Temperament: stable vs. tweakable traits

I’ve been learning a lot about breeding, puppy evaluations, and making the right match between puppies and owners. Why? Well, this is a facinating topic, and I’m getting closer to adding a new puppy to my four-legged family – a puppy who I don’t only want to be a performance prospect for herding and obedience, but also a potential future breeding bitch. This decision warrants lots of research!

I’m currently taking Avidog‘s Introduction to Transformational Dog Breeding course. It’s a fascinating, in-depth class about everything from setting breeding goals to selecting breeding stock, best feeding options, raising puppies, evaluating potential homes, evaluating puppies, and matching puppies to available homes. I’m particularly intrigued by Gayle Watkins’ differentiation between (1) skills that can be seen in puppies vs. skills that can’t be seen in puppies, and (2) stable vs. tweakable traits. It makes a lot of sense to look at dogs from this perspective, yet I’ve never consciously done it this way and also don’t think it’s a very common approach. So I thought I’d share parts of it with you – maybe it’ll blow your minds like it is blowing mine!

(1) Skills that can be seen in puppies vs. skills that can’t be seen in puppies

Gayle gives two examples: selecting a future hunting dog, and selecting an agility prospect. As for crucial hunting dog skills that can be seen in puppies, she mentiones a good nose, birdiness, ground speed, and a love for water. Hunting dog skills that cannot be seen in puppies include marking, the ability to handle pressure, persistance, and the dog’s passion for his sport/job. In agility, Gayle names ground speed and athleticism as skills that can be seen in puppyhood, and again the ability to handle pressure and the dog’s passion for the sport as skills that cannot be seen in puppyhood.

The skills that can be seen in puppyhood can be tested through a variety of systematic puppy evaluations including temperament testing, health tests, and structural evaluations (for example, is the puppy built correctly in order to be able to excel in a particular job or sport?). There are a number of tests available that allow the evaluator to score the puppies on various dimensions in order to place them with their ideal homes. Learning about these tests is another particularly intriguing element of the class – I’ll definitely do these kinds of tests with my own litters one day (yep, one day …!). Just reading about them has made me realize how many subtle and not-so-subtle differences there can be between the puppies in one and the same litter, and how evaluating a litter systematically (rather than just going with the breeder’s gut feeling) leads to the best possible matching results for puppies and owners. And well-matched puppies make for happy dogs, happy owners, and a happy breeder!

If you’re as fascinated by puppy temperament and working ability evaluations as I am, check out the following tests:

Avidog Puppy Evaluation Test
Sheila Booth’s Positive Puppy Preview (can’t find a working link)
Volhard’s Puppy Aptitude Test
Suzanne Clothier’s Animal Response Assessment Tool

As for skills that can’t be seen in puppies – how can breeders find out about them in order to make good mating choices and match puppies and owners well? For these skills, Gaile recommends a thorough pedigree analysis of the litter, selecting the breeding stock with a focus on the attributes desired in the puppies, and guiding future owners when it comes to training methods that may help build the skills important to them.

(2) Stable vs. tweakable traits

Gayle defines stable temperament traits as traits that “vary little over a dog’s lifetime,” and are difficult to to change by means of training, socialization, and development experiences. Stable traits are “best accomodated or managed”.

The stable traits Gayle lists are energy level, environmental focus, forgiveness, handshyness, pain threshold, people focus, stress type and 3-dimensionality.

Wow – first of all, yes, indeed, all of these are very important traits for working dogs – and, depending on what kind of handler you are, you want stronger or weaker scores in certain ones! Second, I had not bee aware that forgiveness and handshyness were stable traits! Pretty cool stuff – I need to learn more, and I want to know how to evaluate and score these traits in puppies as well as adult dogs!

It’s interesting for me to look at my own dogs by means of these categories. Phoebe is definitely a high energy dog with a strong people focus. I am not sure how Gayle defines handshyness, but if she means dogs that don’t like to be touched a lot, Phoebe scores moderately high on that level. Forgiveness would be moderate as well. As for 3-dimensionality, I’m not sure what this means in dogs, so can’t comment on it. I’m also not sure what exactly she means by stress type – is it whether a particular dog tends to stress up or down? In that case, Phoebe would definitely someone who stresses up – in contrast to Fanta, who stresses down.

I made a table and quickly and very unscientifically scored Phoebe, Fanta, Snoopy, Hadley and my hypothetical ideal future puppy on these traits. Wherever I didn’t write anything, I don’t know Gayle’s definition of the trait in question.


In contrast, tweakable temperament traits are defined as traits that can be influenced by training, socialization, and development experiences. Gayle says they are best dealt with by the owner’s actions during the first 16 weeks and the following 8 months of life. Tweakable traits according to Gayle include assertiveness, biddability, drives, focus, learning speed, problem-solving style, resilience, self-confidence & courage, sight & sound sensitivity, and stability. Again, I am not sure how some of these are defined (problem-solving style? staibility?), and I’m not sure which drives Gayle distinguishes. However, I was surprised to learn that biddability was a tweakable trait – I’ve thought of it as a more permanent one!  Wow – so many possibilities, assuming these traits really are tweakable! Since it’s fun, I made another quick and unscientific table with scores from Low to High. As for drives, I randomly chose to use food drive, toy drive, working drive, and hunting drive, and to define “drive” as “love for …”. This might not have been what Gayle had in mind, but it was fun to think about the dogs in my life along these lines all the same! As for Hadley, things like biddability have a question mark because I don’t work with him – Tom does. I sometimes wonder if some of his traits would be different if I trained him. Now that I’m looking at a table of “tweakable” traits, I’m assuming that this is entirely possible. Fascinating stuff!


… and now it gets even more interesting! Gayle points out that there are no perfect puppies, no perfect owners, and no perfect matches. However, the goal of the responsible breeder should be to make the best match possible – even if this means that a potential puppy buyer will have to wait for the next litter or find a different breeder, or has to keep one of the puppies yourself because there is no good match for them available. In order to do this, she thoroughly interviews puppy buyers in order to really learn about their expecations, experience, and preferred training style.

Top working and sports homes need a structurally healthy puppy that can thrive in its sport or job. These evaluations seem comparatively easy to make – vet exams, and structural evaluations by an experienced, objective person. However, what kind of energy level does a potential owner prefer in her dog? High energy dogs may look beautiful when working, but can be hard to live with in everyday life. What is the puppy buyer’s preferred training style, and how experienced is she? A puppy who isn’t very forgiving and resilient could still thrive with an experienced, motivational trainer, but might shut down with an inexperienced trainer who relies on force. If there are mismatches between dogs and owners on stable traits, Gayle honestly points them out to her buyers, and together, they decide whether to still make the match – or not. According to her, the most common mismatches on stable traits are energy level, enviromental focus, and forgiveness. Are the puppy buyers willing to adapt to their dog or manage these traits, or do they want to wait for a better match?

Tweakable mismatches pose less of a challenge. As far as these are concerned, everyone who buys a puppy from Gayle gets a training plan that is tailored to their wishes and the puppy’s temperament, with the goal of smoothing out the mismatch as much as possible. The training plan details how to socialize and train the puppy, what developmental opportunities to present him with, and what to watch out for. Tweakable, Gayle adds, always only means tweakable to a degree – a puppy who showed hardly any biddability in his first 8 weeks of life may be trained to become a bit more biddable, but he will never be a highly biddable dog.

Gayle’s further reading recommendations about matching include an interesting article by Denise Fenzi – check it out here: The Match Game: Matching Specific Puppies to Specific Handlers.

Okay, so now I really want a puppy from a breeder who will not only raise the litter according to Puppy Culture principles, but do temperament evaluations and match the puppy’s personality to mine! Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. For the kinds of dogs I’m interested in, it’s hard to find breeders who do at least basic socialization and don’t exclusively raise their puppies outside, in a barn or kennel – at least in Europe. North America seems to have a slightly bigger choice of top-notch breeders, mainly because the puppy programs I’m into originated here. Well, I’m not getting a puppy in North America, but in Europe. Anywhere in Europe is fine, really, but driving distance from Vienna would be preferred. I do have my eyes set on a litter already. No, these are not Puppy Culture puppies, but they do get basic socialization and are not exclusively raised outside. I’ll be able to visit the litter regularly as the puppies grow up, watch the dam work, and talk extensively to the breeder about the kind of puppy I’m looking for. I’m prepared to rely on my gut feeling when it comes to the breeder: I want to get to know him and his dogs. If I feel like we understand each other and he “gets” me, I’ll trust his recommendation on a puppy for me. If I feel like our personalities clash and he doesn’t get what I’m looking for (something slightly unusual for the breed I’m thinking about), I’ll be ready to walk away. But I’m hoping for the former scenario … And I’m cautiously optimistic. Luckily, I’ll also have an expierienced friend by my side who shares my philosophy and will help me decide … And, if the breeder allows us to test his puppies, we might even do Deb Jones’ and Judy Keller’s performance puppy evaluation test with the litter (the test is explained in the Focused Puppy book). And nope, I’m not telling you more about the four-legged little landshark I’m thinking about – not yet, that is. 🙂

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