From the book: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova — All Rights Reserved
Myth 19: You can use a puppy test to pick the right pup from the litter.
This myth was very popular for quite a while. People thought you could test a puppy and find out what her personality would be like when she grew up. The test consists of several parts. Does the puppy approach you without being coaxed, or does she seem shy? Once she’s made your acquaintance, does she follow you around the room, or does she seem totally uninterested in you, despite having smelled your hand? Does she resist when you suspend her in the air on one of your palms, or does she just hang there passively? What does she do if you lay her on her side and won’t let her get up? If you throw a wad of paper, does she go get it and bring it back to you? One of the rules was that you had to test a puppy when she was exactly seven weeks old. If you were even one day later, then learning would start to influence the outcome of the test, and you wouldn’t be testing her innate personality anymore.
And that is the punch line, the reason the whole thing was a load of nonsense to start with. There is no moment when you can measure a mammal’s behaviour free of learning. We now know that learning starts the instant the mammal leaves the womb, and perhaps even before that. When a pup is born, she has inherited the sucking reflex without having to learn it. However, if she doesn’t find a nipple and start to suckle within a few minutes, thus supporting the reflex with a learning experience, the reflex will disappear forever. She is born with a reflex to wave her head back and forth, and to crawl in ever broadening circles. This maximises her chances of running into her mother’ s belly (and the nipples) in time to keep the suckle reflex. Finding the nipple is already a learning experience, teaching her that creeping toward warmth and her mother’s smell is a good thing to do. She is also learning, within seconds of being born, to associate the smell of another dog with pleasurable experiences. This is reinforced perhaps a few hours later by the experience of sleeping in the warm pile of siblings. Later, as her ears and eyes open, her muscles slowly develop mass and strength, her milk teeth come in, and play begins with her siblings, she starts to have all kinds of other experiences that will be teaching her about her surroundings and how to interact with them. By the time a puppy is seven weeks old, she has already learned a vast amount. Whether or not she approaches you, or lies there passively in your palm, or lets you pin her down without panicking, will all depend on her learning experiences up to the moment you walked into the room.
In Myths 6, 11 and 12, we have seen that all social skills, even including the use of a dog’s body language, are learned. Everything the pup learns ends up anchored in her brain. But at seven weeks, none of it is, as yet, permanently decided, because her brain still has to do eighty percent of its growing. If you put the pup in a different environment (in this case, your own home), she will immediately begin to learn about the new environment and to adapt her reactions to it. This means that the way you treat her will play a big role in how her brain grows, and thus what kind of adult dog she becomes. Not heredity, but you, determine whether or not she will trust humans, whether you are a pleasant or unpleasant factor in her life, whether she understands and willingly complies with your requests, and so on. None of this is written in stone, not even in an adult dog. Behaviour is always generated in and by a back-and-forth process with the environment a mammal lives in. The breed you buy (if you buy a pedigreed dog) will give you a predictor for a number of innate tendencies you can expect, but as for the rest of the dog’s personality — the puppy test will only tell you what the pup is like at the moment you give her the test.
Fact: A puppy test doesn’t predict the future. The best way to know what kind of grown-up dog you are going to end up with is to take an honest look at yourself.
P.S. And by the way, the puppy test is also an experience she will learn from, so if you are determined to do such a test, at least try to do it in such a way that you don’t traumatise the pup!