What Makes A Good Temperament?

dog with kids

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to define a good temperament in terms of a pet dog that is friendly, sociable to people and other pets, playful, affectionate, attentive and generally cooperative.  How do we get a pet dog with these characteristics?  Can we make this happen?  Pet guardians do have control over some of the things that affect temperament, and not so much over others.  Let’s take a closer look:

  1.  Genetics/breeding:  temperament traits such as aggression and fearfulness are proven heritable traits.  This is where IF a person is looking for a specific breed and wants a puppy, it is wise to choose a breed that inherently has traits compatible with their lifestyle and to find a “reputable breeder.”  There is a lot of confusion over this term, and the internet makes it super easy to be duped here.  A good place to start is at akc.org to educate yourself about what is the “breed standard” for the breed you are interested in.  This description would include what makes a dog of this breed structurally sound and temperamentally sound. This is important, as physical health affects temperamental health.  A reputable breeder will belong to a breed club and be transparent about their breeding practices.  Every breed has certain health conditions that they are prone to and reputable breeders are knowledgeable about these and test for them in any sire and dam they intend to breed.  Modern genetics makes it easy for them to decide which dogs are more likely to pass on hereditary issues and which dogs should and should not be bred together.  A reputable breeder breeds with the intention of breeding OUT these health concerns from their line, to the greatest extent possible, in other words, they breed to improve the breed.  They often participate in AKC conformation shows, as their hobby and passion is the breed, the improvement and future of the breed, and producing excellent examples of the breed.  This information can be ascertained by taking the time to research and interview breeders.
  2. Prenatal/neonatal conditions:  If a mother dog is in an unfortunate situation while carrying a litter in her womb, such as being homeless, malnourished, infested with parasites or in extreme conditions that cause stress hormones to be surging through her body, these conditions will be passed on to the puppies when they are born.  This may affect their development and temperament.
  3. Socialization during critical period:  According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, “The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life.”  This is when curiosity outweighs fear and puppies should be introduced to the things that will be in their lives in a safe and controlled way.  The window for social learning remains open until around 16 weeks of age.  The effect of socialization to other dogs, people, objects, noises, places, surfaces, etc. is pretty much determined by then.  However the final result (temperament) will not be revealed until maturity, around 12-18 months of age.  Exposing the puppy in a scary overwhelming way to things is NOT socialization, but rather flooding, and is counter-productive.  A substrate preference for elimination is also developed at this age.
  4. Lifestyle/Training/Treatment by people:  Here is the thing that is most in the control of pet guardians.  It is a common misnomer that “all a dog needs is love” or “It’s how you raise them” that makes their temperament, although these things are very important.  Turid Rugaas says in her book “Calming Signals,”  that it is the new guardian’s job to teach the puppy that the world is a safe place, to protect them, allow them choices and teach them with kindness and patience.  Another important aspect here is how the family touches, plays with and shows affection to the dog.  Rough handling, especially around the head is scary and can create over-arousal and/or avoidance behaviors in the dog.  It’s much better for temperament development to play more “cerebral” games like puzzles, hide and seek,  using their natural sniffing abilities.  And lastly training.  There is a mountain of evidence that shows that aversive training that is based on fear, intimidation and pain is harmful to the development of a good temperament.  This seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?  But yet, there are people looking for “quick fixes,” and buttons they can push to force their dogs into submission or obedience.  Yet they would never rely on such things when raising a child.  Puppies, like children, go through different stages of development, some of which can be quite challenging.  But parents get through it and teach their children how to be good adults.  This is also the best strategy for raising a dog.

I’d like to add to this article that there is absolutely nothing wrong with adopting a dog who does not have the benefit of good breeding or favorable pre-natal and neo-natal conditions.  In fact, most guardians have no control over items #1 & 2.  And adopting is a beautiful thing to do.  In these cases, items #3 & 4 should be given the utmost attention. These items are the ones that most pet guardians actually have control over, so carefully and thoughtfully maximizing their impact will help get closer to the goal: A Good Temperament.