What is meant when we speak about the temperament of a dog?
This term is very often used, but very little understood by
the users. It is however clear that by using the term an
attempt is being made to define or describe certain
attributes of the dog’s behaviour. What specifically is
How does the knowledge of temperament affect the decisions
about the dog made by the shelter? Should the dog be placed
at all, or euthanased? Should it be placed in a family with
young children or in a single person household? Is this dog
temperamentally appropriate for an older person? Will its
mental characteristics allow it to be a good companion, and
provide some measure of joy and comfort to its owners, or
will it be a burden to them? These are some of the
questions that this presentation will help you to answer.
Before giving a practical and working definition of
temperament I would like to share with you a few variants
that can be found in the literature.
1. Norma Bennett Woolf (Dog Owner’s Guide),
describes temperament as “the general attitude a dog has
towards other animals and people.” She continues
“Temperament is inherited but can be modified or enhanced by
2. Two training specialist and canine behaviourists
Joachim Volhard and Gail Fisher define Temperament as “the
dog’s suitability for a specific task or function.” They
explain further, “there are no good or bad temperaments,”
only “suitable or unsuitable” ones.
3. GoodPooch.com supports Volhard and Fisher’s view
and goes on to state, “Simply put, the term "temperament"
is similar to the word "personality."
The above views suffer significant disadvantages.
In the first case “general attitude” is an interpretation of
the observer and lends itself to subjective interpretation.
The general attitude of a young boisterous, possibly dog
aggressive Rottie, may mean something quite different to a
police officer looking for a replacement dog, than to a
young Mon who loves the breed. Besides, the temperament of
the dog may also be determined by its behaviour in
environments devoid of animals and people; for example, dog
in an enclosed parking lot, dog left alone in a room.
The second case stresses the task suitability or use of the
dog, rather than its innate characteristics. The external
controllable factors that the humans select, take precedence
rather than the innate (genetic or congenital)
characteristics of the dog. But what indeed are the innate
characteristics, how do these characteristics influence the
use of the dog?
In the third case it is clear that trying to understand or
describe the “personality” of the individual dog is a
daunting (scientific) task. We do understand what the
author is trying to say, but this understanding does not
lend itself to clarity, practical application and
Each agrees that there are different types of temperaments,
but may disagree what these types are.
The concept of Temperament that I use and highly recommend
to you is defined by Wayne Davis of the West Virginia K9
“The physical and mental characteristics of an individual
dog, made evident through its reaction to stimuli in its
The physical and mental characteristics or
peculiarities of an individual dog, made
evident through its reaction to physical and
situational stimuli, that is, any change
in its environment.
This definition is not just a theoretical concept it is a
practical working tool. Davis’ concept of temperament has
certain characteristics that cannot be separated from it.
Characteristics of Temperament
Temperament is primarily a function of the dog’s
Temperament is 100% genetic; it is inherited, and fixed at
the moment of the dog’s fertilization/conception/birth
Temperament in the dog cannot be eliminated nor transformed
from one type to another. It cannot change during the dog’s
lifetime. It is the permanent mental/neurological
characteristic of the individual dog. But there may be an
overlap of different temperaments in the same dog. For
example sharpness may be seen with over aggression or
submissiveness with being temperamental.
Environment, Socialization or Training can modify the
expression of an individual dog’s temperament, but they
cannot transform it nor eliminate it. The dog will die with
the temperament with which it was born.
In other words, the sum total of the dog’s neurological and
physical matrix that finds expression as a result of
environmental change (people, animal, physical context or
situations), is its temperament. This view of temperament
is objective in its definition, and clear in its physical
expression, and for this reason will form the platform of
our subsequent discussion.
Temperament is divided into two broad categories: Sound
Temperament and Unsound Temperament.
The dog with a Sound Temperament is confident and self
assertive. He is sure of himself and investigates what he
is unsure of. He handles his environment with confidence
and without fear. His approach to life and his environment
is curious, assertive and investigative. If startled or
frightened, he recovers quickly from his fright.
This wonderful ideal is not without its concerns. This dog
makes an excellent pet and worker, when under control,
trained or managed by a handler who is a secure pack
leader. However if uncontrolled his self-assertiveness
could lead to significant management problems. Nonetheless
the mental balance of this kind of dog makes him a joy to
own, and more persons need to learn to learn the skill to
manage this exemplary canine. Having said this, it is clear
that an older couple seeking a companion may be better
served with a more submissive animal.
The dog of Unsound Temperament does not display the above
calm, confident, self assertive, non-fearful behaviour.
There is a range of behaviours considered to be unsound, but
the following list can be taken as a complete or almost
complete list of the variations: Sharp, Shy, Sharp-Shy,
Submissive, Temperamental, Hyperactive, and Overaggressive.
A dog with a sharp temperament reacts (immediately) to
individual environmental stimuli without thought.
The dog does not consider consequences. It may jump
sideways and run far away if startled by a slamming door,
very reluctant to return, if at all. The sharp dog recovers,
but slowly. The sharp dog may fearfully bark forever at the
play of shadow across a doorway, or the light pattering of a
small branch on the roof. If the stimulus is innocent and
continuous, the sharp dog does not settle down and accept
its innocence. It continues to react without thought. It
will not investigate.
This dog may seem at first to be an excellent alarm dog, but
extreme sharpness, coupled often with a lack of confidence,
could make it a perpetual nuisance to neighbours and
The shy dog is afraid of unfamiliar people, places and
things. He is sensitive to noise and movement, and does not
take initiative. The shyer the dog is, the greater will be
the amount of fear displayed. This genetic/temperamental
shyness cannot be cured.
Shyness may also be caused by improper environmental
socialization or people experiences. This shyness may be
reversed to some extent by proper handling and training, but
avoiding such an outcome right from the start is
preferred. Shyness must not be confused with
The Sharp-Shy dog displays aggression based on fear; he is
the classic “fear-biter.” Being sharp, he responds without
thinking, and being shy, he is fearful. This combination
produces a dog that bites at any unfamiliarity without
thinking. Fear is a normal reaction in a normal dog to a
perceived threat, but when the threat is over, the dog
should recover quickly. The sharp-shy dog recovers slowly;
its fear may even paralyse it, and it may bite if touched.
It may be taught to adjust in a particular environment or
situation, but when that situation changes, it will react
again in fear and the behavioural cycle starts over again.
The Sharp-shy dog can never be fixed.
The submissive dog readily surrenders authority and control
to it leader; in other words, he easily accepts human
leadership. He tends to be meek and mild and
non-threatening. He has no desire to be in charge, and
readily does what is asked. This kind of dog makes an
excellent pet and companion for most first time dog owners
and the average family. The temperamentally submissive dog
may be, but is not necessarily, a “wimp.”
Submissiveness is also a trait that may be produced
environmentally, by abuse. This should not be confused with
the genetic submissive temperament.
A dog with this temperament suffers from failure of its
central nervous system. New environmental stimuli so
overwhelm this dog that it may shake uncontrollably or roll
over. The temperamental dog will empty its bladder and
bowels seemingly unaware, in unfamiliar or stressful
situations. This dog is not just afraid - it cannot cope
- with the stress. Its nervous system is so overwhelmed
that the dog loses control of its body and bodily
The temperamental dog is not usually aggressive, but it is
important to remember that there is a lot of fear in this
dog, and the fearful dog may respond by biting.
This trait is one step down from submissive, and cannot be
What type of companionship can this dog provide? He may not
be suitable for most homes but may be looked after by
someone who feels generally compelled to offer and provide
perpetual psychological coddling to this kind of dog. This
dog is not recommended.
The hyperactive dog is constantly moving, and generally
moving fast. He constantly wants to move by running and
jumping. If confined, he will pace incessantly and leap at
walls, walk in circles or wag the tail non-stop. This
hyperactivity is not normal but is the result of a metabolic
malfunction (of the brain) that controls the body’s
This dog could be thoroughly destructive if kept in a
confined apartment or small space.
In some cases it may be difficult to separate temperamental
hyperactivity from normal high energy in some dogs.
The overaggressive dog reacts with more aggression than the
situation suggests. This extreme behaviour is often
directed toward the handler and is usually in protest for
having been asked to do something the dog does not want to
do. This dog does not turn off easily; he will come after
you and hurt you. It does not accept human leadership.
An overaggressive dog should never be placed in a pet or
companion situation. In fact if he is not in the hands of a
professional handler, he should be put down.
Before ending this topic two other temperamental traits
require our attention. They originate in the
self-assertiveness of the dog (Sound Temperament) but may
actually be looked upon as temperamental classes in their
own right. These are the traits of Dominance and
Independence in dogs.
The dominant dog strives to achieve pack leadership. The
more dominant he is, the less likely he is to accept human
leadership and training. He is confrontational. Such a dog
requires a skilled handler who can maintain pack leadership
at all times.
This dog does not want guidance or affection from other dogs
or humans. He does not encourage companionship; he cares
nothing for praise or pleasing his handler. The independent
dog keeps his own company, is self directed and self
reliant; he is not affectionate.
Clearly, the independent dog would not make a good
companion, and may function best as an out door “yard” dog.
A dog with significant dominance and independence traits
together, is just a slide away from being over aggressive.
Even though critical periods, socialization and training may
affect the temperament of a dog, they will never eliminate
any of its effects.