What Is Dog Temperament?
What Is Dog Temperament?
Last week I talked a little bit about Breed Specific Legislation and I mentioned that a Pit Bull is not actually a breed, but rather, a very vague type of dog (see: http://perfect-pooch.com/what-is-breed-specific-legislation/). I just wanted to go over temperament a little bit and explain why breed types exist, what a dog’s temperament is, and how it affects dogs and their behavior. Many people have heard their breeder or trainer discuss “sound temperament” but not everyone really knows what that means or what an “unsound” dog is. Essentially a dog of sound temperament is able to adapt easily to stimulus in their surroundings without being overly aggressive or shy. However, there is a lot of breed variation and a “sound” German Shepherd is still going to be more reactive than a “sound” Golden Retriever. Neither should be terribly fearful or unstably aggressive and both should easily accept a friendly stranger.
First of all, let’s be clear: a dog’s temperament is not the end-all-be-all diagnosis of a dog’s current or future behavior. Temperament is simply the inborn and acquired traits of an animal which regulates and controls its response to the environment. Essentially a dog’s temperament determines how it will respond to different stimulus and events and is a combination of genetics interplayed with early life experiences that shape the overall behavior patterns of the dog. Sound complicated? It can definitely seem that way, but let’s break it down a bit further to see what it all really means.
Genetics are determined by the way in which certain dogs have been bred over the years. To keep things simple, we will use pure bred dogs as examples with the understanding that mixed breeds will generally have some of the characteristics of each of their origin breeds. We’ll start with terriers since this all started with the concept of Pit Bulls, which are technically a large terrier-type dog. Keep in mind Jack Russels and Yorkies are terriers, too so this applies to them, as well. Terriers have been designed over many generations to excel at killing things, primarily rodents and pests. This leads to exaggerated killing behavior in the form of shaking things, alert attitude, sensitivity to movement and sound, and reduced pain sensitivity. Pit Bulls are generally a larger terrier type dog similar to Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, etc., which have the same attributes of other smaller terriers but on a larger, more powerful, scale.
If a large terrier type dog, including Pit Bulls and even Black Russian Terriers, has an unsound temperament due to poor breeding choices and poor early developmental exposure, they can be dangerous as their natural tendencies and strengths can lead to injuries. Unfortunately Pit Bulls have a negative reputation due to the poor temperaments developed by individuals who purposefully breed and train for unsound dogs. If they were not purposefully developed to exploit their natural traits, they would not be considered a dangerous type of dog. In fact, many well-raised Pit Bulls have phenomenal temperaments.
Looking at another more recognizable breed, Golden Retrievers have been systematically bred for a bright and friendly attitude so as to be able to work better with hunters in close quarters. Being a retrieving type breed, they needed to have a soft-carrying mouth to hold birds without puncturing, like terriers, can transfer over to other oral play. By choosing individuals with ideal temperaments as breeding stock over many generations, the overall breed type develops and becomes more uniform. This includes looks and temperament. The same can be said of other retrieving breeds such as Labradors, Flat Coated Retrievers and Duck Tolling Retrievers.
So how does temperament affect an individual’s behavior? Well, we defined temperament as the way a dog will respond to their environment based on their inborn and acquired traits. A dog’s inborn or genetic traits are determined by their breeding and essentially set the limits for the dog spectrum of responses. This is how breeds develop different behavior types. To clarify the point of these limits, it is important to keep in mind that early training and socialization plays a huge role in behavior, but realistically a poorly socialized retriever has a far better chance of being social and friendly than a poorly socialized Anatolian Shepherd. Socializing and training a young Anatolian will likely make them more friendly, but likely not as friendly as a well socialized Labrador.
It is in their nature to be more cautious so their social limits are bit narrower as determined by their breed type. Early temperament tests (specifically a properly done Vollhard test) can help determine a puppy’s innate qualities and can help with placement when determining the best home for a puppy. For example, a slightly timid German Shepherd puppy would do best in a home that is dedicated to early training and socialization while a laid back and easy-going Cavalier would probably adapt better to a busier home without being overwhelmed or fearful. Hopefully this helps clarify the idea of temperament and how it is discussed and affects behavior in various breeds and breed types. While an important part of choosing the right dog for you, always remember that the way you train and interact with your dog will also have a large effect on their behavior, especially anything they are exposed to in the first 16 weeks of life.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDY-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator