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What Makes A Good Temperament?

This post was originally published for the Pet Professional Guild

It is a common misconception that “All a dog needs is love” or “It’s how you raise them” to increase the chances – or even “guarantee” – a dog will have a good temperament. And although these things are very important, there are a lot more factors that affect how a dog will behave at maturity.

A “good” temperament can mean different things for different people. For example, someone competing in dog sports is looking for one set of characteristics, while service dog trainers or working dog handlers may have an entirely different set of characteristics in mind.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll define a good temperament in terms of a pet dog, i.e. what the average person or family may be looking for in a dog they can share their life with. Commonly, this would probably be a dog who is friendly, sociable to people and other pets, playful, affectionate, attentive, and generally cooperative. But how do we get a pet dog with these characteristics? Is it all predestined or can we create it? While guardians do have control over some of the things that affect a dog’s temperament, there are others where they have little to no control at all. Let’s take a closer look.

The level of maternal care received by a puppy, as well as genetics, socialization during the critical period of
development, training methods, and lifestyle all have an impact on his temperament

Genetics and Breeding: If someone is looking for a specific breed and wants a puppy, it’s 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 the American Kennel Club (AKC), where information about every recognized breed is available and one can learn about the “breed standard.” Research what characteristics make dogs of certain breeds structurally and temperamentally sound, and which do not. Temperament traits such as aggression and fearfulness are proven heritable traits, as are many physical ailments. Both are important, as physical health affects temperamental health. A reputable breeder will belong to a regional or national breed club and be transparent about their breeding practices.

Many breeds have certain health conditions they are prone to and reputable breeders are knowledgeable about these and test for them in any dogs they intend to breed. This helps them decide which dogs are more likely to pass on a hereditary issue 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. They may also 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

Prenatal/Neonatal Conditions: If a mother dog is in an unfortunate situation while carrying a litter in utero, such as being homeless, in a puppy mill, malnourished, infested with parasites, or in extreme conditions that cause her to be in fight or flight mode with stress hormones surging through her body, these conditions risk being passed on to the puppies when they are born and may affect their development and temperament.

Socialization during the Critical Period: According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (2018), [t]he 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 are likely to 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. or lack thereof, is pretty much determined by then. However, the final result (temperament) will not usually be apparent until maturity, at around 12­18 months of age. Exposing the puppy in an overwhelming or scary way to environmental stimuli is NOT socialization, but rather flooding, and is counterproductive. A substrate preference for elimination is also developed during this critical socialization period.

Lifestyle and Treatment by People, including Training: Before behaviors that make a good temperament can be expected, it is imperative that a guardian meet the dog’s basic needs. These would include nutrition, veterinary care, shelter, enrichment, exercise, social interactions and freedom from pain and anxiety. (See also Is Love Enough on p.38 and, specifically, the Hierarchy of Dog Needs on p.39.) This means the lifestyle of the humans must be adjusted to fit the dog into the family.

If a mother dog is in an unfortunate situation while carrying a litter in utero, such as being homeless, in a puppy mill, malnourished, infested with parasites, or in extreme conditions that cause her to be in fight or flight mode with stress hormones surging through her body, these conditions risk being passed on to the puppies when they are born and may affect their development and temperament.

But the good news is that three things — lifestyle, treatment and training — are most in the control of pet guardians. They offer us opportunities to shape our dog’s temperament.

When raising a child, parents often envision the good person they want their offspring to become and make every endeavor to guide their child in that direction. Yet with puppies, guardians may rely on unrealistic expectations without being mindful of the effect of their daily interactions. States Rugaas (2005): “… 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 is how the family touches, plays with and shows affection to the dog. Rough handling, especially around the head and face, can be scary and create overarousal and avoidance behaviors in the dog. It’s much better for temperament development to play more “cerebral” games like puzzles, hide and seek, and other activities that allow dogs to use their natural sniffing and problem­solving abilities.

Lastly, there’s training. A mountain of evidence exists that shows that aversive training techniques based on fear, intimidation and pain are contrary to the development of a good temperament. This seems like a no­brainer, doesn’t it? But people still look for “quick fixes,” and buttons they can push to force their dogs into submission or obedience. Yet they would never resort to such things when raising a child. Puppies, like children, go through different stages of development, some of which can be quite challenging. Good parents inform themselves, seek help if necessary, and employ love and patience to create a happy, healthy adult. This, in my opinion, is also the best strategy for raising a dog.

I’d like to add that there is absolutely nothing wrong with adopting a dog who does not have the benefit of good breeding or favorable prenatal and/or neonatal conditions. In fact, guardians often have no control over the first two, and often not the third one either. In these cases, the aspects of a dog’s life that pet guardians do have most control over, such as their home environment, how family members and other humans interact with them, and positive reinforcement training, can help get them closer to the goal of a good temperament. Adopting a dog and giving them a second chance at a good life is indeed a beautiful and honorable thing to do.

For more on what guardians can – and cannot – do to influence their dogs’ temperaments and set them up for success, see What Makes a Good Temperament?, BARKS from the Guild, July 2021, pp. 24-26.

References

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. (2018). AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization Rugaas, T. (2005). On Talking Terms with Dogs Calming Signals. Wenatchee, WA: DogWise