Temperament testing in dogs commonly includes exposure to dolls or dogs. This experiment attempted to validate the use of novel devices in testing. Three groups of dogs were recruited: dogs with known aggression toward children (CHILD-AG, n = 11) or other dogs (DOG-AG,
n = 12) and a control group (n = 11). Dogs were exposed to 4 novel stimuli: an unknown woman, a life-sized doll to mimic a child, a fake dog, and an ambiguous item (a garbage bag filled with crumpled paper and paper eyes glued to the front).

When presented with the doll, 6 CHILD-AG, 2 DOG-AG, and 1 control dog growled or snapped at the doll, although none showed sustained biting. With the ambiguous item, 4 CHILD-AG and 1 DOG-AG dog exhibited barking, the only behavior that was significantly different among groups. Fearful reactions were elicited by the ambiguous item in almost all CHILD-AG and DOG-AG dogs while only 4 control dogs showed fear. Three CHILD-AG, 2 DOG-AG, and 1 control dog showed aggressive reactions to the fake dog. The child-like doll and the fake dog elicited a range of reactions, but there was some correlation with aggressive behavior. The devices may be useful, but the authors cautioned against using only 1 test for behavior assessment.

Temperament testing has become a common procedure performed by breeders, trainers, and shelters to help predict the emotional characteristics of a dog before adoption. Unfortunately, there is no recognized standard testing procedure. Testing gives a snapshot of behavior at a specific time, location, and situation and may not correlate with future behavior. Thus, I advise clients to watch the dog in a variety of situations. Meeting other relatives of the dog and littermates can help paint a bigger picture for the adoptive family. Regardless of how temperament testing is performed, results may vary and need to be accepted with that in mind.—Sandra Sawchuk, DVM, MS

Validity of model devices used to assess canine temperament in behavioral tests. Barnard S, Siracusa A, Reisner I, et al. APPL ANIM BEHAV SCI 138:79-87, 2012.