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We are all aware that different pups have different personalities. “Oh, he’s so pushy,” we might exclaim, as a rambunctious 5-month old chocolate Labrador retriever pup noses us repeatedly for attention, refusing to take “No” for an answer. Or when a timorous pup slithers toward us on its belly, hoping for petting or to be picked up, we might think, “What a sweet pup, but so shy.” Demanding and passively soliciting are two different approaches to the same end. There are pups that are mistrustful of strangers and those who become unnerved during car rides or at the veterinarian’s office. Some pups who persevere over tasks while others seem to have a hard time focusing.
These various characteristics come in different combinations. There are pups that are shy with strangers but are mouthy or pushy toward their owners; these pups are insecure but have a will to control circumstances. There are pups who are independent and driven and those that are motivated but needy. And there are those pups who are extremely active while others are quiet and calm. As with people, it takes all types to make a world – and there certainly are many different pup personalities out there. First let’s consider the fundamental traits separately.
This personality trait can be thought of as the desire to be in charge – to be top dog in the pack sense. Top dogs have first option at all resources but also have responsibilities, such as decision making for the group, guarding, and procurement. In the home, a dog’s perceived dominance over its owners sometimes presents as the problem of owner-directed aggression. Such dogs may growl at their owners, snap, or even bite, to control their owner’s unwanted interventions – and it all starts in puppyhood.
Puppies slated to be dominant can be signaled out as early as 9-weeks of age. They tend to be more active, more forward, more resistant of impositions (like wearing collar and lead for the first time), and physical restraint. By 5-months of age, pups of this disposition are quite rambunctious, are often described as “mouthy” (the shape of things to come) or hyperactive. By about 10-months of age, they may have committed their first atrocity, by actually biting someone – and for very good reason, or so they think. Typical triggers for owner-directed aggression include conflict over food resources (often favorite food), disturbing the pup while it is sleeping, touching it in certain unwanted ways (e.g. during petting), and attempting to admonish or physically punish it. True dominants are not as frankly aggressive as their more needy counterparts, voluntarily deferring to their owners in a number of different situations (i.e. they are confident enough to cut their owners some slack). Anxious, dominant want-to-be’s (betas or sub-dominants) are less tolerant and thus more of a problem in this respect. Frequent incidents of owner-directed aggression imply a lack of respect by the dog for its owner and a communications “disconnect” between both parties. Dominance aggression might be better termed, “instrumental” as the aggression is used in an instrumental way to achieve certain goals. The difference between true dominance and more anxious sub-dominants has to do with the pup’s confidence level. An increase in dominance, associated with a corresponding increase in a pup’s confidence, may well result in a decrease in owner-directed aggression. Dominance and aggression often move in opposite directions. If a pup is confident and pushy, but not aggressive, he may well be somewhat dominant. If he is “testy,” bad tempered, moody, and aggressive to his owners, he is probably in a situation of conflict and is unsure of himself and his owners.
The bottom line: pushy, mouthy, nippy, barky, attention-demanding pups are “dominant.” This behavioral characteristic should be recognized early and dealt with. Owners can engineer the respect they need by insisting that the pup sits on command in order to receive food and treats. Failure to address developing dominance in pups sometimes leads to serious problems of fully committed owner-directed aggression down the line.
Although there are some genetic influences underpinning fear, by far and away the most significant input comes from the environment in which puppies grow up. Bad or inadequate experiences at this time will lead to a lifetime of woes. Lets’ assume, for the time being, that pups are born with minds like blanks slates on which confidence or fear can be inscribed. In the infantile period (first 2 weeks), not much fear learning goes on because pups’ eyes and ear canals are closed and they pretty much only suckle or sleep. From weeks 3 – 12, the socialization period, pups are taking their first looks at the world and are exploring their immediate environment. Their minds are like sponges at this time and they are most impressionable. Good things happening during this time will be rapidly assimilated and stored, but likewise bad experiences will lead to indelible memories. Pups that are not handled “with kid gloves” during this period, exposing them in a pleasurable way to experiences they will face in the future, may well develop a tendency to acquire fears and mistrust. It is as if a window of learning opportunity has been lost. And while not impossible to reverse adverse learning experiences, it s certainly harder later in life and unlikely that they can be turned around 100 percent. The time at which fear learning peaks is somewhere in the 7 -12 week window of age. Good and bad experiences, positive events and omissions, will make there mark at this time and have a lifetime effect.
Fearful puppies act shy, may squat or roll when confronted, may engage in submissive urination, tend to hide from strangers, don’t like new things or loud noises, don’t appreciate being left alone (may cry), may follow their owners around, and don’t like unfamiliar environments. Basically, they like things to remain the same. They are often quite happy when nothing happens, when the doors are shut and the family is at home. Anything other than (for them) this utopian arrangement of seclusion is below par. Even a dog that is not a blank slate, but has a genetic tendency to develop fearfulness, can be improved considerably and made the best he can possibly be, if the first few weeks of his life are managed properly. This means no being left alone for long periods, no rough handling, no shouting, and protection from bad experiences while at the same time arranging for desensitization of the pup to every strange thing and every category of living creature the dog is likely to encounter in adult life. This is as important for a new pup and proper veterinary care, and its omission is likely to have just as disastrous results as missing out on, say, vaccinations.
Dogs are, of course, predators. It is an innate trait that was, at one time, necessary for their survival. Not so today, but the trait goes on! As far as prey drive goes, all pups are equally endowed – but some are more equally endowed than others! Breeds developed for hunting, herding, chasing, or killing varmints, in general have higher prey drive but there are line and individual differences, too.
High prey drive is not something an owner can do something about – nothing reasonable, anyway. A pup either has it in abundance or not. However, it is good to be able to recognize it for what it is so that it can be directed appropriately and contained where necessary. Unless real prey is around (which we do not recommend), the only way to check on a pup’s prey drive is to assess its interactions with moving objects, like thrown tennis balls or drawn toys, and to assess the way it deal with small furry toys (prey facsimiles). Pups that are obsessed with tennis balls have high prey drive. Pups that chase objects that are pulled along in front of them have high prey drive. Pups that give stuffed toys “a good ragging,” shaking them violently from side to side between clenched jaws, are actual acting out a killing sequence. They, too, have high prey drive.
As time goes by, pups with high prey drive sometimes displace this drive onto unacceptable substrates, such as joggers, skate boarders, cyclists, and automobiles. This is something to guard against. Denying the pup an opportunity to hone such skills is an important counter measure. For example, a pup with high prey drive should not be placed in the front yard behaving a fence where it can practice fence running and chasing passers by. Also, dogs with high prey drive should be watched carefully when a new baby is brought to the house if unfortunate accidents are to be avoided. And running children, as in a children’s backyard party, can sometimes awaken otherwise quiescent predatory instincts to chase and nip. If precautions are not taken, even the most successful children’s’ party can end in tears.
This is perhaps the hardest quality to assess. Some pups are more stable in mood while others are changeable and sometimes overly active/reactive. There are layed back pups and more energetic, more volatile types. For cats, the term equable (meaning evenness of mood) is used to describe this trait. This term is equally applicable for dogs. All pups go from extremes of sleeping to fits of “the maddies,” a sort of crash-burn lifestyle, but some are more mercurial than others. Think about them as being “Type A” personalities (reactionary) or “Type B” (long suffering, layed back). Moodiness couples with fearfulness may express itself as separation anxiety or thunderstorm phobia. Or if coupled with aggression might lead to the “Jeckyl and Hyde” syndrome of dominance aggression a.k.a. conflict-induced aggression. It is best to try to stabilize moody pups’ humor by ensuring a consistent environment and clear communication between it and its owner.
While this article had addressed only fundamental aspects of pups’ personalities, the combinations and permutations of these 4 different personality “building blocks” creates the plethora of personality type encountered in real life. Current puppy temperament tests assess qualities such as social attraction and following – which have to do with dominance, independence, and fearfulness together. A really dominant, confident, and non fearful pup will not pay much attention to the beckon call or follow its owner (or tester) like a lost sheep. Many of the other tests that are commonly performed are designed to test dominance (e.g. elevation test, rolling, pinning, restraint), fearfulness (e.g. noise sensitivity), predatory instinct (retrieving, “chase instinct”), and stability (unfurling an umbrella).