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The Valor K9 Academy® 7-Step Temperament Test

Nov 29, 2023


Some experts say, when it comes to picking a puppy from a well-bred litter that it does not matter which puppy you pick.

I disagree!

Puppies are individuals just like people. Some puppies have more energy and drive while others have less. Some puppies are confident and outgoing while others are shy and reserved. It is important to look at each puppy’s temperament when it comes to picking out the right puppy for you.

Keep in mind: some breeders choose puppies for their buyers because they know their puppies well and usually do a great job matching puppies with families.

I like to personally evaluate puppies myself so that way I can compare my ‘pick puppy’ to the breeder’s pick puppy and compare notes.

Many people are intimidated by the idea of temperament testing. Don’t be! It’s easier to do than you think.

Over the years, I have crafted a proven seven-step temperament test, and I would love to share it with all of you! Here is what I do and look for, when I evaluate a litter of puppies.

Ideally, the best age for temperament testing is forty-nine days old (give or take a day). By eight weeks old, puppies might be in a Fear Period which could skew results. (We will discuss Fear Periods in Module 9)


My 7-Step Temperament Test

Pre-testing instructions:

  • Testing should be done in a new or relatively unfamiliar environment.
  • Ask to see only the puppies you’ll be choosing from (e.g., only males or only females).
  • Ask the breeder to not feed the puppies prior to the test (hungry is good).
  • Take notes or ask someone to take notes on your behalf.
  • Have the following props on hand:
    • A notepad
    • puppy food
    • two new sights (e.g., umbrella and cooking pot)
    • two new sounds (e.g., pan lids and vitamin container)
    • a small dog toy

Now let’s go through each of the seven steps, one at a time!


Step 1: Observe the litter

Ask the breeder to put all of the puppies you will be evaluating in a whelping box or fenced area. Observe them from a distance, without approaching or distracting them. When doing this, look for obvious temperament traits. Which puppy is dominant and which one is submissive? Which puppy plays rough and which one is gentle? Which puppy is loud, which one is quiet, and which one is right in between?

How a puppy acts with its littermates reflects how that puppy will act in your home. Find the puppy or puppies you like the best, based on the job/s you have in mind, and ask the breeder to identify those puppies’ collar colors. Be sure to write them down.


Step 2: Approach the litter

While the puppies are contained, walk up to them to see how they react. The puppies that run up to you and bark excitedly are going to be your more confident, dominant, and outgoing puppies.

The puppies that hide in the back are going to be your more shy and reserved puppies, some of them also being a bit fearful.

The puppies that sit in the middle of the room and study you as chaos unfolds around them, I like to call them the Middle of the Road puppies and they are my favorite. When I’m looking for family dogs, active companions, and service dogs, they are my front runners because they tend to grow up to be confident, laid-back dogs who are a good fit for most homes and families.


Step 3: Pack Drive

At this step, select one puppy and complete steps 3-7 with it before switching to another puppy.

Put the puppy down in the middle of the floor in an open area and walk away from it. Does the puppy follow you? Does it wander off? Does it appear to be indifferent?

The puppy that follows you, jumps on you, and just wants to be with you has high pack drive. The puppy that doesn’t follow you, ignores you, or wanders off has lower pack drive and is more independent.


Step 4: Handling

Pick up the puppy and pet it all over. Touch its ears, mouth, back, and paws. How does it react? A confident puppy who has had a good start in life will enjoy being petted all over. A nervous or uncomfortable puppy will be stiff or tense and will not appear to enjoy being handled.

If the puppy enjoys being handled, try putting it on its back. Cradle the puppy in your arms and put your hand on its chest. Does the puppy fight you a lot, a little, or not at all?

I like puppies who are confident enough to fight a little but settle in quickly. I like puppies who are comfortable being uncomfortable because that tells me they will adapt and be easy to work with and handle. Puppies who are stiff or cry endlessly on their backs are anxious and lack confidence. Puppies who fight and bite over and over tend to be more dominant and will need a firm handler.

Step 4 tells us a lot about the puppy you are about to purchase and raise.


Step 5: Reaction to new sights

Put the puppy down and pick up one of your props, either the pot or the umbrella. Set it down a few feet away from the puppy and gauge the puppy’s reaction. Does the puppy ignore it or go check it out? Both reactions are signs of a confident, stable puppy.

A puppy who panics, runs away, hides, or does not come back lacks confidence and has poor nerves. That is not a puppy you want!

If the puppy was confident and handled the first sight well, present the second sight and see if the puppy’s reaction is the same. You want to see consistent confidence because those are signs of a good puppy!


Step 6: Reaction to sounds

Pick up one of your sound props. I like to use a vitamin container first. Shake it loudly and then set it on the ground to see how the puppy reacts. You want to see a confident puppy who, though it may startle it at first, is willing to go and inspect the sound-maker.

If all goes well with the first prop, move to the second prop. I like to use a pan lid. Drop it about five feet away from the puppy. How does the puppy react?

Your assessment of the puppy will be similar to Step 5. Look for neutral or curious behavior. Extremely fearful puppies are eliminated from testing.


Step 7: Trainability

It is time for the final test item! You want to see how trainable the puppy will be and how strong its drive is.

Take a piece of the puppy’s food and present it to them. Does the puppy eagerly grab it? What happens if you move the food a few inches? Does the puppy follow it and continue trying to eat it?

This is a puppy with high food drive. The higher the food drive, the more motivated the puppy is and the easier it will be to train. If the puppy is not interested in the food, it has less food drive. This can be corrected through existential feeding (working for food), but the more food drive you see at this age the better off you will be when it comes time for training.

Now, try the toy. Present the toy and flick it around in front of the puppy. A puppy with high prey drive will chase the toy, grab it, and shake it. The more interested the puppy is in the toy, the more drive it has. A less interested puppy has lower prey drive.

Prey drive is something that usually increases with age, so take that into consideration when deciding how much drive you want to see at this age in the puppy.

Do steps 3 through 7 with each eligible puppy. When you have finished testing, review your notes.


After Testing

After testing, put the puppies away and chat with the breeder about your findings. Does the breeder agree or disagree with your assessment? Sometimes puppies have bad days and do not test as well as they could or should. If the breeder’s top pick for you did not test well one day, try testing again the next day or the day after.

What happens if you cannot decide? If you like more than one puppy, bring them out together and put them on the ground. Observe them. Which puppy is more active? Which puppy is more vocal? Which one is dominant? Which one is submissive? Seeing all the puppies together might make your decision a little bit easier.


My Two Cents

When all else fails, pick the middle-of-the-road puppy – the puppy who has decent drives, but is not over-the-top, and is the best fit for most homes, including yours.

Avoid fearful puppies and overly aggressive and dominant puppies.

If you are not confident going into the test on your own, consult a trainer or breeder. When I personally evaluate puppies for clients, I look at tiny behaviors like decision-making processes while studying their every move. I have a trained, unbiased eye, and I realize how invaluable experience is when it comes to puppy selection.

Good breeders know their puppies and will help you pick the right one.

If no puppies in the litter check the boxes for you, move on, roll your deposit, and wait for a future litter. You will be glad you did! I have personally rolled deposits on more than one occasion because the right puppy is always worth the wait!

 Happy Training!


This information is an excerpt from The Puppy Head Start Program© Module 1 (Puppy Selection). Content is copyrighted. Do not use copyrighted work without expressed written permission from Valor K9 Academy or you will risk being liable for copyright infringement.

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