Gail Radtke discusses the significance of genetics, early learning and environment in terms of relevance to puppy temperament testing.
How to know if your dog would be a good therapy dog
As an evaluator for the St. John Ambulance (SJA) Therapy Dog Program and a professional dog trainer, I often hear something along the lines of: “My puppy is super friendly, she would make such a great therapy dog!”
A few years back SJA did actually allow dogs at the age of one year to be evaluated and enter the program. More recently, however, they have changed their policy to stipulate that dogs must be a minimum of two years of age to start training. The rationale for the decision is a greater awareness that dogs are still maturing and developing at such a young age, and that behavior can change a great deal during this developmental time period. This prompted me to consider the validity of puppy temperament testing and how accurate this might be in predicting future behavior and personality.
Temperament testing involves conducting a series of exercises and tests that the pup must complete. For example, some tests try to determine a pup’s response to noise or whether he is confident or fearful. There are many more tests that are specific to the pup’s future job, such as becoming a police, military or guide dog.
The research on puppy temperament testing is conflicting. There appears to be no concluding evidence that testing at a young age can determine the outcome of a pup’s adult behavior. According to Asher et al. (2015), “conducting assessments on juvenile or young adult dogs, rather than dogs less than 12 weeks of age, could improve a test’s predictive value.” Developmental factors and age “can be expected to have major effects on behavior, and temporal stability over the short term does not preclude behavioral changes over the long term.” (Riemer et al., 2014). Taylor & Mills (2006) stated that it is “of concern to find that not only are many tests not apparently designed in consultation with behavioral scientists, but also that they have not been presented formally in scientific literature.”
Often we see puppies for sale stating that they have been temperament tested, yet the potential owner has little to no understanding of the types of testing that would be required to qualify the test as valid. Dogs have four periods of development: neonatal, transitional, socialization, and juvenile. Within each of these stages are sub-stages such as the fear imprint stage, occurring between 8-10 weeks of age and starting again at 6 months of age. During this stage puppies are highly sensitive to environmental stimuli (Aloff, 2011). Testing a puppy at such a young age would not necessarily reflect the environmental experiences that will influence future behavior. Regarding, for example, a puppy that is not fearful at 11 weeks of age, one cannot reliably predict that the dog will not become fearful as an adult. We have to consider how dogs learn and how behavior is shaped through experience. A dog can be conditioned to become fearful or aggressive by being exposed to a stimulus he is uncomfortable with - even if he was a happy-go-lucky puppy. It goes back to the age old argument of nature vs. nurture. How much of personality and temperament is determined by genetics or experience? Kaminski & Marshall (2014) state that puppy testing is important but emphasize that it must be retested in puppy-hood, at a juvenile age, and later in adulthood.
Getting a puppy that has been temperament tested may sound appealing but we need to look deeper into how and why the testing was done, who conducted the test and whether it has any validity. This takes me back to the many comments I hear from dog owners who say their puppy would make a great therapy dog because he is so social. Owners often ask my opinion on whether their dog would make a good therapy dog; my answer can only be, “It all depends.” Even if a puppy is tested at a young age (normally between 6-10 weeks of age) and passes, this does not factor in the development stages still to come and the environmental experiences the pup will go through into adulthood, which will all help shape his ultimate behavior and temperament.
One does not have to look far to find an enormous amount of puppy temperament tests available on the internet but we would have to ask how valid they are based on the scientific re-search available. Why then do so many breeders and trainers offer them? In my opinion, “temperament tested puppies” sounds impressive, designed to be appealing to existing or potential puppy owners.
My advice to people that want to pursue future therapy dog work is to ensure their puppy has ample opportunity to learn via positive association from as many experiences as possible. Edu-cating owners on puppy development and how to avoid negative experiences is important, as is, of course, making sure they work with a force-free trainer. Just because your pup aced the temperament test, it does not mean you are home free all the way into adulthood. There are too many changes are ahead for your pup.
Aloff, B. (2011). Puppy Problems. Washington: Dogwise Publishing
Asher, L., Blythe, S., Roberts, R., Toothill, L., Craigon, P., Evans, K.,Green, M., & England, G. (2013). A standardized behavior testfor potential guide dog puppies: Methods and associations withsubsequent success in guide dog training. Journal of Veterinary Behavior:Clinical Applications and Research, 8(6), 431–438. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101237
Harvey, N.D., Craigon, P.J., Sommerville, R., McMillan, C., Green,M., England, G. & Asher, L. (2015).Test-retest reliability and predictivevalidity of a juvenile guide dog behavior test. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 0(0). doi:www.dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.09.005
Kaminski, J & Marshall, P (2014). The Social Dog. San Diego, CA:Academic PressRiemer, S., Muller, C., Viranyl, Z., Huber, L., & Range, F. (2014).The Predictive Value of Early Behavioral Assessments in PetDogs – A Longitudinal Study from Neonates to Adults. PLoSONE 9(7): e101237. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101237
Taylor, K,. & Mills, D. (2006, November). The development andassessment of temperament tests for adult companion dogs.Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research1(3), 94–108. doi: www.dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2006.09.002
BARKS from the Guild November 2015 Issue - A Future Investment November 30 2015
Gail Radtke relates how her work in a correctional center for female offenders helps give the women the confidence and education they need to manage dogs and babies in the home.
Family Paws Parent Education (FPPE) is an invaluable educational resource for families with both children and dogs; whether they are already a part of the family, or a dog or new baby is about to be added to the home. As a Family Paws licensed presenter and consultant, I have had many opportunities to share these educational resources with families. It is fulfilling both personally and financially. In past issues of BARKS from the Guild (Endless Possibilities, May 2015, p. 43-45), I have written about my experiences building a Family Paws program at the Alouette Correctional Center for Women (ACCW) in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada.
This involves offering programs for incarcerated female offenders at ACCW who are expecting a child, or who are the primary caregivers of their children, to assist and educate them while they are in custody. Last year I partnered with St. John Ambulance Therapy Dogs at ACCW and established a highly successful program (see The Art of Teamwork, BARKS from the Guild, July 2015, p.41-43). Because I am a former correctional supervisor with the British Columbia Corrections Branch (see The Miracle Mutt, BARKS from the Guild, October 2014, pp. 36-39), I am fortunate to have many contacts there who can help me introduce such programs. I saw that the FPPE program would work well in conjunction with the Mom and Baby program, which already existed at ACCW.
Officer Cristina Vendramin facilitates the Mom and Baby program at ACCW and is also responsible for overseeing my therapy dog visitation program. I had approachedVendramin in 2014 about FPPE, and she immediately saw how it tied into her current Mom and Baby program. I have been able to facilitate FPPE on multiple occasions at ACCW, and in multiple locations within the institution where the female offenders are housed during their incarceration.The program has been highly received by the women, and workshop attendance has been very good. Several of the women who attended the workshop had never heard about FPPE, and were so grateful for the opportunity to attend. Many of the women in custody at ACCW face social and economic challenges.They shared with me that they would not have had the resources to attend such educational programs out in the community. Knowing this makes it even more important to ensure that the FPPE workshop continues to be offered to the women at ACCW.
I cannot put a monetary value on the impact and influence FPPE has on the lives of the women offenders. Knowing that there are available resources for them when they are back out in the community is also very important. One particular experience with one of the offenders made me feel like I had made a real difference in the well-being of an expectant new mother, who, when released, faced challenges in her home that involved dogs. Iwill refer to her as Sue. Sue had been in the K9 training program with me at ACCW, where I was teaching the offenders dog-handling skills. (This is another program I volunteer with at ACCW.) Sue was expecting her first child and, with the length of her sentence, would have her baby while in custody. It was Sue who inspired me to start the FPPE workshops. I knew I had to share the education provided by the Dogs & Storks program with her. Sue had shared with me that there were often dogs in her home, coming and going, who belonged to friends and family.
The Dogs & Storks program from FPPE provides new and expectant parents with information and education to prepare them for the transition of bringing home a new baby and introducing him/her to the family dog and having them live safely together. Sue attended the workshop and absorbed every bit of it. She was busy taking notes, asking questions and was thankful for the handouts I had printed up for participants to take home. I believed that information on supervision and practical solutions to manage a dog in the home was very important to Sue as she was going to be bringing her new baby into an environment that she had not been a part of for a while. It was important for Sue to understand safe baby and dog introductions and interactions. It was also vital for her to know that she had a support hotline through FPPE that she could access at any time if she had questions or needed someone to talk to. FPPE has wonderful handout tip sheets on Supervision and Success Stations that Sue was able to take away with her (see page 55 for graphics). She mentioned how the term “gate, crate and rotate” (which is a term from FPPE for dog and baby safety) stuck in her mind and she would ensure that her baby was always behind some kind of safety barrier during dog interactions. Dogs & Storks provided Sue with information that eased some of the worry she had about bringing home her new baby to an unknown environment with a new dog or dogs.
Several weeks later, I was giving another workshop when Sue came into the room. It was the day before her due date. She apologized for interrupting the workshop as she came in the room, but said she needed to speak with me. She told me that she had talked to her boyfriend the day before, and had learned that he had just brought home an adult dog that she did not know. I could see the concern in the eyes of this new-mom-to-be, but Sue told me that she was so thankful that she had attended the FPPE program, and she felt that it would make a significant difference for her when she took her new baby home. I still cannot find the words to express how I felt at that moment. I often wonder how Sue and her family are doing. As a volunteer who facilitates programs in the prison, I am unable to maintain contact with offenders once they are released.This is for several security reasons. The experience of facilitating the FPPE program as a volunteer has opened my eyes to even more possibilities of where I can deliver this program. I think of the countless women who are the primary caregivers of their children, who have dogs in their homes and who do not have the financial resources to hire a trainer or an FPPE consultant.They should be able to seek out other opportunities to attend such invaluable programs. I encourage other FPPE licensed presenters to think about what differences they could make in their communities by volunteering their time to deliver our program in unexpected places.
BARKS from the Guild September 2015 Issue - Great Expectations September 05 2015
"I expect great things for Gertie Mae, my six-month-old Australian cattle dog, as she follows in the footsteps of my late red heeler, Tawny Mae (see The Art of Teamwork, BARKS from the Guild, July 2015, p.41-43) to become a therapy dog with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. However, part of me is starting to face the reality that my expectations for Gertie Mae and her expectations for herself might be worlds apart..."