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Pit Bull Informational Pages
by Diane Jessup 

A Common Sense Approach


Puppy Testing

Some decades ago a scientist named Clarence Pfaffenberger searched for ways to better predict which pups would succeed at service work (guide dogs, police dogs) and breeders searched for ways to better match up puppies with buyers. Several temperament tests were put forth as tools for evaluating litters and ultimately predicting how individual pups would develop.

Some people think that Pfaffenberger's test was used by Guide Dogs for the Blind to determine temperament, but in reality, Guide Dogs has never used puppy tests for the simple reason they have not found them to give an accurate prediction.

The fact is, testing a litter of pups with any regularity will give mixed results. A pup that tests "quiet" one day may be a "hellion" the next depending on many factors.

Puppy temperament tests are more accurate the older the pups are. Tests done at 7 or 8 weeks are not nearly as liable to represent the pups ultimate temperament as those done at 12 or 14 weeks. Even tests done at those older ages are not necessarily reflective of the animal's adult behavior. Adult behavior is heavily influenced by drives and hormones not present in a pup.

Can an experienced breeder tell anything useful about a litter of pups? Absolutely. After having watched a litter grow, some pups will stand out as being consistently more dominant or more shy. But understand - even this can change. It is my opinion that pups which display severe temperament faults at an early age are suspect; rarely do they get "better". It is important to understand that this means pups which show consistently irregular temperament - not an occasional "bad moment".

Some things are more often than not able to be determined by 12 weeks of age. Severe dog aggression can sometimes be determined. This is tricky, however, as there are two main types of dog aggression. One is based on a dog being "gamey" and this animal generally will fight quietly (in fact you have to look close to see if they are fighting or playing). The other is based on a dog being "defensive" and this animal is loud - almost hysterical - when fighting. Besides that, the most dog aggressive dog I ever owned was a very passive pup until 14 months of age. This is not unusual in American pit bulls.

What to look for in a pup:

No matter the age, no matter if it be a shelter or breeder, there are some things to look for - and some things to avoid - in a pup.

CHILD TEST: If possible watch the pups with a young child. Pups that activity seek out contact with a child are a much better choice than a pup who avoids contact with little ones. Watch the pup's expression; is it "soft" and submissive or does the pup freeze and stare straight ahead when picked up and handled? A hallmark of our breed is a soft, submissive temperament with children. This is genetic and shows up in those well bred dogs who haven't had prior exposure to children.

SIT STILL TEST: Just sit and watch the pup(s). Don't call them, ignore them. Which pups keep coming to check in with you? Which ignore you back and go about their own business? I like a pup who seeks out the human and tries to engage them.

FOLLOW TEST: Get up and walk away. Don't call the pups. Who follows you? Who watches you leave with indifference? I like a pup who shows interest in you - in following you.

PUSH TEST: If you are looking for an outgoing pup, one with perhaps less of submissive temperament than others, try pushing a pup away (playfully) with your hand or foot. Watch the response. Does the pup act submissive and leave after just one or two pushes? Doe the pup rush back, excited by the opposition and willing to "wrassle" with you? This will give you a decent indication of how "soft" this pup is - at least at this time frame.

ALARM BARKING TEST: I don't care for bulldogs that are alarm barkers. I care even less for pups which alarm bark. When the pups are relaxed, have someone knock on a wall or door. Watch their reactions - which jump up, tail wagging, to investigate. Watch which ones alarm bark, indicating uneasiness.

GRIPPING TEST: If you are getting an American pit bull, you should strive to get one (in my opinion) with breed traits and characteristics. If not - why get one? One defining characteristic of the bulldog is the ability and desire to grip. Wave a soft cloth, sock or piece of jute over the pups; which pup chases and grips? Which pup holds with a quiet, confident grip when the pressure is steady, and growls and shakes when the cloth is shaken? I never cease to be amazed at persons emailing me with concerns because their pit bull pup grabs at their pants legs or gloves... I'd be worried if it didn't! If you don't want a gripping breed, don't get a bulldog.

Boldog Dirk, FR Brevet, SchH III as a 4 week old pup.

Where To Get A Dog

Adopters and buyers of dogs should be able to trust those adopting or selling animals to have the welfare of the breed, the dog, the adopter/buyers and the community in mind when they evaluate an animal. In reality, an adopter/buyer must do their own assessment, especially where children are concerned. You don't know what motivates a rescuer or seller - is it money? Is it a desire to "save every dog" they get their hands on? Be wary of "no kill" rescues or breeders who indicate they don't believe in culling (euthanizing) animals with substandard temperament. Both are highly motivated to "move" their stock - and it can be at the risk of you or your family's danger.

If you chose a rescue organization or shelter to chose your next dog, please pick one with personnel who are bull breed savvy. If a shelter does not have an experienced owner of American pit bulls to council you, consider going to a local rescue. You best bet is a single breed rescue; all-breed rescues are apt to be run by persons with limited experience in any one particular breed. I've seen everything from cat-ladies to chihuahua rescuers trying to place pit bulls - not always a great situation. Well meaning they most often are, but able to mentor you or objectively judge the temperament of the dog they most often are not.

A breeder can be just as big a gamble. Novice (or unethical) breeders just want you to make a sale. Only an ethical breeder will be honest with you about the dogs in their breeding program, mention pros and cons of the animals. Only ethical breeders will cull unsatisfactory animals instead of handing them out into an unsuspecting public.

An important point about breeders: buying or adopting a puppy is a crap shoot - you have no idea how that pup will mature. However, a reputable breeder will be able to show you several of the pup's relatives, allowing you to judge for yourself how friendly and stable their temperaments are. Even with puppies, the typical American pit bull bitch will not growl at strangers. Most will welcome strangers into the whelping box after the first few days. If the mother of pup you are looking at growls, snarls or has to be locked away - run, don't walk away from the pups... She is showing a fearful/defensive attitude not normal for a well bred bull bitch. The same goes for the sire of the litter.


Testing The Adult Dog

A woman named Sue Sternberg can be credited with getting shelter workers to really start thinking about temperament testing. I have been to her workshop and while I disagree with the majority of her methods and opinions I give her credit for being strong minded enough to bring the subject up. No person on earth could ever come up with a test that everyone would agree on - and this is obvious when you realise that Ms. Sternberg has even recieved death threats from those unhappy with her methods.

The problem with temperament testing is twofold: first it assumes that each evaluator is able to be rational in their assessment. This is sadly not so. People bring "baggage" to their ability to assess temperament, be it an unwillingness to assign a dog to death or a fear or misunderstanding of certain types of dog. One person may overlook a poorly tempered Border collie - if that is a breed they care for - while being overly hard on boxers - a breed they dislike.

After twenty years in animal control, and working with thousands of animal control and humane workers while doing seminars and workshops, I find that most evaluators are well intentioned yet ultimately prejudiced by one of the following:

  • A desire to "excuse" dangerous behavior
  • A fear of certain dogs or canine behaviors
  • Lack of ability to "read" canine language
  • Reluctance to "play God"

With this in mind, my advice to those looking for an honest evaluation of an adult dog is to find someone with years of knowledge of the breed. I suggest a breeder or a rescuer who has at least five years experience with the breed. I would only consider someone who has, in the course of their dealings with the breed proven that they are willing to euthanize animals for poor temperament or ill health/soundness. Someone who says they have "never had to euthanize a dog" will be a poor choice.






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