Beauty is As Beauty Does
(A version of this article originally appeared in the YTCA Heritage, 1970 through 1983, which was published and copyrighted by the YTCA in 1985.)
By Marjorie Fagan
A breeder searching for just the right combination of genes to produce that elusive “perfect dog” often overlooks a major factor—temperament. What good is the most beautiful specimen if you can’t stand to live with him, or he won’t show or work, or he attacks everything in sight, including you? Bearing in mind that the ideal temperament in one breed may include traits that are totally undesirable in another, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of a breed’s original purpose or function before temperament can be adequately assessed. Furthermore, genetically transmitted temperament can be profoundly influenced by environment. Since a pup’s basic personality is formed by the time he is four months old, and can thereafter be only slightly modified, breeders have a serious responsibility to their purebred puppies and to prospective owners to ensure that as much care is taken with mental and emotional soundness as with physical attributes. Fortunately, we have at our disposal some excellent tools for objectively assessing temperament in young purebred puppies and for modifying any traits found to be less than ideal.
The first of these tools is puppy temperament testing, also referred to as aptitude testing or personality profiles. Performed at the age of seven weeks, before acquired learning has had a chance for impact, testing shows which basic personality traits the purebred puppy has inherited, such as dominance or submissiveness and independence or social attraction to humans. It is critically important to remember that how a pup relates to his dam and littermates is not necessarily an indication of his reactions to people, new situations, or strange sights and sounds.
To obtain the most objective results possible, purebred puppies are tested individually, away from the dam and littermates. We have seen some little bullies go to pieces at this point, before testing has even begun. Without the rest of the crew to impress or to back him up, he is suddenly just a tiny fella in a great big world! Testing is done in an area that is new to the pups, relatively free from distractions, and preferably by someone who is not familiar to the pups. Many a pup that comes readily, tail a-wagging to whomever feeds and plays with him, will show distrust of (or complete lack of interest in) a stranger. Without some special attention to this trait, how can you expect this little guy to tolerate strange judges going over him or really “ask for it” in the show ring?
It must be remembered that puppy temperament testing is not a “pass/fail” situation, nor is it an absolute determination of what the purebred puppy will be like for the rest of his life. Training and experience have a major impact on a pup between seven and sixteen weeks. Testing, however, can show where you stand at the threshold, in which direction to head to come closer to the ideal, or which handling methods to employ in working with a certain personality type. Tests are usually graded on a scale ranging from one extreme to another, aggression to shyness, for instance. By observing and recording a pup’s reaction to a few simple exercises, you can get a very accurate indication of his inherited orientation to life. Fortunately, the majority of pups fall somewhere in the middle of the range. (The skills necessary to handle the extremes are beyond the scope of most of us!) Perfect objectivity in testing is impossible to obtain, since all pups will not react “exactly” in one of five or six different ways. We have learned to pick the most closely described response or even to give the pup a “half-score” if he incorporates elements of two related responses. Remember, it is not a final score you’re after; it is simply a profile of the pup’s range of behavioral and emotional responses.
It certainly can be argued that experienced breeders can accurately assess temperament in their purebred puppies. However, what is “spunky” to one person might be “downright mean” to another. Puppy tests offer the happy alternative through a common language and a more objective approach.
The usefulness is limited, though, unless careful consideration is given to another valuable tool that is available to breeders; knowledge of the critical periods of puppy development. A purebread puppy which at seven weeks shows an inherited tendency for outgoingness, resilience, and poise can easily become a cringing, fearful little soul by sixteen weeks if his mental and emotional well-being are not carefully nurtured and encouraged. Research over the last 40 years has served to accentuate the awesome responsibility that a breeder has to ensure that his or her purebred puppies go out into the world displaying the optimum temperament characteristics of their breed. Attention from birth to these critical periods of development—which represent the average timeframe for the average pup—will enable a pup to achieve the maximum potential from his inherited genes and breed instincts.
During the neonatal period, from birth to three weeks, the purebred puppy is mentally and emotionally insulated from his environment. His needs are physical; food, sleep, warmth, and massage. He will respond to physical stimuli such as touching, being cold or hot, or having a gas pain.
One of the more delicate times for the psyche of the dog is from three to four weeks. His circuits are now connected, so to speak, and all of his senses are working. Suddenly, he can see and hear, taste and smell. Care should be taken that his first impressions are pleasant ones! Don’t try to wean him, remove him from the litter, or alter his environment. Give him time to adjust gradually to all of this new input.
From four to seven weeks, the pup’s main concern is learning his canine identity. Social order in the litter is established and the pup learns appropriate “doggie” greeting patterns, play gestures, and dominant and submissive postures. It is essential that the dam be there to play with, supervise, and discipline or reassure the pups. Weaning can be accomplished during this time, but pups that are totally removed from their mother before the end of this period are apt to be noisy and nervous their whole lives. Housetraining can be started now by the simple expedient of enlarging the pup’s area. On his own, he will begin to move away from the nest to urinate and defecate, and his natural instinct for cleanliness can be easily encouraged to become a habit for the rest of his life. Normal household noises such as telephones, doorbells, and vacuum cleaners should be introduced gradually, and the pup should be allowed to explore larger areas for brief periods. Toward the end of this period, individual attention sessions should begin with each pup. Gentle handling sessions, brushing, footcaressing, and mouth examinations let the purebred puppy know that he’s more than just a member of a pack—he’s also a separate, special little entity.
Up to this time, the purebred puppy has focused primarily on learning to be a dog, and most of his actions have been prompted by instinct. By the age of seven weeks, his brain has fully matured. He now has the learning capacity of an adult dog—if not the attention span. From seven to twelve weeks, then, a conscientious breeder is exceedingly busy! At no other time in a pup’s life will his ability be greater to form bonds of affection and devotion, and events will now permanently affect his attitude toward humans and his willingness to accept their direction. What the pup learns during this time will become a basic part of his personality and will stay with him for life. It is particularly important at the beginning of this period to avoid painful or frightening experiences, as the pup can now remember fear. If something totally beyond your control should occur to scare a purebred puppy, do not over-react. Make as little of the incident as possible. Laugh if you can, give the pup a kiss and a hug, and go immediately on to something a little safer. Convey to the pup the idea that lots of things might be scary to little guys, but when he grows up, he’ll be a lot braver.
His socialization must begin in earnest, however, and supervised play can be provided with children, other adults, and animals other than his dam and littermates. He should be taken for walks and short car rides and encouraged to explore new sights, sounds, and smells. Gentle but consistent discipline will help to complete his housetraining, and the purebred puppy can be introduced to simple obedience commands such as sit, down, stand, and stay. It is imperative to teach the purebred puppy to come when called before the end of this period, while he is still in the “following” stage. Lead training can also be easily accomplished now; loose leads only. The pup’s pack instinct develops as he matures, and it must be established in his mind early on that humans are the pack leaders. Much of a pup’s training at this stage can be accomplished in the form of games. “Catch-me-if-you-can,” for instance, consists of the owner trying to run away from the pup. (Caution: With very small breeds, make sure you don’t succeed in getting too far away or the pup may feel abandoned and become very insecure.) The pup’s having to keep track of you reinforces the idea that you are the leader and he is the follower, and it establishes a lifelong pattern of attentiveness. (It’s also great exercise for you and the pup!) Every time the pup “catches” you, he gets lots of praise, which further boosts his confidence.
If you have been diligent during this period, the twelve to sixteen week “age of mischief” will not be overly taxing. During this time, the pup’s flight instinct begins to develop, and he realizes that he is not literally attached to you. He may try to assert his own dominance, test to see if you really mean what you say, or run away and ignore you. Left to his own devices, a pup of this age can get into plenty of trouble, so he should be confined when not strictly supervised. This is the time to begin more serious training. Sessions can be longer and the subject matter more complicated, but training should still be free from major distractions. Regular training sessions of short duration will prove more valuable than sporadic ones that seem, to the pup, to last forever.
For better or worse, the pup’s basic personality is now set. If there is still room for improvement, keep working. Although at this point, only slight modifications can be made. It is a breeder’s burden, and also his great joy, to develop the skills necessary to identify inherited temperament traits and to use all the knowledge at his disposal to enhance or modify that personality. That “perfect dog” will be all the more beautiful with his confidence, common sense, and good manners!
Bartlett, Melissa, “Puppy Personality Profile.” Off-Lead, March, 1982. Campbell, William E. Behavior Problems in Dogs. American Veterinary Publications, 1975.
Fox, Dr. Michael W., Understanding Your Dog. Conrad, McCann, Geoghegan, 1972.
O’Kelley, Joyce, “Super Dogs Are Made, Not Born.” Off-Lead, July-October, 1978.
Pfaffenberger, Clarence J., The New knowledge of Dog Behavior. Howell, 1963.