A temperament test is a series of assessments that evaluate a dog’s behavior in different situations and their reactions to various stimuli. They then are assigned a temperament profile. Most tests take their scores and turn them into profiles like easy-going, independent, fearful, or aggressive. Other tests like the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test rank dogs with a numerical value 1-6.
This temperament testing process helps dog care professionals understand the animals in their care and works to ensure they’re adopted by an owner that’s well suited to their behavioral type.
As a new-adopter, you should know any potential adoptee’s temperament before you finalize your paperwork.
A dog’s health and personality are much more important than their sex, breed, or size when determining if you can provide them with the right home.
Most shelters will perform temperament tests on their dogs shortly after arrival. This is to keep all their files on dogs organized and identify which dogs pose the highest bite risk.
Another purpose of temperament testing is to reveal the true personality of dogs who are currently experiencing stress or depression due to the recent changes they’ve experienced as they came into the shelter environment. Moving and being separated from former owners is hard on dogs as it is on humans.
Keep reading to learn more about the four main temperaments found in dogs and what they mean for you as a potential pet owner.
Most dogs, fortunately, fall into this personality type, and easy-going dogs are considered the lowest bite risk and the safest to adopt. They are easy to get along with and generally friendly. They are more social with the family than dogs with independent temperaments and are more likely to be comfortable in new environments and around new stimuli and stressors. A dog with this temperament will not be expected to have many issues that an introductory balanced training class could not resolve.
This profile corresponds to “3’s” and “4’s” on the Volhard test. Dogs with more “3” scores than “4” score are usually higher-energy dogs that will need ample exercise.
Independent dogs are typically quieter than their easy-going counterparts. They are content with being on their own for large portions of the day. Dogs with this personality are typically disinterested in directly interacting with humans or other dogs. If your dog will be around the house most of the day and not expected to be cuddled by anyone, then an independent dog may be right for you. Many senior dogs in shelters can fall into this category.
Independent dogs typically earn 6’s on the Volhard test.
A dog with a fearful temperament may not exhibit anxiety all the time. But these dogs do show some fearful or nervous behavior under certain circumstances or when they become triggered. They may even show fear-based aggression. Shelter staff know to be on the lookout for these types of dogs, but there’s still a large chance that fear aggression can get overlooked or misdiagnosed. If a dog is more withdrawn, skittish, guarding resources by snapping or growling, or presents tense body language when approached, these are likely signs of fear-aggression. This dog has a higher potential for biting and may be taken off the adoption list in some shelters. If you find a fearful dog, be prepared to invest in additional behavioral training, have patience, and be in for a long haul approach to caring for this dog. Don’t adopt a fearful dog if you are not truly ready to handle the commitment.
Many balanced trainers enjoy working with fear-aggressive dogs because they can have some of the most remarkable transformations. A fear-aggressive dog isn’t necessarily a dog you want to overlook, but preferably one that you must accept that you will need to invest time and money looking for a professional balanced trainer. Some of our favorite dogs that have been through our Board & Train program originally struggled with fear-aggression.
This puppy likely would score several 2’s and 3’s on the Volhard test and may prove too challenging to work with for newbie dog owners.
Some temperament tests label this behavior type as dominant or over-confident, but it’s the same overall profile. Aggressive dogs feel the need to defend their territory and attack other humans and animals. They may also resist being touched or refuse to follow basic commands. Shelters usually ID these dogs quickly, so if you’re working with a responsible shelter, it’s unlikely you will find them in the general adoption population. For the average family, aggressive dogs are not going to make good pets. They require a knowledgeable and dedicated owner that is willing to seek out training and to give them a chance at having a quality life outside of a shelter facility.
Aggressive dogs score 1’s on the Volhard exam and show a strong desire to act dominantly. They are best left to highly experienced trainers to adopt.
These are the basics of the four major temperaments that are tested for. Every dog is unique, and any particular dog may not fall neatly into one of these categories.
A good temperament test should be able to measure a dog’s reaction to situations they’re likely to encounter while in a typical home environment.
It should test things like:
It’s certainly possible that even a good temperament test can get it wrong on a particular dog or that a well-adjusted dog might rate poorly on aspects of a test on a given day. What happens in these cases depends on that specific shelter or rescue organization’s policies and the testing criteria they use.
One key area that shelters don’t test for is a dog’s reaction to children. A dog with a negative reaction would pose a risk to any child involved, so the other aspects of a temperament test will have to suffice as an indicator.
Other Issues With Temperament Tests To Be Aware Of
One of the issues shelters run into with temperament tests is that they’re not using the same criteria across the board. Each shelter uses the criteria they think works best. If tests are not administered consistently within a shelter, then it’s hard to trust their assessments.
Another problem is the challenge presented by the shelter environment. Most dogs are dealing with some degree of stress while in a shelter, and they might react to testing entirely differently than they would then in a home.
Despite these issues, the wide use of temperament tests is a positive thing. They work to find aggression and other behavioral issues that a dog may have and prepare their next family to anticipate and address those behaviors. This reduces the potential for a bad homing experience for both dog and owner.
Not all shelters know how to provide temperament testing forto all of their dogs, and if you’re interested in volunteering with your local shelter, this might be an area that you can help out.
The more information you can gather about a dog you’re interested in, the better an adoption decision you can make. Even if your shelter or breeder has conducted temperament testing, you should ask if you can spend time with the dog in different environments to judge how they react.
Ask if you can take the dog home for an evaluation. Some shelters will ask you to sign some paperwork and put down a deposit before they allow you to take a dog home.
Not every shelter will agree to this, but if your home is already prepared with doggie-basics for a short-term stay, this can be a massive benefit to you. It will give you the chance to see how a dog’s personality changes in this new environment and allows you to present them with different stimuli.
Ask if you can spend time together in a meet and greet room at the shelter or on a walk. Observe the dog throughout the process. If they become nervous or resistant when you come close, that’s a warning sign of a fearful temperament.
Ask the shelter what information they have about the dog’s past home environment for any clues to how they might behave down the line.
If you are going to conduct your temperament test, formally or informally, here’s what to look for with each personality type. Compare your findings with what the shelter is telling you, and if anything feels off, ask questions until you are satisfied with the answers.
Quick note, for most of the criteria on any temperament test, an aggressive dog will respond poorly and dangerously. It’s unlikely you’ll find yourself in a situation with an aggressive dog due to the screening shelters do upon intake, but just in case a dog you’re interested in has some aggressive tendencies we’ve included their responses. They’re also a useful comparison to draw to the other major profiles.
If you are allowed to have some alone time with the dog (still supervised, of course), you will observe how they react when given a chance to focus on you.
Allow them time to get comfortable in the room before trying to engage them.
A happy or easy-going dog will come right over to sniff you and or act excitedly in your presence, wagging their tail and looking to be pet.
Independent dogs will maintain a distance and may not appear too interested in you at all. They may decide to come to say hello, but they will act aloof to your presence.
Fearful dogs will be hesitant to greet you and may actively avoid you. They may cower in a corner and hold their tail down between their legs.
This dog would enter the room barking and lunging forward, possibly barring their teeth. It’s unlikely this will be the case since aggressive dogs typically are removed from general shelter populations. However, in this scenario, you will want to stop the visit immediately and speak to the shelter staff about the dog’s behavior.
Test the dog’s response to noises, including your voice. Speak to them in different tones from high-pitched baby talk to normal speaking to a louder than normal voice. Drop your keys on the floor to test their response to a sudden loud sound.
These dogs will not be startled by your voice, and they enjoy being spoken to. They will likely draw closer to see what you are trying to communicate. They may be surprised by you dropping your keys, but they will quickly realize there’s no danger and go to sniff them.
Independent dogs will listen to you when you speak but may then choose to go back to what they’re doing. They won’t be bothered by loud noises.
Fearful or nervous dogs will be most interested in your high-pitched voice but won’t approach you. They will likely be afraid of your loud voice and will back away when you drop your keys.
An aggressive dog will attempt to lunge toward you or bark at you. Aggressive dogs will likely get upset when you drop your keys and may bark at them.
If you believe it safe to do so, cautiously touch the dog in an area, they’re most receptive. Make sure to move slowly and not to startle them. Begin by turning to your side and not addressing the dog directly, allow them to sniff you, and offer them a treat. Slowly begin to pet behind their ears or on their back.
Be sure to respect the dog's boundaries if they show any form of fear, nervousness, or aggression. If you are looking at getting a dog from a shelter, it is unlikely that the rescue will allow these kinds of dogs to interact with anybody until they have a bit more control over their behavior.
A happy or easy-going dog will enjoy the attention and physical touch! They will wag their tail excitedly and be eager for more.
An independent dog might engage with you and allow themselves to be pet, but probably not for too long. It might feel like you’re getting more out of the situation than they are! They might decide that petting time is over and go back to their own business.
Fearful dogs may be resistant to being touched and will avoid eye contact with you. Their tails will remain down and between their legs.
If a dog you’re interacting with has shown any signs of aggression, it’s not a good idea to attempt to touch them. You shouldn’t continue the test with this dog as they will not be a good fit for adopting.
The next test is to attempt to play with the dog by throwing a toy.
Don’t be surprised that a happy/easy-going dog will be delighted to play with you.
Independent dogs often enjoy playing on their own, and if you throw a toy, they might not bring it back to you. It’s possible they won’t show much interest in the toy at all.
Some fearful dogs won’t be interested in playing with you. Others will show interest after spending enough time with them. This depends on the degree of their fears and what triggers them.
Don’t attempt to play with an aggressive dog.
If your shelter allows, take the dog for a short walk. Observe them as you move to put on the leash. While walking together, try to pass by other people, cars, bicyclists, and other animals to imitate the typical walk you would go on around your home.
If your dog is pulling on the leash, this isn’t necessarily an indicator of temperament but could be overall inadequate leash training, so don’t worry about it too much.
Keep in mind, many of these behaviors can be easily and quickly addressed within a training program. It’s not that these dogs are “bad”; they do not understand what they are doing or what we want them to be doing. That is why training is all about communication; developing an understanding of expectations - and leash training is no different.
Easy-going dogs are excited by walks and exploring new environments. They may pull on the leash when they see a person, pet, or other things that excite them. They will happily greet others and remain enthusiastic.
Independent dogs will typically not cause a fuss when you’re putting on a leash, but they won’t be overly excited for a walk. They will most likely not be too interested in other people, pets, or cars in the environment. They may not enjoy being petted by strangers either.
Fearful dogs will avoid the leash, and they may move away from you and cower in fear. Be careful when attaching the leash, as this could trigger an aggressive response, including a snap or bite. Move slowly, and if they show signs of anxiety, don’t proceed further without talking to a shelter staff member. While walking with a fearful dog, they may become easily triggered by stimuli in the outside world. Use caution and consider bringing a shelter staff member with you.
Don’t attempt to take an aggressive dog for a walk.
If it’s possible, ask if you may observe the dog you’re interested in with a second dog to see how they get along with others. This is important if you already have pets at home or have friends or family who bring pets over occasionally. If you have a cat, ask if it would be possible to observe the dog with one as well.
Happy/easy-going dogs will try to play with other animals in most cases.
Independent dogs will sometimes play with others, but they mostly prefer to be on their own.
Fearful dogs may actively hide when around other animals. They may also become self-protective and bark as a warning.
Aggressive dogs will likely bark excessively and perhaps even charge at other dogs. A responsible shelter would not allow an aggressive dog to play with others.
Use this guide as a jumping-off point when speaking with the staff at a shelter or rescue organization. Ask them about what temperament testing they conduct and what documentation they have available. See if you can run your own informal evaluation on any dogs you’re interested in.
If you have any additional questions about temperament tests, please message us in the bubble below or sign up for a training evaluation.