How To Assess a Dog’s Temperament

Hello dedicated dog parents and welcome to this month’s blog. Today we are talking about how to assess a dog’s temperament. What is it? How do you measure it? And how do you make sure you choose the right puppy? We’re here to guide the way.

Choosing a dog

When choosing a dog for the first time, most of us focus on breed looks (size, shape, colour) and then Google the living daylights out of the breed characteristics and temperament to see if they will be a good fit with our family life. We’ll talk to owners of the breed. We’ll join Facebook groups. Responsible owners obsess over it to get the right fit.

“Temperament” is a sneaky definition that gets warped in both books and online. Often people think if temperament as akin to “niceness” which is false. You might read about specific breeds having a “good” temperament. This is a lie.

Breeds don’t carry a specific temperament in terms of good or bad. Only individual animals can do that and context is everything. Breed descriptions will tell you how the dog’s temperament should be – but it’s never guaranteed.

Temperament is all about genetics, breed characteristics, responsibly bred lines, stability and how well suited a dog is to their role from decades of selective breeding.

All dogs have been bred to carry out a specific role in life. Some herd, some guard and others are companion animals. Temperament relates directly to the scale on which that dog’s breed is required to be intensely friendly, energetic, aggressive and so on, to carry out their job effectively.

temperament
/ˈtɛmp(ə)rəm(ə)nt/
noun
  1. 1.
    a person’s or animal’s nature, especially as it permanently affects their behaviour.
    “she had an artistic temperament”

This blog post will help you understand temperament and get to grips with the kind of dog or puppy you’re looking for, and even assess your current dog at home.

Genetics

Lineage is the single most important element of temperament. Genetics play a huge role in how a dog will shape up in adult life, not just in how they function as a breed but how they will cope with living with humans and our crazy, unpredictable world.

In terms of temperament, balanced, confident, friendly, curious, brave, affectionate, driven and emotionally stable dogs are good parents. They will be from caring homes that have put in the work to ensure the parents are highly trained, socialised and have zero health or behavioural problems.

Behavioural problems are frequently forgotten about by novice breeders who are more concerned with looks. Think of behavioural issues and temperament holding hands with one another. Poor breeding makes for a poor temperament and from there, behavioural issues are much more likely to develop.

Time and time again I have owners return to their breeder with complaints of reactivity, resource guarding or fearfulness, only to find the breeder claims it’s a breed characteristic or that the father/mother has the exact same issue. These dog shouldn’t be bred from.

Mum and Dad

Parenting is also a huge factor in temperament. If mum is terrified during pregnancy or any time during feeding, the pups usually are too. They absorb cortisol (the stress hormone) in the womb and milk. This deeply affects the pups on a physiological level to the point where they can struggle to cope with even a small amount of stress making socialisation and training very tricky. They are born nervous. This is a poor temperament.

This is where a lot of rescue dog parents struggle. They can find themselves with a semi-feral pet who is highly fearful or mistrustful due to both a difficult birth and fearful mother. This is often something that improves with time and training but is frequently not 100% fixable for all dogs. Genetics and early life trauma/socialisation account for so much.

If you’re visiting what you believe to be a reputable breeder, watch mum’s behaviour. Does she seem relaxed, friendly and content? Or is she wary of the new comers to the home and shying away?

Look for red flags and be prepared to walk away if something doesn’t feel right.

It’s Not About Personality

Lots of owners in our training room say phrases like:

“he is the most loving dog in the world – a really lovely temperament, but he bites/is terrified of everyone/reactive to dogs/resource guards.”

This is not a good temperament. Good temperaments = emotional stability, breed drive and the ability to cope with stress.

Temperament is not about how nice your dog’s personality is. All dogs have nice personalities. In terms of temperament, personality has no grounding or influence on how well a dog will cope with stress/life/etc in alignment within their breed description and the life that has been chosen for them. You can see how easily temperament, personality and behaviour cross over one another and cause confusion. They are closely linked but not one and the same.

We see common occurrences in our training room with people who have seen a puppy for sale in terrible conditions and felt compelled to “save it”. Unwittingly they committed themselves to life with a dog that has a poor temperament that will not cope well with their long term life plans – whether that be to have a family, emigrate, host large family gatherings etc.

How To Assess a Dog’s Temperament Score Card

This scorecard is a great way to assess a puppy, we’ll come back to it again in a moment. Of course all dogs have a certain degree of fear, drive, friendliness etc.

1 is a low score, and 10 is a high score.

This is one way you can see how the desirable categories stack up against your lifestyle and future plans with a dog in your family.

How To Assess a Dog's Temperament

Assistance Dog Temperament Tests

90% of families are looking for a dog that will have the temperament and trainability of a service dog. This means they require a breed that is intelligent, happy to go for walks, eager to please and train but also has an off switch and will sleep beyond 5am. This narrows down breed options significantly.

Here’s what to look out for in a good temperament:

Great breeders

Most service dogs come from specialist in-house breeding programmes but you can find reputable breeds via the Kennel Club and ChampDogs.

Loud Noises

A puppy with a good temperament will cope with mildly loud noises such as clapping or dropping a rattly object. They will be curious and sniff or approach the sound after the initial reaction. What we are looking for here is a quick recovery.

Weird Objects

Opening an umbrella is a really good way to see how the puppy responds to unknown objects. Allow the puppy to explore it. Again quick recovery is what you are looking for.

Picking Up and Handling

A puppy with a good temperament for family life will be comfortable with handling and relax reasonably well in your arms. They will not drastically struggle or try to run away. They may even settle on your lap when other dogs run off to enjoy more interesting stimuli.

Eye Contact

Watch for eye contact and which puppy is happy to follow your voice around the pen and makes eye contact willingly. Chaotic puppies that are more interested in everything else rather than you might be showing early signs they are on the higher maintenance side of the litter.

Play style

Watch the puppies play. You’ll see some wrestle, others chase or like to be chased. The important element here is to watch for severe boisterousness. Bullying in the dog world is much the same as the human one. A puppy that participates politely is going to be the pick of the litter.

Food and sharing

Giving the puppy a little bit of kibble will show you how food driven they are. If a puppy is keen and eats reasonably gently from your hand this is a great sign that they are food motivated but not obsessed.

A puppy that nearly takes your arm off and tramples siblings to get to the food is already showing issues that could develop into resource guarding later on. No puppy should be showing extreme obsession over food.

Watch for a similar response to toys.

Breed Characteristics

Drive

Drive works in parallel to energy levels and breed characteristics. Dogs with high drive also have a lot of energy to burn specifically in the area of their breed characteristics.

This is the drive to herd, bite, retrieve, etc. The level at which they do this is their drive. High, medium and low. We all know a dog that will retrieve a tennis ball all day long or latch onto a tyre swing and not let go. This is often their drive to retrieve, bite or herd peeping through and waving hello.

Temperament is also measured as “good and bad” by way of context. For example, a Malinous that is really keen to bite and hang on is considered high drive. If you are looking for protection work, this element of their temperament is measured as a good thing. If you want a lap dog for the kids, it’s a bad thing.

Cross Breeds

Some say that cross breeds give you the best of both worlds and reduce the likelihood of hereditary diseases. There appears to be very little or no proof to support this.

Genetically speaking first generation cross breeds are much more of a lottery for temperament. They have not had he decades of selective breeding that purebred dogs have for a specific role. This means a single litter can all be very different in terms of energy levels and types of drive.

In an ideal scenario the parents have come from very good lines and the breeder will have put in the hours to provide confidence building and socialisation for the litter.

However with cross breeds comes a higher degree of uncertainty around temperament. Usually it will be more from one parent than the other. This can also influence the dog’s drive which is something we must all be prepared to accommodate. For example with a Cockapoo, you might see strong retrieving instincts come through (Cocker) or an unbreakable emotional bond with a single person (Poodle) which can lead to completely different outcomes in temperament.

Understanding the breed mixture is very helpful for assessing temperament but also appealing to the dog’s drive and motivators in training.

Nature vs Nurture

Finally, your breeders input is crucial for shaping a good temperament. Although genetics play a huge role, so do those first 8 or 9 weeks before they come home to you.

Has your breeder provided the pups with lots of toys, sounds, environments and activities? Kennel life, washing machines, astroturf, children – everything around the pups and how positive or negative that experience is will help or hinder the development of their temperament.

Early life experiences dictate a lot, so be ready to interrogate your breeder about just how many things the littler have been exposed to. Great breeders will have a check list for you.

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How To Assess a Dog’s Temperament

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