Dog Breed Characteristics and Temperament

by Jonni

Why your new dog’s breed characteristics and temperament are so important.

There are two basic factors in a dog’s behavior. He will have breed characteristics – an instinctive urge to do a particular job well (or poorly, depending on his makeup) and he will have a temperament. Both his working characteristics, or “talent” if you will, and his temperament can be observed and tested as he gets older. With a family pet, the temperament part of his personality is far more important than his inborn talent for hunting or herding.

Temperament is much like personality in humans. A dog’s temperament determines the way he reacts to his environment – whether he’s basically laid back or if he always needs to be the boss; whether he enjoys the company of humans and at least tries to please his master, or if he acts like he has no interest in humans at all; whether he can tolerate the presence of other dogs or if he surges to the attack at the first sight of another canine.

Some dogs, like some people, always seem to be angry and looking for a fight, while others are so shy they can barely tolerate noise or strangers. And between these extremes is every imaginable variation.

A puppy is born with a genetic blueprint that determines, to a very large extent, the kind of temperament he will have when he becomes a dog. There is such a vast amount of genetic variation in dogs that littermates can have opposite personalities and temperaments, in spite of years of extensive breeding.

We can get better odds, (at least in theory) with purebred puppies, which will hopefully grow into certain breed characteristics. But purebreds are often bred for looks rather than brains or personality, and even inbred strains can have “throw-backs” that don’t act true to the breed. They also can be over-bred, and inbred, causing the expensive and heartbreaking variety of genetic illnesses in many purebred strains, and the nippy, fussy and sometimes dangerous temperament swings in previously docile and loving breeds.

The mixed-up cute and cuddly mutt from the neighbor’s back yard could literally turn into just about anything, personality-wise, when he grows up. Sometimes that means a wonderfully welcome surprise, and other times it can be true cause for alarm.

A shepherd raising a litter of Border collies will find that no matter how loyal or skilled the dam and sire may be, there will still be puppies from each litter that aren’t as talented in herding sheep. In rare instances a shepherd can even wake up to his worst nightmare – a pup that has grown into a killer of sheep. A dog that doesn’t herd very well would make a perfect pet, but a fearful or aggressive dog is a dangerous dog, on a farm or in your living room.

But isn’t it possible to tell how a pup will turn out, if you meet his parents, treat him well, and train him right? Actually, until your pup has grown into adulthood you won’t know exactly what temperament he will have. Although there are some behavioral tests you can use to choose an 8-week old puppy, some true problem temperaments don’t appear until the dog is old enough for all his hormones to kick in. Unfortunately, by that time you’ve spent almost a year loving this animal, and it’s difficult to know what to do if he turns out very differently than you expected.

A friend of mine, an intelligent woman who loves her children, still kept an aggressive Rottweiler until the city (and a frightened neighbor) made her give it up. Her reluctance is understandable. When we raise puppies we come to love them almost as much as our own kids – and as any mother with a problem child will tell you, you go on making excuses for those you love as long as you possibly can.

Even if a puppy doesn’t become a menace to the neighborhood he can grow into a personality that doesn’t quite “fit” with your own. We buy puppies based on our expectations, hopes and fantasies of what we want in a dog, and we pray that this puppy will become the dog we have been waiting for. A puppy is pure potential – like a wrapped Christmas present that can be the electric train we’ve always wanted – or another purple paisley tie.

On the other hand, an adult dog has already grown into his personality, and his temperament can be tested before you bring him home.