Temperament is the general attitude a dog displays toward people and other animals. It is the combined inherited and acquired physical and mental traits that influence the dog's behavior. While much of temperament is hereditary, it is also influenced and modified by the individual dog's environment, which includes the actions of the owner in shaping the dog's behavior. This is why a puppy with dominant tendencies can mature into either a friendly, confident adult dog, a bossy dog who dominates other animals, or a dog who uses aggression to get his way with humans and other dogs.

Some trainers, behaviorists, owners, breeders and shelters use temperament testing as a way to assess the temperament of an individual dog as a candidate for adoption, therapy or assistance animal work, search and rescue or other purposes. Temperament tests can gauge attitudes and serve as a predictive tool for getting an idea of how the dog might act and react in various situations and in response to various stimuli. Temperament testing evaluates a dog's temperament through a series of tests that measure stability, confidence, shyness, friendliness, aggressiveness, protectiveness, prey instincts, play drive, self-defense instincts and ability to distinguish between threatening and non-threatening situations.

Temperament testing can be extremely valuable, but it is important to remember that we cannot change an individual dog's genetic history. However, we can still help shape his attitude toward people, animals, things and places that he will encounter in life, as well as managing the dog's behavior.

When you select a pet, you want one that has a personality that meshes well with your family and your lifestyle. For example, you may prefer a calm and confident dog that is sensitive and socially appropriate. Or maybe you want a dog that is more energetic. You may be able to predict some rudimentary aspects of a dog's personality but accurate forecasts are almost impossible.

For more information on dog temperaments, visit the American Temperament Test Society at www.atts.org.

Factors that determine a dog's success with children

Dogs and children are often thought to be naturals together. Yet the reality is that the most bitten members of American society are children under the age of 12. More often than not, they are bitten by the family pet or by a familiar dog (a relative's or friend's animal). You can stack the deck in your favor of guaranteeing a wonderful family pet, but you must recognize that the success of any dog with your children depends on several factors:

  • The first is genetics. These are unalterable, ingrained responses that a dog has to the world around him. There is nothing you can do to change them. You can concede to genetic predispositions by selecting a breed whose temperament is usually suited to living in a family situation. Not all breeds of dogs are good with children, especially small children. Take the time to research the breed of dog you are interested in to see how it matches your family situation. Within a selected breed there are individuals as well. Just because you bought a Golden Retriever does not mean that the particular puppy or adult you selected is going to live up to its reputation for being a great family pet. Take the time to select an appropriate individual for your family situation to ensure a successful match of kids to dog.
  • Second are the animal's past experiences with children. If your dog has had only previous experiences with kids that were pleasurable, then chances are he will enjoy their company. But if he has had several unpleasant, painful or frightening situations occur with children, then he probably is going to be apprehensive around them, sometimes to the point of being aggressive.
  • Third is socialization. Well-socialized pets take stressful and unusual situations in stride. Households with kids are noisy, unpredictable, busy and therefore, stressful. Animals who have received lots of positive socialization at an early age will be much less fearful and less likely to react negatively to family life.
  • Lastly, and most importantly to the success of your dog getting along with your children, is your strict supervision and guidance for both your dog and your children. Never leave a child of any age alone with the pet. Begin teaching your children as early as possible about the proper way to interact with pets that keep both the child and the pet safe, secure and feeling respected.

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Typical temperament by breed

Being able to predict a dog's potential temperament is especially important for families with children since certain breeds are recommended for experienced dog owners only. It's easier to correctly assess or predict the temperament of pure breed dogs because of the characteristics that are genetically inherent in the breed. However, mixed breed dogs are not impossible to assess, either. Just remember, no temperament testing or speculation is ever 100% accurate. Each dog is, after all, his own being.

Temperaments of Pure Breeds

Many breeds of dogs have dominant temperaments, especially the working breeds and terriers. Some people consider any scuffle involving puppies or young dogs of a dominant breed to be proof of aggressiveness or viciousness, but that is not true. The breeds with dominant temperaments were bred to be independent, courageous, and intelligent, to carry out their jobs of guarding palaces, people, and livestock, hauling sledges across frozen tundra, or hunting ferocious game. Dominance is a byproduct of those qualities. Aggression and viciousness are more analogous to antisocial or criminal behavior.

Although some breeds are predictably dominant, there is still a range of dominance and submission within their ranks. For example, a dominant Akita or Rottweiler is far more domineering than a dominant Labrador Retriever. Likewise, a submissive Labrador is apt to be far more acquiescent than a submissive Akita or Rottweiler.

Breeds with submissive temperaments are among the most sought after family dogs. These are breeds, usually the herding and non-sporting breeds, that were developed to work in close harmony with man and often with other dogs. They are more likely to accept the supremacy of man.

Temperaments of Mixed Breeds

The temperament of mixed breed dogs can be challenging to predict. That doesn't mean that it's completely impossible though. There are certain patterns to behavior among mixed breeds depending on their combined heritage. Some of the tendencies include:

  • Toy mixes tend to nip at children, who in turn, may also pose a danger to a toy's delicate size and nature.
  • At worst, a toy-small terrier mix is both nervous and stubborn. At best, he is endlessly cute, cheerful and fun.
  • A watchful, protective breed, like Dobermans, can become dominant and hard to handle when mixed with an energetic sporting or herding dog, like a Cocker Spaniel or Border Collie.
  • Certain naturally aggressive or neurotic dogs who have bad temperaments because of over-breeding can pose problems when paired with each other or with gentler breeds. When Dalmatian, Rottweiler, Akita, Chow, German Shepherd, or Cocker Spaniel genes combine with those of a Golden or Labrador Retriever or Collie, the less desirable characteristics may dominate or be exaggerated.
  • Pit Bull mixes can turn out to be sweet family dogs. Just be sure your shelter behaviorist screens the dog for learned or inherited fighting tendencies.
  • Boxer, Rottweiler, or Great Dane blood in a mix can resemble the Pit Bull.

Random breeding can cancel out negative breed-related personality traits. Still, it's difficult to predict in puppies whether a toy dog mix will exhibit all the yappiness and nervousness of their badly bred cousins. A medium or large dog descended from several stubborn, independent, and aggressive breeds may be genetically wired to exhibit dominant and downright scary behavior. Neutering before adolescence can help moderate their dominant personalities.

With an adopted dog of pure or mixed breed, how the dog was treated by his earlier owners can carry as much or more weight in determining how the dog behaves within your family. The dog may not have been trained or may have been mistreated. In the end, a bad past can play a larger part in an individual dog's personality than the mix of breeds within him.

All things considered, it's best to judge the adult mixed breed dog as an individual, rather than a collection of specific breeds.

Factors that determine a dog's personality
There are two principle factors in determining a dog's personality. You might remember them from high school biology class when they called it "nature and nurture." Nature, or genetics, is what the dog is born with. Nurture, or life experience, is what each individual dog is exposed to throughout his existence.

Genetics—the breed and breed line—have a powerful influence on personality. The American Kennel Club divides its breeds according to purpose and, as a result, personality. Sporting breeds, for example, tend to be active, energetic dogs with a strong desire to please their owners. Terriers are intense and persistent, doing best when they have a function to perform. Scent hounds focus on scent trails and are hard to distract. When working, they seem independent and in a world of their own. However, personality isn't purely determined by heredity.

Life experience also plays a large part in how a dog's personality evolves. This is one reason why there's a wide array of individual personalities. Some Cocker Spaniels are friendly and almost overly deferential, while others are short-fused and have unstable personalities. A dog that is raised by its mother, along with its littermates, and has constant positive interactions with people and other animals during the first 3–4 months of life, will inherently be more stable than a dog that is taken from its family and isolated in a cage during the formative weeks of its life. Being raised properly contributes to a dog's confidence, sociability and stability of mood. It also positively effects its intellectual development.

The bottom line is that a puppy raised in a warm, loving family environment is likely to be more tolerant and accepting, and is poised to be a better pet overall.

Assessing a shelter dog's temperament

Many dogs that are given up to animal shelters have never received training or guidance. Some never had the opportunity of a caring owner. Or the owner cared, but was ignorant about proper training and care of dogs or had received misinformation. A number of shelter dogs are dismissed as “problem animals” when in reality, the problems can be corrected and avoided by applying proper knowledge about dog care and management.

Many shelter workers and rescue volunteers use temperament testing to assess individual dogs and create a profile that helps them match a dog with its ideal adoptive owners.

However, a shelter dog's temperament test results should always be taken with a grain of salt. The stress of being in a kennel, losing his former family and/or possibly enduring recent cruelty, trauma or neglect can negatively influence the outcome of a dog's temperament test. Some dogs who could recover normalcy in a calm home just do not adapt to shelter life. In addition, the stressful environment of a shelter can aggravate and magnify existing behavior problems, adding to the possibility that a puppy or dog might be returned after being adopted.

Temperament tests put substantial emphasis on dogs more willing and able to positively respond sooner to unknown people. Theoretically, a temperament test could eliminate dogs who would make fine pets but who are currently a little shy or shelter-stressed at the time of the test. Also, a temperament characteristic that may be undesirable for many adopters might be fully acceptable to others. For example, a dog who shows exceptional tolerance to people grabbing at him or making sudden movements would be ideal for homes with youngsters or for visiting hospitals as a therapy animal. But that does not mean that a less tolerant dog is abnormal or less adoptable, since his other qualities may be appealing to other prospective adopters.

The unpredictable nature of temperament testing results is one reason that many shelters employ a return policy. This allows adoptive owners to take the dog home for a few days or even weeks so they can make a real-world assessment of a dog's true temperament. An individual dog may display more outgoing, friendly traits in a home environment. Alternatively, a seemingly docile dog in a shelter may show more defensive or aggressive traits when in another environment.

Many adoption experts caution against taking any dog with a bite history (particularly human bites), repeated aggression towards humans, or who frequently displays erratic behavior even in non-threatening situations, without a medical basis to the behavior (i.e., in pain from being abused or physically traumatized).

Keep in mind that all animals—even humans—have some of what can be construed as behavior problems. Any prospective dog owner should recognize that education and patience will be required on their part, no matter which puppy or dog they choose. At the same time, shelters are responsible for gathering as much information as possible on each dog and providing it to potential adopters. Temperament testing is a valuable tool, but adoption decisions should be based on other factors as well.

Puppy temperament

If behavior is depicted on a scale of 1 to 10, submission would occupy spaces 3–5 and dominance would be 6–8. Extreme shyness would be 2, and fearfulness would be 1. Aggression would be 9 and viciousness would be 10.

Puppies fall into the middle range from moderately submissive to moderately dominant. The breeder can tone down a dominant puppy or increase the confidence of a submissive puppy through socialization of the litter.

Remember that puppies are still babies. The actions of an individual baby do not always reflect how they will act as an adult. Most undesirable puppy behaviors are outgrown or can be trained into proper manifestation. When judging a puppy based on its temperament, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • A puppy that attempts to teethe on a human body part is neither aggressive nor vicious. He may, however, be dominant and must be taught that such mouthing is unacceptable. The human attached to the bitten body part should holler "Ow," remove the puppy from the grasped appendage, and substitute a chewable toy for the hand or ankle.
  • A puppy that mock-attacks with barks and growls and grabs clothing is not aggressive or vicious, he is merely attempting to play. Some puppies have frantic, high energy play "fits" where they grab anything within reach and are difficult to calm. These puppies must be taught that such behavior is unacceptable. They should be prevented from biting and pinned to the floor until they relax. Sometimes, a 15-minute stay in a crate is necessary to resolve the situation, especially if a child has been nipped.
  • Puppies should not be screamed at or physically punished for this natural, playful puppy behavior. Screaming raises the excitement level, and hitting with hand or object or clamping the tiny mouths shut escalates the situation and cause the dog to develop fearfulness or aggression.
  • Puppies that growl or bark at other puppies and then attack with ferocity are not aggressive or vicious. They are just attempting to assert dominance. Puppies seldom injure each other in such circumstances, and it is well to let them work out their relationship if they will be seeing each other often.

Assessing a young puppy's temperament

Much more important than puppy temperament testing is the socialization, education and environment that the owner should provide. However, some experts recommend assessing a puppy's sensitivity to various stimuli, using techniques such as those that follow, to get a general idea of a puppy's temperament.

  • Clap your hands. Does the puppy look at you? Does he approach readily, in a friendly manner? These are good signs of sociability.
  • Make eye contact. Does the puppy engage in eye contact? This is a good indicator of a confident puppy. In contrast, be concerned about a puppy who will not look at you. This could reflect a temperament problem or a vision disability.
  • Call to the puppy. A puppy who ignores attempts to get his attention may have a hearing or temperament problem. Disinterest in interacting with people can indicate a disease as well.
  • Praise the dog. It's good if the puppy responds to verbal praise with some welcoming behavior, such as wagging his tail.
  • Follow me. After playing with the puppy for a while, walk or jog away. If he tries to follow, that's a positive sign. Not following indicates the puppy has an independent personality.
  • Pet the pup. Does he respond in a friendly or accepting manner? Or does he try to dominate you by nipping, growling or jumping at you? Does he reflect independence by trying to escape?
  • Play with a toy. Roll a safe dog toy, such as a ball, or a crumpled paper ball near the puppy. But don't toss the toy at the puppy. See if the dog will follow it. Encourage the puppy to fetch the toy and to bring it back to you. A dominant-natured puppy will fetch the ball, take it away and resist letting you take it. An independent puppy may show no interest in the toy; however, this could also indicate an ill puppy. A submissive puppy may be a little fearful of the toy. A highly social puppy will bring the toy back to you on his own. Normal behavior would involve the puppy getting the toy, chewing on it, but allowing you to take it away. Willingness to retrieve can be an indicator of a dog's interest in training exercises.
  • Rollover test. Gently take the puppy and roll him onto his back. Gently hold him in place with one hand on his chest for 15 seconds. A dominant or independent puppy will tend to resist the whole time. He might yip or try to nip you. A submissive puppy does not struggle at all, and may try to lick you in deference. Most puppies will resist for a few seconds and then contentedly accept your handling.
  • Picking up the puppy. Lift gently by interlacing your fingers palms up beneath his tummy. Hold him in this elevated position for 30 seconds. Does he struggle actively for release, for a prolonged period, signaling dominance or independence? Or does he quickly acquiesce? How quickly he accepts and relaxes can indicate whether he's relatively submissive or closer to a typical puppy. A submissive puppy will attempt to lick in deference to your control.
  • Touch a paw, then press between the pads gently. The responses you get and how quickly you get them can reflect a puppy's tendency towards submission, dominance, independence or a more normal temperament.
  • Noise test. Make a sudden noise. See if the puppy responds with curious interest, fear, barking, aggression or ignores it.

Some things to keep in mind while you are testing a puppy' temperament:

  • Make sure nothing fearful or negative happens during any puppy evaluation or handling sessions.
  • Responsiveness indicates that the puppy is probably pretty adaptive and has great ability to bond. A puppy who seems very nervous or fearful may not be a good choice for a home with children or with a lot of activity. However, he may respond very well to gentle and consistent training suited to his personality. A dog who tends to be aloof even when faced with stimuli may be of an independent temperament, and might be stubborn when it comes time for training, but that's not always the case. Again, keep in mind that these are generalizations, and the puppy adopter will be in the key position to shape the puppy's behavior.
  • Many behavior experts do not place great emphasis on testing of young puppies; however, some agree that highly aggressive puppies often turn out to be dominant and aggressive adults. If you're checking out dogs in a litter, you may want to engage the help of a canine behaviorist.
  • It is important to handle puppies frequently and every day. Always handle them gently and speak in a calm, happy manner. Your goals are to teach them to accept being handled, that no harm will come from handling, that it's OK to be examined (this paves the way for acceptance of everything from grooming to veterinarian visits), and to trust you as a benevolent leader. Puppy kindergarten classes are also highly recommended to help provide essential socialization opportunities.

Temperament terms defined

Aggression or aggressive behavior is manifested by some type of attack involving teeth that is often preceded by a warning growl or stiffening of the body, usually accompanied by ferocious snarling and blood loss. Dogs can be aggressive when defending their territory or possessions from animals or humans. Although a reason for aggression can often be readily identified, this behavior should not be ignored or excused lest it become viciousness and endanger life and limb.

Dominance or dominant behavior is common to some breeds and many intelligent, independent individual dogs. Dominant dogs have a great deal of self-confidence that they use to get what they want, whether another dog's biscuit or a place in the master's bed. Dominant dogs refuse to obey small children and control meek adults with a glance, a growl or a subtle body check. They should never be left alone with children. The behavior must be controlled with obedience training so that it does not escalate into canine tyranny or aggression.

Submission or submissive behavior is manifested by shyness or a willingness to give way to other dogs and people. Submissive dogs may urinate on themselves when excited or fearful. Mildly submissive dogs wilt when scolded and need physical contact with humans for security; severely submissive dogs try to avoid eye contact and may become fear biters, especially if cornered or stared at by children. Submissive dogs need light discipline and plenty of confidence-building and reassurance.

Temperament is the general attitude a dog has towards other animals and people. Temperament is inherited but can be modified or enhanced by the environment. Thus a puppy with a dominant temperament can become a confident, outgoing adult dog or a domineering, even aggressive animal, depending on the attitude of the owner and his ability to train the dog.

Socialization is a process by which puppies and dogs are taught to get along with other animals, particularly other dogs and cats, and with humans and to adapt to new circumstances. In its simplest terms a submissive puppy that has never walked on a surface other than a concrete kennel floor will probably be fearful of other surfaces, and a dominant puppy may be nippy with children if not taught at an early age to respect short people with high-pitched voices.

Viciousness is characterized by unprovoked attacks on other animals or people. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to see the difference between dominance, aggression, submissive aggression (fear-biting) and viciousness.

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