ABSTRACT: Guide dogs must be able to learn a number of complex tasks. In most cases in which dogs fail to qualify, it is not down to their inability to learn the tasks, but the consequence of fear interfering with their performance.

A guide dog is expected to work in noisy, crowded conditions and may encounter many unusual stimuli – a shop shutter being closed, for instance – which can be potentially frightening. A dog which reacts adversely to these stimuli may put its visually impaired owner in danger. Other common reasons for rejection include distraction, aggression and excitability.

The dog and handler are approaching a Guide Dog collecting box. This test is designed to assess the dog's response towards objects which may be present in their working environment


The breeding, rearing and training of dogs as guide dogs for the blind involves a significant financial outlay. The cost attributable to bringing any dog on to qualification as a guide can be almost £50,000. It is important that temperamentally unsuitable dogs are identified as early as possible and excluded from the training scheme in order to save the organisation money and valuable staff time and input.

The earlier identification of these dogs would also allow them to be moved on to alternate career paths to which they might be better suited, such as police work, or work as a hearing dog for the deaf, or other assistance work. Alternatively these dogs can be re-homed in family homes at a much earlier stage.

Early identification and exclusion from the training scheme involves the development of a test that can accurately predict their suitability for guiding work, preferably before a dog enters formal training.

What is temperament?

The term temperament is difficult to define. It is frequently used in behavioural literature, but is rarely well defined. Therefore, definitions are few and far between and are often very vague. Temperament can be considered to be the sum of the behavioural characteristics expressed by an individual, such as excitability, aggression or nervousness.3

Heredity of behaviour and temperament

Canine behaviour cannot be considered in isolation as a genetic trait. Behaviour is dependent upon both inherited and acquired characteristics and is considered to be a complex interaction between heredity and environment.4 This means that the study of the heredity of different temperament characteristics in the dog is not straightforward.

The most famous research carried out on the temperament of dogs and the heredity of behaviour was carried out at the Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbour, USA in 1945 and covered 20 years of work.5

It was a comprehensive study of canine behaviour that established the critical periods for socialisation in puppies and the role that heredity plays in the development of behaviour.

Similar experiments would probably not be licensed nowadays owing to the adverse effects imposed on many of the puppies by rearing them in isolation. This work is the foundation of all current knowledge in this subject area and is still highly relevant in the context of the social development of guide dog puppies.

A thorough understanding of the heredity of behavioural traits is essential as they may be either selected for or against in a selective breeding programme, such as that at the Guide Dog Breeding Centre, Warwickshire.

The dog and handler entering a tunnelled environment. This test is designed to assess a dog's confidence levels in confined environments such as subways

Temperament testing

Temperament testing of dogs has been used for many years to assess their suitability of dogs for re-homing or for various tasks, such as guiding and police work. The validity and reliability of these tests are inconsistent and there is a question over their usefulness in predicting the future behaviour of dogs. This is likely to be the result of the multivariate nature of behaviour, being dependent on the complex interaction between inherited and acquired characteristics.

However, if a temperament test can be used to accurately predict the future behaviour of dogs, then it would be of great value in predicting which dogs will be likely to be successful in guide dog training and to identify those which are unsuitable or may require more support in particular areas.

Temperament testing at Guide Dogs

Initially, character assessment testing was introduced at the Guide Dogs Breeding Centre as a means of assessing potential breeding stock. The aim was to produce a series of ‘tests’ to observe the dogs’ reactions to a range of fixed stimuli, and to ‘grade’ their reactions so that test scores from different individuals could be compared. This would act as a tool in selecting temperamentally ‘sound’ breeding stock.

In the early days of the testing, different stimuli and means of scoring were trialled, until a range of stimuli were selected which were considered to be of most value. The scoring protocols were produced with the aim of making the scoring as objective as possible and to try and reduce the subjective variation in scoring resulting from handler interpretation of the dogs’ behaviour.

The tests were designed to assess the dogs in three main areas: confidence, compliance and environmental awareness.

The tests simulate experiences to which dogs would ordinarily be exposed whilst working as a guide dog – sudden noises, street furniture and a tunnelled environment. The handler also performs a short physical examination of the dogs’ eyes, ears and teeth, for example, in order to determine how accepting the dog is of these procedures.

Ideally, a guide dog should show a level of awareness of its environment; but without this affecting its work. A dog that displays very little awareness of its environment is often not suitable for the guiding role.

Similarly, a dog that is fearful will potentially put their visually impaired owner in danger as their work standard will be affected.

The dog and handler are stepping onto a gantry with open steps. This test is designed to assess the dog's confidence with open steps which can pose more of a challenge to a dog than closed steps

Outcomes so far

The tests have now been used successfully for approximately five years .as a tool in selecting breeding stock. The dogs which were not selected as breeding stock have entered formal training as guide dogs and their performance has been monitored to determine whether the character assessment test was a true reflection of their future performance in training and as a guide dog.

The early stages of this analysis have proved, with a reasonable level of ‘predictivity’, whi
ch dogs were most likely to qualify as a guide dog and which were likely to be temperamentally unsuitable. However, more data are still required in order to produce an accurate predictive model.

In order to obtain more data, another character testing course, with exactly the same stimuli, was erected at the Guide Dog Training School in Forfar. A sufficient number of dogs has now been tested on this course and the results are currently under analysis.

It is hoped that this method will be a valuable tool in determining which dogs are most likely to be suitable for guide dog work and which will require extra help. It will also allow us to re-home any dogs which are unsuitable much earlier.


Rena Trybocka BSc(Hons)

After graduating with a Degree in Animal Health, Rena started work for Guide Dogs as a research worker. She has a particular interest in canine behaviour and has completed an Advanced Diploma in the Practical Aspects of Companion Animal Behaviour and Training.


1.   SCOTT, J. P. and BIELFELT, S. W. (1976) Analysis of the Puppy Testing Program. In: Pfaffenberger C. J., Scott, J. P., Fuller, J. L., Ginsburg, B. E.& Bielfelt, S. W. Eds. Guide dogs for the blind: their selection, development and training. Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company

2.   GODDARD, M. E. and BEILHARZ, R. G. (1986) Early Prediction of Adult Behaviour in Potential Guide Dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 15: 247-260.

3.   TAKEUCHI, Y. and HOUPT, K. A. (2003) Behavior Genetics. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice 33: 345-363.

4.   WILLIS, M. B. (1989) Genetics of the Dog. London: H.F. + G. Witherby Ltd.

5.   SCOTT, J. P. and FULLER, J. L. (1965) Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog – The classic study. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 25 • No11 • November 2010 •