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Temperament Testing Your Dog – What You Need to Know

Picture of a Boston Terrier

The term “temperament” has become a buzz word in today’s society. Each dog is born with a unique personality that shapes who the dog is and how he reacts to certain situations. At the core of all personalities is something we call temperament. Temperament is largely genetic and is inherited from a dog’s ancestors. However, it can be shaped by the dog’s environment and upbringing as well. With breed specific legislation unfairly targeting a group of dog types, temperament testing has regained popularity. This important evaluation tool helps to establish a baseline of acceptable behavior and measures a dog’s performance against this scale to determine a rating. Temperament testing is extremely valuable as it assists breeders with making good choices for the future, helps pet owners to better understand their dog and his unique needs, and also assists with assessing shelter dogs and what home environment they need to be placed in in order to thrive. In some sad cases, it can also indicate if a dog is damaged beyond the point of rehabilitation. What is temperament testing and what do pet owners need to know about it? 

What is Temperament Testing?

Temperament testing is essentially a series of predetermined activities which measure a dog’s physical and emotional reactions when introduced to new stimuli in a novel environment. Among the qualities temperament testing evaluates are:

  • Protective instincts
  • Mental stability
  • Inherent shyness
  • Reactivity/aggression

The purpose of the test is to provide tangible helps to owners by giving an honest assessment of their dog’s strengths and weaknesses. The dog is evaluated in a new environment to best gauge honest reactions to new stimuli.

The test itself is set up in a neutral locale that is similar to a public park or neighborhood yard. This type of setting helps the dog to feel more at ease.

During the test, the dog and his handler will meet a number of different situations which assess the dog’s reaction to the following types of stimuli:

  • Visual stimuli
  • Auditory stimuli
  • Tactile stimuli

The dog is also subjected to situations which vary in intensity ranging from friendly encounters to others that simulate genuine threat. These carefully crafted scenarios are very important in assessing the dog’s mental capacity to identify things which are concerning and others which pose no threat and can be taken in stride. 

What is the Purpose of Temperament Testing?

The gold standard for temperament testing was developed by the American Temperament Test Society, Inc, a company often referred to simply as ATTS. The sole purpose of establishing the test was to help owners to better understand their dogs while providing a means for dog breeds to be bettered through honest evaluations of the temperament of breeding stock. Since temperament is largely shaped by hereditary factors, it is important for breeders to understand how their dogs respond in a variety of situations and if those traits are things they want passed on to future generations. The end result of temperament testing should be the betterment of all breeds.

The ATTS has adopted the motto “a sound mind in a sound body.” The test was developed by a gentleman by the name of Alfons Ertel. The first temperament test was administered in 1977. To date, the society has tested 33,925 dogs with 83.4% of all dogs tested earning a passing score. Dogs that successfully complete the test earn the title TT which is then added to the end of their registered name.

To take the temperament test, a dog must meet certain criteria. The minimum age for participating is 18 months.

What is Involved in the Temperament Test?

Temperament testing is a lot of fun to participate in. Since the test essentially is assessing the dog’s reactions to things, it cannot be prepared for, and owners are sometimes surprised by what they learn during the process.

The test is designed to take a total of 12 minutes. Dogs are required to be on a leash of no more than six feet in length which must be held loosely at all times. The dog is assessed by three evaluators with the opinion of the majority determining the score on any test. A failing score is given to any dog that exhibits the following behavior at any time:

  • Panic
  • Avoidance with no recovery
  • Unwarranted aggression

During the test, the handler must not shape the dog’s behavior in any way. This includes talking to the dog or attempting to change or correct any behavior. Any handler found influencing the dog’s natural reactions will is disqualified. 

The test is divided into ten sections. They are as follows:

Greeting a neutral stranger
In this test, the dog and handler approach a stranger that speaks to the handler but ignores the dog. The intent of this scenario is to determine if the dog will respond protectively towards its owner when no threat is present. 

Greeting a friendly stranger
This test gauges the dog’s reaction to a person that approaches him and his owner with confidence and that displays joy and enthusiasm towards the dog. The focus of this assessment is the dog’s ability to interact positively with a friendly stranger.

Responding to a hidden noise
In this scenario, the dog and handler walk towards a person who makes a noise by shaking a bucket full of rocks or marbles then placing it in front of the dog. The dog should investigate the bucket as a sign of natural curiosity.

Responding to a gun shot
A person that is out of the line of vision of the dog and handler issues three gunshots in a row. This measures the dog’s startle and recover response. 

Responding to the opening of an umbrella
The dog and handler approach a person holding an umbrella. When within five feet of the person, the umbrella is opened. This also measures the dog’s startle and recover response. The dog should investigate the umbrella once the initial shock has passed. 

Walking over plastic
The dog and handler walk over a 15 foot piece of plastic. 

Walking over wire
The dog and handler walk over a 15 foot piece of wire fencing. 

Responding to a strangely dressed person advancing towards the dog without threat
This particular test assesses the dog’s ability to ascertain the behavior is not threatening and to respond with curiosity but not overt protectiveness. 

Responding to a strangely dressed person who is behaving erratically and that poses a threat
The stranger should move to within ten feet of the dog and act in a menacing way. This portion of the test assesses the dog’s ability to determine when behavior turns from strange to dangerous, and a more guarded approach is needed. 

Responding to a strangely dressed person who is actively aggressive towards the person and dog
The stranger comes within 18 feet of the dog and deliberately engages in threatening behavior. This test assesses the dog’s protective instincts. A strong reaction is expected, but the aggression should be commensurate with the level of threat and in keeping with what is appropriate for that specific breed.

Is temperament testing a help? Most definitely! It provides a tangible means of assessing a dog’s natural reactions to stimuli which can assist owners with better understanding their dogs. It is also an excellent means for dogs saddled by breed specific legislation to prove their temperaments are solid. Temperament testing can be a lot of fun. Contact your local kennel club to find one you and your pooch can participate in today!

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