Riemer et al say, “environmental differences can be expected to have a greater effect on behavioural variability in our sample of pet dogs compared to the working dogs of previous studies, which tend to be kept under more uniform conditions and follow standardised training regimes. Given that dogs are highly responsive to their social environment, the role of the owner should not be forgotten.”

The pups in this study came from breeders and spent their early days with their mum. The results might be different for puppies from other sources. For example, Franklin D. McMillan et al (2013) found that behavioural problems were more likely in adult dogs if they had been obtained from a pet store instead of a breeder. Similarly, Carri Westgarth et al (2012) found that if neither parent was seen when obtaining a pup, it was 3.8 times more likely to be referred for behavioural problems. So the source of a puppy is important for adult behaviour, even if personality tests aren’t. 

This study makes a valuable contribution to the literature on behaviour and personality tests in puppies and dogs, and also shows the need for more research on development in puppies.

What do you look for when choosing a puppy?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and one cat. 

You might also like:
Do Dogs Have Stable Personality Traits?
How to choose the right puppy in 4 easy steps
Puppy socialization practices - and how they are lacking

McMillan, F. D., Serpell, J. A., Duffy, D. L., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I. R. (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242(10), 1359-1363.  
Riemer, S., Müller, C., Virányi, Z., Huber, L., & Range, F. (2014). The predictive value of early behavioural assessments in pet dogs–a longitudinal study from neonates to adults. PloS one, 9(7), e101237.
Westgarth, C., Reevell, K., & Barclay, R. (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems. Veterinary Record, 170(20), 517-517.

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