Understanding Canine Personality & Temperament Traits: How to Select the Best Puppy for You

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How to Select the Best Dog or Puppy for You 

When you select a new pup, you want one that has a personality that meshes well with your family and your lifestyle. For example, you may prefer a calm and confident dog that is sensitive and socially appropriate. Or maybe you want a dog that is more energetic. You may be able to predict some rudimentary aspects of a dog’s personality but accurate forecasts are almost impossible. As Yogi Berra once said, “Predictions are difficult, especially when the involve the future.”

For those who believe in temperament testing (and that’s not everyone), it is generally held that the first meaningful temperament test should be performed at the magical age of seven weeks. Some believe that if you miss this exact time by even a couple of days, the results will be meaningless. This is untrue. The seven-week mark was established as the earliest time to appreciate fearfulness in pups. Testing before seven weeks might not give such an accurate prediction of subsequent fearfulness, but after seven weeks the result of testing would be, if anything, a more accurate predictor.

Ideally, pups should be evaluated twice: once at seven weeks and again at 10 to 12 weeks. The results of the testing should be compared to assess the development of personality traits.

Factors that Determine Canine Personality

Genetics – the breed and breed line – have a powerful influence on personality. The American Kennel Club divides its groups along according to purpose and thus personality. Sporting breeds, for example, tend to be active, energetic dogs with a strong desire to please their owners. Terriers are intense and persistent, doing best when they have a function to perform. Scent hounds focus on scent trails and are hard to distract. When working they seem independent and in a world of their own.

But dog personalities aren’t purely determined by genetics. Nurture (experience) also plays a large part in how dogs personalities evolve. This is one reason why there’s a wide array of individual personalities. Some cocker spaniels are friendly and almost overly deferential, while other are short-fused and have unstable personalities.

A dog that is raised by the bitch, along with its littermates, and has constant positive interactions with people and other animals during the first 3 to 4 months of life, will be more stable than a dog plucked from its family and isolated in a cage for weeks like a battery chicken. Being raised properly contributes to a dog’s confidence, sociability, and stability of mood. It also positively effects its intellectual development. Regular handling and grooming of pups by owners and the dam facilitates optimal neuronal development. The bottom line is that a pup raised in a warm, loving family environment is likely to be more tolerant and accepting, and a better problemsolver.

Canine Personality Testing

Most evaluators conduct tests to determine a dog’s level of confidence or dominance, sociability with people and other dogs, fearfulness, sensitivity, and reactivity. There are a variety of ways in which these characteristics are tested.

If you ask ten puppy temperament evaluators you will be told ten different ways to conduct these evaluations. Testing methods are up to the individual and evaluation is unique to the evaluator. However, certain tests do seem to feature quite prevalently in most evaluators’ repertoires.

Tests for Canine Dominance

a) The alpha role. The puppy is gently rolled onto its back in the crook of the evaluator’s arm. The evaluator then rests a hand on the pup’s chest and looks into its eyes for a few long seconds. If the pup immediately struggles to get free, refusing to be held in the cradled position, it is considered to be dominant and willful. A dog that does not struggle, but simply accepts the imposition, is considered to be more respectful of human authority and may thus be more easily trainable.

b) The suspension test. The puppy is gently elevated by the evaluator, allowing its hind legs to dangle free. The under-the-armpits lift is performed for just a few seconds with the pup held out at arm’s length. A pup that kicks and struggles to get free is considered willful and dominant. Hanging limp means the pup is respectful and deferent to human authority.

Fearfulness in Dogs

Any one of a number of tests can be employed to predict fearfulness. Evaluators may drop keys behind the pup while he is walking along to see whether it a) doesn’t care, b) shows mild interest, or c) practically jumps out of his skin. This test determines sound sensitivity, a component of fearfulness. Another test involves unfurling an umbrella in front of the pup to evaluate its startle reaction to this unfamiliar object.


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