Dog temperament is arguably the most important factor to take into consideration when picking a puppy.
And we can influence that future behavior a great deal, in those early weeks with us.
Differences In Temperament Between Dogs
All dogs are different. Not just in appearance, but in personality too. Some are very lively and driven, whilst others are very chilled out and relaxed.
Dogs will also differ wildly in their feelings and reactions towards the people, and other dogs, that they meet each day.
Part of these differences in temperament are down to the way that the dog is raised, and part is down to his genes. But before we go any further, let's clarify what we mean by temperament and behavior
What Do We Mean By Temperament?
Dog temperament is the underlying nature or personality of your dog.
It's not the same as behavior. Although your dog's temperament is a strong influence on their behavior, we can modify behavior through training.
Temperament, on the other hand, is a somewhat more permanent characteristic.
How Does A Dog's Temperament Influence Behavior?
Your dog's temperament governs the way he interacts with the world, and influences the activities he enjoys and likes to participate in.
It’s what makes most retrievers friendly and interested in retrieving. And what makes some other breeds wary of strangers and keen to guard homes, vehicles, and even people.
Scientists often use the word temperament to describe those aspects of character that are inherited, rather than learned through experience.
However many people discussing dog temperament also include those attributes of personality that your dog acquires as a young puppy. In many cases it is impossible to neatly divide the two up.
We don’t always know whether a nervous dog inherited his anxieties or whether these were caused by experiences he had when he was small. What matters is the outcome. But predicting that outcome, when choosing a puppy, can be challenging
It’s something you will need to seriously consider when selecting a breed, and when caring for your dog as he grows.
Why Does Dog Temperament Matter?
Does it really matter whether or not your dog is friendly? Especially when it comes to strangers. Isn’t it quite nice to have a dog that will ‘protect’ you?
Or guard your house?
And what about dogs that are more or less trainable than others? Is that something that can be inherited? And does it matter?
Perhaps you’d rather have a dog with a bit of character and independence than a robotically obedient dog?
The fact is, temperament does matter.
It matters very much. And there is a lot you can do to influence the temperament of your dog. Let’s take a closer look
Every year, thousands of people are victims of dog bites. Not just nips, but severe damaging attacks that result in hospitalisation and occasionally even death.
Very sadly, the majority of these victims are also children.
Aside from the impact on the victim and their family, if your dog bites someone, he may need to be euthanised.
If he bites someone badly, you could personally end up in very serious trouble.
Whilst most dogs live peaceably amongst us, aggression by dogs towards people, and towards other dogs, is a significant problem in our society. And it’s one that really needs addressing.
So what makes some dogs safe and friendly, and other dogs aggressive and dangerous?
Influences On Temperament
There are two main influences on a dog’s temperament:
When you have found your puppy, you can influence the dog they will become, by providing a great environment in which your puppy can thrive. That means making your puppy feels safe and providing proper socialization and training.
But before you get to that point, your choice of breed is paramount, because genes have a powerful influence on temperament.
How Much Of Temperament Is Genetic In Origin?
Choosing a dog breed with a reputation for good temperament and a generally sunny disposition, is important. It isn't a guarantee, because there are variations between individuals within a breed. But it stacks the odds in your favor.
Years ago there was a general understanding that aspects of temperament are genetic in origin. As we have learned about the importance of socializing puppies the pendulum has rather swung the other way. And there are now some assumptions that socialization can make any dog friendly.
That's not entirely true.
You may have heard the slogan ‘deed not breed’ which refers to the stereotyping of certain breeds. And to the assumptions that dogs of certain breeds are guilty of being dangerous, without considering the individual dog.
The Deed Not Breed Campaign
The ‘deed not breed’ campaign is important because it underlines the fact that we cannot accurately predict behavior by knowing what breed a dog belongs to.
And because it emphasises the importance of early environmental influences on a dog’s behavior
The deed not breed argument, quite rightly, has been driven home powerfully by some influential people.
Quite rightly, because it is important that individual dogs are not destroyed or abandoned simply because of the way they look or because of the breed they belong to.
But there are issues here that have been downplayed, and puppy buyers need to be aware of them
Inherited Aspects Of Canine Temperament
Whilst it is very important that we don’t condemn individual dogs simply because they belong to particular breeds, it is true that certain aspects of temperament, or tendencies to behave in certain ways are inherited.
This is why retrievers love retrieving. And this is why collies like to herd sheep.
And while it may make us feel uncomfortable put labels on breeds in this way, this is also why dogs from some other breeds or mixes are more likely to be involved in incidents involving aggression
This information is important for anyone choosing a puppy. Especially one that is going to be a family dog.
Choosing A Breed Carefully
The truth is that some breeds of dog are so naturally friendly and free from anxiety that many individuals of that breed are likely to make safe companions for children. Even if only minimally socialized.
And that some breeds are more vulnerable to poor socialization and training, and require a lot more effort on the part of the owner, in order to ensure that they grow up into friendly and gentle canine citizens.
For anyone willing to put in that extra effort those latter breeds may be a perfectly good choice, but for most families, especially those lacking experience with the breed in question, they are not. And prospective puppy parents need to know this.
There are some articles about the temperament of individual breeds at the foot of this article.
A Dog With A Lovely Temperament
It is possible to raise a healthy puppy from any breed of dog to be a good, safe, citizen.
And it is never acceptable to say that ‘this’ individual dog is unsafe because of his breed.
But that does not change the fact that there are some breeds where it is much easier to get the outcome you want.
If you want to give yourself the very best chance of a puppy with a wonderful temperament, not only should you provide optimum socialization and care for your puppy, but you should pick a breed where a friendly and trainable temperament has been established through good breeding.
Naturally Friendly Breeds Of Dog
Most of the sporting dog breeds fall into this category. Breeds such as the Labrador Retriever, and the Golden Retriever are popular family dogs with good reason.
You'll still need to pick a responsible breeder, and check out the parents, but the chances of your dog growing up to have serious guarding tendencies for example, is reduced if you pick one of these breeds.
Guarding tendencies is often on the shopping list of features for new puppy parents. People like the idea of a family guard dog. So let's look at that next.
Guarding The Home
People often say to me “I want the dog to be good with kids, but I also expect him to guard the house”
Some dogs will perform this ‘dual role’ without any problems, but many will not.
There are a great many inherent difficulties in balancing the two needs. This is because aggression in dogs is largely rooted in fear.
The Roots Of Aggression
Many dogs will not ‘guard’ possessions or property, because these instincts have been bred out of them over many generations.
Dogs are generally only aggressive to things, events, situations or people which they consider alien or unsafe.
The process of socialisation that responsible dog owners carry out with puppies nowadays teaches the dog to feel safe around pretty much everything he is likely to come across in his everyday life.
Guarding things is unlikely to be on his list of priorities.
He is more likely to invite your burglar in and show him where the refrigerator is.
If you fail to socialize your dog properly he may well guard your home against strangers, unfortunately he may also guard your home against your friends and their small children.
This is both embarrassing and dangerous.
If you are worried about burglars you are in all honesty, better off investing in a decent burglar alarm and some sturdy locks.
Owning an aggressive dog is a huge responsibility and encouraging aggression deliberately is about as sensible as leaving your toddler in charge of a loaded shotgun.
Do your research
Choosing a dog that has been bred to be friendly and welcoming towards other dogs and people may mean that you have to compromise on other aspects of behavior that you may admire in a dog, such as protecting your property.
Trying to find a dog that will be generally friendly and easy to socialize is simply too important a goal to risk compromising with concerns about guarding the house.
Read as much as you can about the temperament of the groups of dogs you are interested in and the breeds within it.
Talk to your local vet, any local breeders of nice dogs and local people you know that have a lovely friendly dog. Spend some time with dogs of different breeds, observe how they react to strangers and in public.
Because here’s the thing
You need a friendly dog, and the world does not need any more aggressive ones.
Now let’s look at another aspect of temperament that is going to have a big influence over how much pleasure you get from your dog, particularly if your aim is to own a dog of medium to large size.
Not all dogs are equal when it comes to trainability.
If you are interested in dog training and think you might want to train your pet to a high standard, consider buying a dog from one of the gun dog or pastoral breeds.
Most of the retriever breeds and traditional sheepdog breeds ( e.g. Border Collies and German Shepherds) are particularly trainable.
Ask yourself if the breed of dog that appeals to you has been expected to work in close co-operation with humans during the last few decades.
If the answer is yes, you are looking at a more trainable breed.
It is no coincidence that the vast majority of assistance dogs, like guide dogs, therapy dogs, military and police dogs, come from the gun dog and herding group.
Dogs that are expected to hunt in a pack, or to chase other animals at speed and over great distances, are likely to be more independent and less disposed to working as a team with a person.
This does not mean that these dogs cannot be trained, simply that you are not necessarily taking the easiest route if you choose one.
Of course breed, or type, isn’t everything. There is individual variation between members of the same breed, and even between puppies from the same litter.
So is there are way to test temperament when you choose your pup?
Dog temperament test – should you test your puppy?
Some breeders set great store by temperament testing. This is a process where you expose a young puppy to a range of different experiences, and monitor his reactions
How does a puppy cope with being touched, for example, or with being placed in a strange location
Temperament testing can give you an hint of what a puppy’s future personality might be. But it is only a hint.
So far, there is little evidence to show that existing temperament tests are in any way reliable predictors of a puppy’s future personality.
We’ll look at this in a bit more detail when we look at choosing a puppy from a litter, and we’ll keep you updated with any research that is published on this interesting topic.
Temperament is the natural tendency of a dog to behave in particular ways.
It influences your dog’s enthusiasm for different activities and the way he interacts with the whole of society.
When we talk about dog temperament we often include behavioral patterns that have been acquired, usually in puppyhood
This means that your dog’s temperament, as most of us understand it, will be a combination of genes and the environment.
When picking your new puppy, you will want to consider the traits of a breed as well as it’s particular parentage.
Pastoral and gun dog breeds are often trainable, whereas some pack hounds are likely to be noisy and independent.
Fighting and guarding breeds may be more likely to protect your home, but may also require more effort to socialise and make safe.
Some of these breeds require more experience and skill to manage and control, than the average new puppy owner has.
If you do your research, acknowledge your own capabilities, and go forward with the right aims, you will be setting yourself up to find the right dog for your family.
Samantha McMillen says
We want a dog and are keen to choose one that fits our lifestyle and so will settle and be happy. We both work, I work school hours, we have a five year old. We need a friendly dog that can socialise with my parents dog and cat and be left alone for a few hours in the day. We plan to get a dog walker and I work from home one day a week and we have a cleaner in another so it’s not going to be shut in all day.
Edyta Dickinson says
Having 3 young kids and guinea pigs, we have gone for a spaniel cross puppy. Really friendly pup, would not bet on him leaving the small furries alone but otherwise perfect choice. He is 6 months old now and we are working in his recall as it could be trouble otherwise!
Good luck with your training Edyta – do join the forum if you need any help https://thelabradorforum.com (you don’t need a lab 🙂 )