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Understanding Temperament

black tri blue merle mini Aussie Mini American Shepherds Faithwalk breeder Michigan

How many times have you heard it? "I will just socialize him more" when referring to a mature dog who wants nothing to do with strange dogs. Or "I am going to get a Siberian husky even though I live in an apartment and raise parakeets. I will just train him not to eat my birds." Or "My dog is extremely fearful of all humans, but I will just keep loving him and he will turn around." Another one is "adopt don't shop, rescue dogs need homes" even though the person looking for a family dog is not remotely dog savvy and lacks the skills to assess dogs to be picked from and work a dog through issues, much less understand genetic temperament is not something you can change with just love. That person may do better getting a dog with a known background and with a genetic temperament including traits like biddability, resilience and social attraction, which should make it an easier dog for a novice owner wanting a family dog.

I am not sure where the idea came from, that we can some how use socializing and training to profoundly change a dog's genetic temperament, breed traits and predispositions. I had a person who wanted a high drive, higher energy pup I had available, even though she had just told me she was a very calm, quiet person and they had a very quiet household. She told me she would just train and socialize the puppy a lot, as if that would change the pup's inborn level of drive and energy and change it into a calm, mellow dog. Adding high drive Aussie pup would be like dropping a bomb in that house. I told her this was not the right pup for her and found the puppy a home with a couple looking for those traits. I hope I encouraged her to find a lower drive, mellow pup and hope I got through to her that how she raised my pup would have not mattered as far as making the puppy a good match for what she wanted to live with.

People also see really soft, sensitive dogs and are SURE they have somehow suffered abuse or neglect, and they just need more love to fix them. News flash, many of these dogs are GENETICALLY soft/sensitive and no amount of love, training or socializing will change that. And if you follow their family lines you see it in each generation. You can help teach the dog coping skills and not put the dog in situations that are truly uncomfortable or overwhelming, but you will not profoundly change that dog in a bold, pushy dog. And by that same token, we may all know dogs who did not have an ideal upbringing yet is still pretty bomb proof because his genetic temperament is that.

You also can't train out prey drive or other strong instincts. You can do a little training and a lot of management to keep your cat safe from your husky. But you can't 100% rely on training alone to do that because training does not erase instinct. Prey drive, shyness, a higher predisposition to be dog aggressive and other traits are hardwired in dogs, and some breeds have been selected for these traits for many, many generations. Or the traits they've been selected for that make them excellent in a working situation may make them very unsuitable for a companion or family dog home.

I really want to get this message out, that just like humans, dogs are born with a set of genes that control temperament traits. Temperament is 100% genetic, behavior is the expression of temperament and that is what we can change at least somewhat by how we raise them, but we can't change them profoundly, making them into something they genetically are not. If how we raised dogs could profoundly change them, we wouldn't even need dog breeds, we could take any generic dog and make it an exceptional sheep dog, sled dog, hunting dog, etc. Even in breeds, not every dog has the same level of instinct and talent as other individuals in the breed. So we MUST understand that dogs are individuals, and while their breed(s) may give them a predisposition to certain instincts or traits, we must also understand each dog is an individual and work to understand that dog, not expecting them to be a carbon copy of another dog of the same breed or for all dogs to be exactly the same. If she is shy, help give her coping skills but don't have the false hope that someday she will be a social butterfly if you just train, socialize or love her enough. If your dog is profoundly dog aggressive, odds are he was born with that predisposition and life taught him to use those instincts. You have a lot of management ahead to keep other dogs safe. If you have a dog with high prey drive, she will be triggered by something at some point, so you have to use very good management if the dog is ever around other animals. You can teach manners, impulse control, build confidence, give the dog the opportunity to learn good social skills with humans and other dogs, but again, those experiences won't change the dog's genetics nor will they trump instincts. Knowing all this will also help you choose a dog who has a better chance to fit your lifestyle and goals for the dog.

Along these same lines, because these traits DO have a hereditary component we as breeders can select for or against traits we want or don't want. It doesn't work as easy as mixing paint, like for example breeding a high energy dog to a low energy dog to get all medium energy puppies. You first have to ask what the parents' relatives are like, since you are not breeding two dogs in a vacuum. Is the high energy dog typical of his pedigree? Is the low energy dog typical of her pedigree? You are blending pedigrees so knowing what traits are there really matters, looking at all traits, not just one of course. Then you have to really get to know your pups, know how pups develop as far as when do you start to see certain traits, so you can pick a pup or pups that are more likely to move your program in the direction you want it. It's no different that selecting for structure and other physical traits, but takes more insight and attention since you are looking at behavior versus a physical trait. You need to keep track of all pups and pay attention over generations to see if you are going in the direction you want to. In a litter of pups you will see a range of the typical traits in the lines, so you have to consider that - are you looking at a pup in the middle ranges for traits or an outlier. If your litter is mostly stable, social, biddable, outgoing, it would point to those traits being strong in the pedigrees. Then for example, if you keep a softer pup from that, you may still be able to get back to the middle range if you breed that pup, since middle range is most common in the family of dogs. By that same token, if you see a litter of mostly shy pups and a lot of shy dogs in the pedigree, even a really outgoing individual from that litter is more likely to produce shy pups because shy is seen quite often in that family of dogs. So making sure dogs in the pedigrees have more of the temperament traits you want will give you a higher chance of producing that in future generations, and if you see a lot of traits you want to avoid, it's best not to move forward with those dogs.

For some interesting reading, check out the Russian fox study started by Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev. He selected for the temperament trait "tractability." He and his team assessed many thousands of fur farm foxes, selecting a few hundred of the most tractable individuals. He ruled out any fox that was fearful and cowered at the back of it's cage, or rushed the front of the cage aggressively. He wanted foxes that just say calmly and observed people. Tractability is the core of domestication for our dogs, and ties in with biddability. By selecting so heavily in the first generation, he was able to make progress very quickly into foxes with temperaments like what we see in domestic dogs vs wild canids like wolves. It shows how this process works. And as an aside, he also saw a change in physical traits including floppy ears, curly tails and spotted coat patterns, none of which are seen in wild foxes. It shows how by selecting for one trait you can also change others.

In closing, I hope this gives people a little more insight into how the genetics of temperament work. Think of it as working with an individual dog like having a hand of cards. You can only play the hand (genes) you were dealt. You can't make new cards (genes) appear.

Trinity, Sparrow, Everest, Denali Feb 2022 w.jpg


Those of you that know me know how much I pay attention to temperament, both my own dogs and dogs I meet. It's a topic that has been a major area of interest of mine for my whole life - temperament and behavior. So I wanted to write this article on the topic, with the hopes people can have a deeper understanding as well as become familiar with some of the descriptive terms used when sharing information about temperament in a dog. I also hope to bring more understanding of what a genetic base temperaments traits have.

I want to start by saying I believe temperament is 100% genetic. That's based on decades of intentional observation for just that topic. I've followed hundreds of litters over the years, both dogs and wolves, and in some cases up to 7 generations of the same lines. Quite a few times over the years I have kept or bought 2-3 pups from the same litter and raised them the same way, yet they are still distinct individuals, sometimes with a wide variation of traits but still all showing family traits as well. At Wolf Park we often kept full litters of wolf pups, and one year we swapped some of ours with another facility, getting two siblings and a third unrelated pup. Both the remaining Wolf Park pups and the new ones were raised together by the same staff, same methods, yet we could VERY easily see the differences in the bloodlines of each pup. I could go on and on with first hand examples. My main background is wolves and wolfdogs, nordic/sled dog breeds like malamutes, Siberians, Inuit dogs, and then herding breeds like Aussies, Mini Americans, etc. But I have friends with breeds in all groups, and have been around them enough to have a good feel for different styles of dogs and how what they were bred for can affect the temperament traits we see when we live with them. I also trained with a GSD breeder with three distinct lines and boy could you see the difference between her working lines, German show lines, and the more "pet" line with laid back temperaments. All the same breed, all 3 lines breed for different goals, and VERY apparent with spending a short amount of time them. I raised and trained a pup from the pet line and the working line for a few months each, and it was so easy to see the differences in drive, trainability and so on.

Another argument for the fact temperament is genetic is that if it was not, we wouldn't even NEED breeds of dogs. We could take any generic dog and train it to be a great stock dog, sled dog, bird dog, retriever, scent trailing dog, and so on. Or do the same with breeds of dogs of drastically different purposes. We all know that is not true, that for example no matter how you raise a Siberian Husky you are unlikely to have a useful sheep dog, and if you need a specific set of instinctive behaviors from a dog, getting it from a random mix breed dog is not stacking the odds in favor of success. Even in a breed temperament traits can vary, as well as in a single litter. Each dog is an individual.

Many people assume it's "just how you raise them" but that also is not true. Behavior is the expression of genetic temperament, and we can only affect that by how we raise them as far as the limitations of genetics inherited by that individual dog. I say it's like the pup is dealt a genetic "hand of cards" and we can only play the cards given. We can't add "cards" that are not there, nor throw away ones that are. Genetic temperament gives a dog a strong or weak predisposition toward exhibiting each behavior, and then what is reinforced or not will grow or diminish to the point it is limited by the genetic temperament traits and instincts. But we can't, by how we raise them, add traits that are not there, or totally erase ones that are (such as prey drive.) And, we can't train out instinct, only manage it. Please read that again, WE CAN'T TRAIN OUT INSTINCT, ONLY MANAGE IT. Instinct is kind of like a reflex, not a conscious choice.

How many times have we seen a dog come from a truly abusive situation and it still has a sunny, bomb proof temperament? How many times have we seen a dog who was raised right and is still a hot mess? That's genetics in action, folks! I have raised quite a few pups in my decades in dogs, and some of mine turn out fabulously, some are a train wreck. Since I know so much about behavior and have so much experience, shouldn't I be able to take any pup and make it awesome? No, because of the genetic limitations it is born with. I can only make them the best or worst versions of themselves, not profoundly change them. And if someone comes to you with a dog that is a hot mess, even with an excellent upbringing, we need to make sure that person knows it was not their failing, but the genetics.

So I always tell people if you want to stack the odds in favor of the dog you want or need, pick the breed first, the family lines next and then the individual pup, and THEN raise it in such a way as to help the dog reach it's full potential. And to be able to do that we as breeders and buyers need to be able to accurately communicate on this topic.

I say all this so once we get on to talking about the traits, you can understand they are in born AND we can select for them! I absolutely do, and it is always a work in progress. And it's not just looking at traits in two parents, but the whole pedigree on both sides. Having followed generations of dogs I will often see a pup that reminds me more of a grand parent or great aunt or uncle, more than the actual parents.
Anyway, on to some terminology. I'd like to try to break this down so if we are trying to share information about a given dog, such as a breeder and a buyer, we can maybe be able to use terms to paint a more detailed picture. And part of this IS going to depend on your experience thus far - such as your idea of "medium energy" for example, maybe different than someone else's if you have a low energy breed and they have a high one.

Some of the terms I commonly use when describing temperament include biddability, social attraction, drive, resilience, energy level, intelligence, soft, bold, anxious, shy, reactivity, fear, nervy/edgy/sharp/wired/easily aroused (I use all of these to mean the same thing, definition to follow.) And with Aussies and Mini Americans, I toss in the "reserved with strangers" and "strong guardian instinct" parts of the standard and define them since many are confused, especially thinking reserved means shy and vice versa. I see each of the traits as on a spectrum.

We'll start with the
SOFT to BOLD or pushy spectrum. Another word for soft could be sensitive, a dog that is really sensitive or soft does not take a lot of pressure, either verbally or physically. A really bold or pushy dog is the other end, that dog can take pressure and may NEED more to even respond.

INTELLIGENCE has to do with the dog's ability to think and problem solve. It doesn't have to do so for us to be an intelligent dog, some of the primitive breeds are high on the problem solving spectrum but are not biddable.

RESILIENCE means a dog that can bounce back easily from what could be an unpleasant experience. The dog is adaptable, rolls with whatever life brings. A resilient dog is a great dog because it can recover from a bad experience with a lot less work and time. An example could be having a pup that is startled by a bigger dog on a walk, or an unpleasant grooming experience.

BIDDABILITY is what some may call the "will to please". It is a dog who is eager to work with you, learn, participate, and doesn't need as much management to get a good response. Biddable dogs are often easily trained if you use methods that make sense to the dog.

SOCIAL ATTRACTION means the dog values time and interaction with humans, often over things in the environment dogs may otherwise be interested in, such as other dogs, other animals, the chance to explore, etc. A dog with high social attraction will be eager to stay with his person. Even a shy dog with high social attraction will be easier to work with since the dog still wants to connect with people. A low social attraction, high fear (shy) dog is the kind that can appear feral, and they are the hardest to work with of all since they don't care if they connect and the fear often keeps them from trying. It's my least favorite combo.

DRIVE means a dog has the will or tenacity to do something - push through past the part where it's novel or fun or the dog is tired, and complete the task at hand. It shouldn't be confused with ENERGY LEVEL because they work independently. You can have a high drive, low energy dog, or a low drive, high energy dog (and those can be hard if they have little to no focus.) A high drive, high energy dog may make a good sport dog, K9 or military working dog. ENERGY LEVEL is just as it sounds, how active is the dog over all.
SHYNESS and/or FEAR is kind of self explanatory - it's a dog that is scared or fearful of people, places, things. A genetically shy dog will often still be fearful even with some socializing because that can't trump the genetics causing the fear. Along this same topic, when the standard says "RESERVED WITH STRANGERS" it does NOT mean shy or fearful. It means ALOOF, the dog is comfortable not meeting new people just because. They are content with the social circle they have and don't avoid strangers because they are scared of them.

NERVY/SHARP/WIRED/EDGY/HIGH AROUSAL all mean the same thing to me, though the words maybe used by different factions of the dog world. (I see nervy used by some border collie people, sharp by some GSD people, etc.) It's a dog that is high strung, ready to react, less able to turn off and relax or control it's own emotions and/or impulses. It takes very little stimuli to get a reaction from such dogs, and they can be hard to live with and are often quite anxious and stressed. The dog can be hyper vigilant as well. Add in shyness, aggression, anxiety and so on and the dog is truly a mess. I very much want to avoid these traits. I have another article I wrote called AROUSAL VS DRIVE that I will share next, since it can tie into this topic.

REACTIVE kind of ties in with the nervy dogs, these dogs are too quick to react or tend to over react to stimuli. Some amount of reactiveness is necessary for many working dogs to do their jobs - such as stock dogs who need to take in a lot of details of a fluid situation, process and react to those details in a split second. But when we talk about a "reactive dog" we often say it to mean a dog who does over react or reacts inappropriately, and it's sadly a common trait in dogs, these breeds included. And some are very high arousal dogs who struggle to calm themselves.

GUARDIAN INSTINCT is something the breed standards may mention. It is not a fearful dog who lashes out then retreats to hide behind the owner's legs. That's fear based aggression. True guardian dogs are calm and confident and only use force on a true threat. They have the stable temperament and ability to discern friend from foe. They can be very friendly dogs to friendly strangers too, that also ties in to being able to discern a true threat from a benign interaction with a stranger. I have had two Aussies with true guardian instinct and you'd never know it when meeting them because they were also friendly to strangers.
This got longer than I intended but I really wanted to break down some of these topics.


"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."  


Psalm 23:6


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