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Behavioural Testing

Most organisations now carry out behavioural tests in order to establish patterns of known behaviour. Dogs for the Deaf in Medford, Oregon (Now named Dogs For Better Lives) trained shelter dogs to be the ears of deaf recipients and as such require them to have good social behaviour around people and other dogs as well as being playful enough to make training easy.  The following behaviour and trainability tests was developed by this centre for that specific purpose. (Note – This is an old version of their testing).


This series of tests was designed for predicting likely behaviour and trainability and was devised with the selection of service dogs in mind.

When a dog is sought from a rescue shelter with the sole purpose of using it on a service training programme there are several traits that would be considered undesirable that may be highlighted by the tests as well as picking up information on desirable traits and trainability.

If we list all of the undesirable characteristics that would make a dog unsuitable for inclusion in a training programme then most organisations would come up with a list similar to this one:


  • Dominant aggression towards people.
  • Nervous aggression towards people, either general or specific such as ethnic minorities, children, etc.
  • Predatory aggression where the dog is overstimulated by rapid movement.
  • Re – directed aggression borne out of frustration.
  • Dominant aggression towards other dogs.
  • Nervous aggression towards other dogs.
  • Predatory aggression towards other dogs or livestock.
  • Too independent in nature.
  • Over dependent to the point of becoming obsessively bonded to a particular person.
  • Difficult to train, lack of concentration / motivation.
  • Overprotective of owner.


A list of desirable characteristics then most would appear as follows:

  • Able to build a strong but not obsessive bond with a new owner / handler.
  • Submissive enough to be led and directed by the new owner.
  • Easily trained using the existing training programme.
  • Sensitive to both touch and voice.
  • Easily motivated.

These tests can take place in the dogs kennel or in a communal run with or without other dogs present.  Sometimes it is advisable to re – test more than once by changing the environment and the other dogs present in order to obtain a more accurate assessment.


Make the initial approach which will bring you close to, and in contact with the wire mesh.  Do not make eye contact, speak or gesture and observe how long it takes for the subject to come up to you and try to initiate contact.  Also observe how active or passive the attempted contact is.  Does the dog whine, bark or paw at the wire in order to gain your attention?  On the other hand it is possible that after you have been in position for several minutes the dog has made no attempt even to come up and investigate you.  Remember that failure to seek contact can be affected by other dogs that happen to be present and not allowing your subject dog near to you.

This test will highlight dogs who are very independent of people and therefore difficult to build up a bond sufficient to establish a working relationship.  It will also reveal those dogs that are capable of building a rapid, almost obsessive relationship if allowed to.  If you observe extremes of attention seeking behaviours this would indicate that the dog has expressed these behaviours in its previous home and can expect these to become evident when the dog is subsequently re-homed.


Place the fingers of your hand through the wire and gently stroke and tickle the dog behind the ears and down onto its chest and shoulders.  Continue for a minute or two and observe how much the dog enjoys physical contact.  For training purposes the best response is one where the dog leans into the fingers that are touching it.  Disinterest would tend to signify an independent nature whilst the dog that growls or presents you with its hindquarters would suggest a dominant and aggressive nature.


Whilst the dog is enjoying being stroked withdraw your fingers and move them to a position two feet or so in front of him.  Now observe how much the dog is prepared to maintain contact with your fingers by shifting its position. 

This will give you some indication as to how much effort the dog is prepared to go through in order to continue a pleasurable experience.  A dog that idly remains in its original position and is unwilling to move a short distance or worse still moves away would be difficult to motivate and therefore difficult to train using positive reinforcement techniques.


Gently speak to the dog and note its interest.  You can also work through a list of common commands and phrases to find out if the dog is familiar with any of them.  Continue talking for several minutes and note how easy or difficult it is to keep the dogs attention.

The easiest dogs to work with are the ones that show an interest in being spoken to and are able to maintain concentration and attention for several minutes.  If you cannot hold a dog’s interest and attention for more than a few seconds by talking to it then this shows a lack of communication skills on the dogs part.


Make eye contact at this stage but stop speaking to and touching the dog.  This should be no more than casual eye contact.  Observe the dog’s general behaviour when being watched.  The dog should make the same sort of casual eye contact in return.  If the dog goes into the ‘freeze’ position or growls when being watched this indicates a lack of security, particularly if it is accompanied by general uneasiness and a pacing behaviour.


Stare at the dog by fixing your gaze on his eyes and observe the reaction and how long it takes to obtain a reaction.  A normal reaction is where the dog blinks and repeatedly looks away which signifies submission.  This can often be accompanied by lip licking or a yawning behaviour.  If the dog makes one or two vocalisations and at the same time backs away in a disturbed state then this would suggest nervousness and possibly aggression.  If the dog hardens its stare and emits a low menacing growl then this suggests dominance and possibly aggression.  It should be noted that some dogs will almost close their eyes and expose their teeth in a submissive ‘grin’, this should not be confused with aggression.


Whilst continuing your hard stare, suddenly either stand up or make a quick movement towards the dog and stand rigid for two or three seconds before relaxing your body posture and facial expression.

Note the dog’s reaction and recovery time.  It would be perfectly normal for a dog to startle and then quickly recover once the initial movement has finished.  A dog that takes several minutes to recover and even then remains mildly disturbed may find difficulty in handling some of the working environments into which they may be placed.  A dog that immediately tries to attack you should be discarded as a possible candidate for training.


Assuming that the dog shows some desire to be spoken to and stroked, pick any naturally occurring behaviour that the dog exhibits and then stop speaking to, looking at and stroking him.  As the dog goes through a range of behaviours to try and gain your attention, immediately re – introduce the three forms of attention as soon as he exhibits your chosen behaviour.  Repeat several times for the same behaviour and you should get a measure as to how quickly the dog learns to carry out a behaviour in order to obtain a reward.  After several repetitions the dog should immediately adopt the behaviour when you withdraw the reward.


Work out the total time that you have been interacting with the dog and now move away from the kennel / run so that you are out of sight.  Check to see how long it takes for the dog to accept your absence and continue its normal routine.  As a guide, the dog should have settled in a time equal to, or less than your total interaction time.  If you continue to get attention seeking behaviour (barking, howling, scratching or even chewing bedding) long after you have moved out of sight then this would indicate an over dependency and the likelihood of separation anxiety or extreme attention seeking behaviour when the new owner leaves it by itself for any length of time.


Whilst you are stroking and talking to the dog, have a third party approach and put their arms around you in an embrace, noting the dog’s reaction.  The dog should accept this without problems but if it appears disturbed or begins to growl and threaten then this would suggest over protectiveness towards a previous owner and the possibility of a recurrence of this behaviour when re-homed.


Bring a dog that is known to the subject near to the kennel / run and commence stroking and talking to it.  Observe your subject’s reaction.  It is normal for this dog to become excited but that excitement should be directed towards you and not the other dog.  Displays of aggression or re – directed aggression (where the dog attacks another dog in the kennel / run because it cannot reach the dog that is the cause of the excitement) would indicate a history of aggressive interactions with other dogs.

Further Reading

Dogs For Better Lives

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