Puppy Testing. To test or not to test.


So much of our success in tracking and trailing relies on having the right dog with the right stuff. How many of you out there--present company included, have purchased a new puppy only to start training and quickly came to the realization that your puppy may not cut it as a working dog. When it does happen, it's a major slam-dunk to the wallet, your heart and your K9 program if your department happened to purchase the puppy site unseen and it doesn't work out.


We have purchased numerous puppies over the years to train for tracking, detection, patrol work and sport work and we have come to realize through trial and error what a good puppy test can actually tell us. In the early days with a rudimentary testing process, it

was hit and miss on some of the selections we made. Some were good and some were a disaster. An expensive gamble for most of us, but over the years we have gained some experience and had the good fortune of having access to some great dog trainers that have taught us a thing or two about the benefits of a good puppy test and also some of the drawbacks that testing presents as well.


So you may be asking yourself "should we really worry about testing the puppies we are buying"?


To answer that, you have to ask yourself some simple questions. 


  • Do you have the expertise to do the testing and do you know what you want in a potential working dog?

  • If you are not buying a puppy locally, is the information you obtain from testing worth your investment in travel time and costs to conduct the test?

  • Do you trust the breeder's ability to pick your puppy?

  • Will the test results make a difference in your decision to buy or not to buy the dog?

  • Are you purchasing a puppy for your department or for yourself?

  • Do you know how to conduct a puppy test and is the information you get from that test really reliable? Meaning, does the test do a good job of actually predicting what your future working dog will really become?

  • Do you have a return guarantee on an untested puppy? If so, are you willing to return the pup if it does not work out?


Now, those question being answered, it should be noted that puppy testing is not a total guarantee that the pup will work out in all cases every time, but it can be a very helpful tool in eliminating poor prospects right from the start and it can provide some information that may help you make a wiser and more enlighten choice.


If you do decide to test, here are some very basic testing tips you can use to make a more accurate and informed choice when buying a puppy for a working dog.


8 to 10 weeks old: Test the puppies within the litter so you can compare them to each other. This gives you inside information about how the puppies interact with each other among their littermates and can reveal the stronger or more dominant dogs versus lower-ranking, weaker or less open individuals (keeping in mind, of course, that puppy personalities can change dramatically in the first 2 years of life depending on the training they receive and the environment they are raised in. 


Now, depending on what you intend to do with the dog, you can decide what pups might be appropriate for your individual needs. For a single purpose tracking dog, you may not want or need the most dominant dog in the pack unless you are planning to train it as a multi-purpose police dog, but shy or less gregarious pups aren't necessarily a good choice either. 


10 weeks: Testing puppies individually and outside the litter is also important and can provide information about each individual puppy and its overall character, for example; how secure each puppy is in an unfamiliar place, how strong its drives are outside the litter and how open the puppy is without its littermates around. "Open" meaning how relaxed it behaves in a new environment or how freely and openly it interacts with strangers and the environment around it. Each puppy should be tested away from its littermates and in an unfamiliar environment such as an area, they have never been in before. The person conducting the test should also be unfamiliar to the puppies. This will give you a truer and more accurate picture of the puppy’s character.


We like to see pups that are food motivated. Food is a helpful training tool for many different exercises so it is helpful to have a puppy that likes to eat. Try to conduct tests in the morning before the puppies have eaten and they are hungry. They tend to be more lively and alert on an empty stomach and if you are testing for food motivation you will want a hungry puppy.


Conducting tests that will not only bring out bring out natural characteristics and drives you are looking for but also shows you undesirable or unstable behaviors or if a puppy may be lacking in some areas. When testing for drive, keep in mind that puppies showing naturally strong drive tendencies still need assistance in developing and channeling those drives through proper training exercises, exposure to different environments and social opportunities while still in the developmental stages of life.


For tracking, puppies showing early tendencies toward higher prey drive or show interest in following a novel odor can be good prospects. For instance, observing a young pup enthusiastically chasing a toy may be a sign of good prey drive. A dog that is curious and wiling to hunt down a strange odor may be showing good hunt drive.  Keep in mind a dog with good prey drive will be very motivated to work hard for certain motivators like toys and that makes training easier because food motivation tends to fall off as the puppy matures and is not growing as fast. Puppies showing tendencies towards strong prey, hunt or track drives are of course desirable for a potential tracking dog, but these drives can be a bit difficult to test for in very young dogs (8 weeks old) and tend to be easier to assess when the dog is slightly older.


Environmental soundness and appropriate social behaviors are also very important when choosing a puppy. During individual testing, you may be able to better evaluate the dogs sensitivity to unfamiliar environmental stimulus by exposing them things such as; sudden unfamiliar sounds, slick flooring, stairs or strange objects, odors or individuals. Social behaviors can also be observed. How does the puppy interact with people? Is it shy or reserved about approaching strangers or is it open, excited and approachable when meeting unfamiliar people.


Be sure and look at the overall character of the puppy. Don't base your decision on one single piece of criteria. A puppy that has good prey drive potential but also shows a nervous or unstable temperament or has very shy social tendencies may not be a good choice either.


Puppy tests can provide us with some very good information but it doesn't end there. If you are buying from a good, conscientious breeder that you trust, they can also provide you with a wealth of information about each individual puppy. Most will have spent lots of time with their litters, and will be able to provide helpful information about the parents, any information about current ranking in the litter, the puppy's character or any tendencies towards undesirable, challenging or problematic behaviors and the positive and negative characteristics of each individual puppy. 


We always welcome the opinions of the breeders we work with but keep in mind that some breeders often have a different agenda or varying ideas as to what characteristics make up a good dog and they are not always out there doing the training themselves, thus, may not be familiar with what you really want or need. If you want to remain totally objective during the testing process, you can ask them to withhold their opinion regarding each individual puppy until after the testing is complete. That way you can be sure to stay opened minded and unaffected by opinions during the testing process. 


For those of you who suffer from Puppitis—like me, and tend lose your sense of objectivity around adorable puppies, your going to need to be firm with yourself and be as objective as possible about the puppies you test. If necessary, bring a friend with you that can talk you out of a weak, heart felt purchase that isn't in your best interest. If none of the puppies in the litter meet your criteria, or you are questioning the quality or health for any reason, then don't buy. 


If you are not buying local, it may not make financial sense for some of us to spend the money to fly somewhere and test puppies. I can relate to that. It's expensive to be flying around looking at potential puppy prospects when most of us have budget restrictions. Technology is wonderful these days and having someone video tape some simple tests for you can be a very helpful option--one we have used ourselves in the past with trustworthy, qualified people. If your breeder falls into this category, and will agree to do some testing for you then this may be a better option than buying site unseen. However, if you are buying a particularly spendy puppy with no return guarantee or you have departmental pressure to get it right the first time around, then you might want to consider getting a good look at the litter and testing the puppies yourself.


If you do buy without testing, try to get a short term unconditional return guarantee if possible. Most reputable breeders will offer a 10 day to 2 week return policy for any reason.


In the end, no testing process is perfect and you can still end up with a puppy that may not cut it. Some of the puppy's potential is going to depend on the environment it is being raised in and how it is developed through training by the handler. No test is going to give you a complete analysis of a puppy's full potential in a single testing session, but if tests are conducted properly and with some thought as to what characteristics you are looking for in a dog, it can give you a good snapshot into the future potential of the puppy you choose.