HOME ABOUT ADVERTISING RATINGS ISSUES SUBSCRIBE
Written by Deborah Neufeld
I like to puppy test. I have puppy-tested a number of litters for friends and other folks, and I always marvel at the responses. Some puppies have exhibited the best qualities one could look for in a competition dog, and others indicated a wonderful companion. Sometimes the responses are a bit odd, sparking the tester to wonder what happened to cause them. One puppy I remember had a hard time participating in the test as he kept going to a wall and leaning against it. Once we observed the litter together after the individual testing, it was clear why the pup had developed such a response. This puppy had become the one that several other pups in the litter bullied. His response was to go to a wall, lean against it and wait for them to beat him up. Once away from his littermates he was free to develop normally. Observing interactions within the litter can sometimes explain as much as the individual testing.
Puppy testing isn’t the only criteria one should use in picking a puppy, but it certainly gives you insight into the inner workings of the pup at the time of the test. I worked with a Hearing Dog program for many years that used a version of the Volhard puppy test on dogs up to two years of age. The test was incredibly accurate, correctly assessing the dog’s potential to certify as a hearing dog. The main point of the puppy test, though, is that it only tells you about the pup at the time of the test – it cannot tell you how the pup will end up based on environment and training. I also never discount the natural attraction between the puppy and his human. If you really like the pup from the start you will be a lot more invested in working through training issues as they arise.
When I tested a previous Boxer at 8 weeks of age, she had no social attraction to people at all. She wouldn’t come to me or anyone else, much less follow me. Something in my gut was telling me this wasn’t the personality I wanted. I decided to take her anyway, figuring we would bond once I got her home. A couple of weeks later and no closer to making a connection with this puppy, I realized that I would need more of a comprehensive plan to work with her. As she was quite independent and wanted nothing to do with me or my husband, choosing to stick with the other dogs instead, we adopted a plan of “nothing for free”. All things in her world came through people. Toys, walks, playing and freedom all came with a price – contact with the “undesirable” humans. Every bite of food was hand fed, and she resented it. At first Tia would come several feet away and bark at her dinner as if to say “hey food, come over here so I don’t have to go near that human”. She wouldn’t even look at me, and seemed offended at having to eat from my hand. Gradually she became more comfortable with my presence and we formed a bond, but it would be a couple of years before she would come to mildly enjoy petting. Initially she would shrink from being touched by anyone and would “shake it off” after being pet. Tia was quite a test of my knowledge and abilities. I hope I never have to tackle such a problem again, but she taught me volumes on how to build a strong relationship. Had I not puppy tested her, it might have taken me a lot longer to figure out the problem and to make a plan of how to deal with it. She certainly wasn’t the dog of my dreams, but now I can’t imagine my life without having had her in it.
The real dog of my dreams came into my life as a matter of circumstance. I had my first litter of Boxer puppies (one of only two litters I bred in 30 years). I had planned to keep one for Conformation and Obedience. She was a lovely little girl I named Liza Jane – so sweet and pretty, but not too bright. Her sister I called Java because she was a dark brindle. Java got her sister’s brains and then some! She was problem solving at 6 weeks old. She could break out of most crates, open doors as soon as she was tall enough to reach them, and she could figure out a way to get whatever she wanted. I quickly determined that she would be too smart for the average pet owner and would probably end up at the shelter, so we made the decision to keep her.
To say that she was a challenge would be an understatement. She tested me every day in every way on everything. Java was a nightmare dog, demanding my full attention just to keep her under control. Training her was practically a full-time job. As time passed and we came to know each other, we became pretty much inseparable. Not only did we do Obedience, she did tricks and pet therapy and she became a great ambassador for her breed. It wasn’t until the end of her life that I realized I had the dog of my dreams all along. I just didn’t know it until then.
A puppy test can’t tell you if a puppy will end up being perfect for you, or a disaster waiting to happen – or sometimes a bit of both. What it can do is give you a snapshot of the puppy’s character at that instant. Most importantly, it can tell you the direction to take in order to mold that puppy into the very best partner you can have. And that partner might just end up being the dog of your dreams. After all, seldom do we know in the beginning where any relationship will take us. The destination is important only because of the journey that takes us there. For the most part, I believe a dog can become the dog of our dreams based on our investment in each other. They’re not born being “perfect” for us. We have to forge a path together, just like any good partnership.
While each section of the puppy test provides valuable information, there are key features that I find particularly important. First and foremost is social attraction to people. If the pup is independent and does not desire the company of humans, training becomes a much more complicated and creative process to find ways of engaging the dog to work with us. Social attraction to people means our attention is something the dog finds reinforcing and will work to get. This is part of why certain breeds are considered “Obedience breeds”. A higher percentage of dogs in those breeds have a desire to please us, and to earn attention from us. This characteristic is number one on my preference list. Having owned a dog with NO social attraction to people, I can tell you that sociability to people is paramount for me.
Second on my list would be lack of sensitivity to sounds or sights. If the pup startles easily, he may have difficulty working in a trial environment. Although such problems can be worked through, it is an exhausting process and one that I prefer to avoid.
Third is willingness to accept a correction – or really anything the dog finds objectionable. There is a part of the test where the pup is rolled onto his back and held gently for 30 seconds. When he is allowed to get up, the part of the test immediately following it is to stroke the pup down his back from head to tail 3 times and see how he responds. Does he cuddle up and try to make friends after the harrowing experience of being upside down for half a minute? Or does he “head for the hills” and write you off along with his bad experience? I’ve seen pups get up from the roll over and try to leave the room, wanting nothing more to do with the tester. A pup who responds this way will have a very hard time dealing with anything unpleasant, whether it is a correction from his handler or something unfortunate that happens in his environment. Some pups with this kind of issue will even hold onto resentment against the handler for clipping his nails. Call it “forgiveness” if you will, but partnerships don’t thrive on such rigid attitudes.
The final preference would be to have a natural retrieve. A natural retrieve is certainly not a prerequisite, but it is a nice perk. It’s true, almost any dog can be taught to retrieve, and even if the dog is a natural retriever I go through the same process of teaching the retrieve. The first Seeing Eye dog programs discovered a link between a natural retrieve, and the probability that the dog would certify as a service dog. Perhaps it has to do with a sense of cooperation, or an extension of sociability or biddability. Whatever the reason, it is a nice benefit.
The reason puppy tests are given at 7 weeks is that it is presumed that training has had the least influence on the pup. The idea is to get an assessment of the pup’s “default programming” before training and environment affects his responses. However, by that time many good breeders have alredy worked on handling, socialization, and some training. And again, the Hearing Dog program I worked with found the test to be remarkably accurate on dogs of any age (although 2 years was the limit to enter their program), regardless of their background, training, or lack thereof.
Bottom line is, do what works for you and enjoy the process. It’s a new adventure with every dog we train. Enjoy the journey!
Good training, everyone!
To view more articles please visit our Members Page!
Witten by Deborah Neufeld
Hello trainers! It’s a new year, with new challenges, and we should be gearing up to meet them. Rally has two new classes (Intermediate and Master) and a new Championship available, and Obedience is evolving beyond group exercises in Open. Then there is nose work, trick dog, and many other activities meant to fascinate and stimulate us. It’s all about choices.
With the menu of activities available, preference needs to be given to our main sport of choice. Other activities may offer fun distractions, but in the long run if we end up neglecting to focus on our primary interest, the repercussions can significantly set us back. Now is the time to create a plan for the coming year, set your goals, and build a strategy to meet them. Success doesn’t happen by accident.
For Rally it’s mostly about the handler learning the exercises. You must know how to properly perform every exercise, not only how to train the dog to do them. Working a dog through a “busy” Rally course can be a challenge. The RACH (pronounced “Rock”) will appeal to many handlers. There are already a lot of handlers working on multiple RAE titles, and for just one more entry they can start collecting points toward a Championship title that goes in front of the dog’s name. Yes, it’s going to be tough to earn, but that’s why it’s worth the effort. My Cavalier has earned the Rally Master title, and I’m so proud of him. With any luck we’ll qualify for the Rally Nationals next year, and hopefully we will see many of you there.
Let’s talk about the changes to Obedience. Times have changed, how we train has changed, and in general willingness to accept responsibility for the dog’s actions has changed. Although I was always a staunch supporter of keeping the group exercises, I understand the reasons for the changes and I am ready to progress into the next phase of Obedience training. The “stay” skill will still be important moving forward, as the new exercises do incorporate stays into the performance.
In Novice, the group exercises will now be combined into one exercise for scoring, and the sit and down will only be one minute each. The dogs will be on a 6 foot leash held by the handler, and the dogs will each be about 6 feet from any other dog. There is potential for up to 12 dogs in the ring at a time, with two lines of 6 dogs back to back. However – the new rules state that if the dog has NQed on any individual exercise, they MUST be released from the group exercise, so I expect that groups will be smaller than anticipated. Although we will still have to train the dogs for back-to-back groups, I don’t think we will be seeing them as often as one might think.
The next challenge in Novice is the “stay to get the leash”. While others have assumed that this will be a no-brainer exercise, I have a different point of view. This exercise comes at the end of the individual exercises, when the dog routinely is ready to rush back to his crate to get cookies for being such a good dog. Keeping the dog under control while the leash is retrieved and attached, and then keeping the dog under control as he leaves the ring, is going to be a bigger challenge than most handlers anticipate. It will need to be trained and proofed.
In Open, the big controversy is the Command Discrimination exercise. For Open A it will be the same order every time, and it will be sandwiched in between the Heel Free and Figure 8 exercise and the Drop on Recall. Identical to the Utility Signals, the order of position changes will be stand your dog, down your dog, sit your dog, but at the end instead of a recall the handler returns to heel position. With the dog sitting in heel position, the handler will stand the dog on order from the Judge. On order from the Judge the handler will then leave the dog and go about 15 feet (which will be indicated in some way by the Judge), turn and face the dog. The Judge will give a signal to down the dog. The Judge will then order the handler to leave the dog again and move to the 30 foot distance, where the handler will again turn to face the dog. The Judge will then signal the handler to sit the dog, followed by the order to return to the dog, then exercise finished. Minor to substantial deductions will be made for a dog moving forward. This will likely be scored similarly to moving forward on the Signal exercise in Utility. The handler may give commands and/or signals for each part of this exercise, and may give a command and/or signal to stay when leaving the dog initially, when leaving the dog at 15 feet to move to the 30 foot mark, and again before returning to heel position from 30 feet away. So the handler’s commands and/or signals will be: Stand, Stay, Down, Stay, Sit, Stay. If your only goal is an Open and/or Utility title, that is the only order of the exercise you need to train. Since the Drop on Recall will now follow Command Discrimination, expect the dog to potentially have come confusion between the two as well.
Open B is a different matter. Previously the only thing “randomized” in Open B was the order of the exercises, but each exercise was still performed in the same manner. Now, the Command Discrimination exercise itself will be in random order in the Open B class. So, if your goal is for titles higher than Utility it will be important to train for those orders from the start. Otherwise the dogs will become pattern trained in Open A, and it will be that much harder to retrain them for the randomized order of the exercise when it comes to Open B. The four orders needed for Open B are 1. Stand, Down Sit (same as Open A); 2. Down, Sit, Stand; 3. & 5. Stand, Sit, Down; 4. & 6. Down, Stand, Sit. While many handlers teach their dogs to stand from a sit (even though it is not required for the Novice Stand for Exam), few handlers teach the dog to stand from a down. My plan is to begin the exercise on a platform, step or curb, or with the dog tethered to prevent forward movement. I also plan to stay close as long as it takes to ensure understanding of the exercise. We all tend to rush to increase distance before the dog is truly ready. In the end we end up going back to square one to fix it. I am finding that using a two part command adds emphasis and aids the dog’s response. I don’t like using the dog’s name for an exercise where he has to stay, because my dogs equate their names with movement (like heeling or coming). I am finding that “lay down”, “sit back” and “stand back” are working nicely so far, as my dogs generally understand that “back” also means don’t move forward. And again, keep in mind that the Drop on Recall either precedes or follows Command Discrimination in 3 of the orders in Open B, so take that into account when training the exercise.
The Open A – “Stay, Get Your Leash” exercise, is two parts. First the handler will leave the dog in a sit-stay and go at least 30 feet to a place designated by the Judge. After one minute, the handler returns to the dog by walking around behind him and the Judge will call “exercise finished”. Next the handler will down the dog, and on order from Judge go to collect the leash from either the Judge’s table or a chair outside of the ring, stop at the gate, and wait for the Judge’s order to return to the dog. The leash must be clipped to the dog’s collar, and the dog must leave the ring under control. This means the Judge will have to watch you until you are out of the gate. Judges should have always been doing that anyway, but now it’s part of an exercise, so it is mandated.
For Open B everything is the same, except that on 3 of the orders the dog will do a one minute down stay, then a sit stay to get the leash.
For all the folks who thought training stays was “boring”, and keeping in mind that you will still need to train your dog to stay, the new exercises will certainly not bore you! We have a whole new slate of challenges, and hopefully a new interest in our traditional sport!