Many Dog Breeds, Many Dog Temperaments

Temperament? Personality? What are they? Are they forever?

A dog’s temperament can be considered his personality or disposition, who he is, what he likes or dislikes, how he tends to respond to things, and what kind of companion he is to humans or other animals.  But temperaments are not set in stone; they’re affected by learning and experiences as well as genetics.


Genetics look like a “fixed” feature, but internal processes and environmental factors influence which genes are expressed and when.  Some expressions occur at specific developmental stages – hair turns grey at different ages in different dogs.  Others happen as a result of consistent exposure.  For instance, this is one of the ways allergies develop in dogs.  Constant exposure to dust mites can sensitize dogs to them, causing new gene expressions to occur and dogs to develop allergies.  It’s a field that is constantly developing. Everything in my undergraduate Genetics textbook is basically wrong now! 

Research into the genetics of behavior continues to uncover, usually, that behavior tendencies are created by multiple genes along with environmental components.  To the genetics, add the stages of puppy development and their influences on gene expression, and the road to a clear illustration of the effects of genetics on behavior is muddy.  But we do know that some behaviors are breed-specific. For hundreds of years and sometimes longer, breeders have been selecting dogs to carry on certain characteristics.

Breed Tendencies

In discussing temperament, we cannot disregard the process of breeding dogs for specific behavioral tendencies.  Social media posts commonly state that “it’s not the dog, it’s how the human raised him” and the like.  Later in this post, I’ll provide information about the interlacings between nature and nurture.  They are both important; human influence has a role, but it is also the dog.

Breeds of dogs are a special case, and so interesting!  Humans have developed at least hundreds of dog breeds around the world by choosing which dogs to assign for mating and puppy production, and doing so over and over until a somewhat consistent standard is met.  Selection criteria may include how a dog looks and also how a dog behaves.  That’s about as far as we’ll go into the selection process for now but suffice to say that over the years, the variety of dogs selected for breeding and the number of reasons they have been selected is huge.

Breed Behaviors

Breed behavior tendencies are among the reasons people select dogs.  Some people want dogs to guard their homes or make them feel safer, others want dogs who will be everyone’s friend.  Some want dogs to herd their sheep or to retrieve the ducks they shoot.  Others want dogs to just sit in their laps.  Military operatives and police want dogs to track and attack.  Dog sport competitors want dogs with the abilities they need to win – speed, agility, or the ability to withstand harsh weather conditions or pull heavy things.  These types of goals for breeding dogs appear to have remained pretty consistent over the development of world societies, as it seems every culture has their own versions of hunting, guarding, and lap dogs. 

The Example of Border Collies

Border collies were bred to herd sheep.  Most everyone has seen videos of their amazing work. They have patterns of approach that are inherited, and they don’t bite the sheep but focus intensely on moving them.  These qualities are pieces of instinctive, genetics-based, predatory behavior. 

Predatory behavior serves dogs that need to hunt for their food, hunters who want dogs’ help to find prey, and also herding dogs.  Herding dogs only use the first stages of predatory behavior.  It begins with orienting to prey, then eyeing it.  If you’ve known a border collie, you may be familiar with “the eye”.

A picture of a Border Collie using “eye”. If you were a sheep, you would most likely respond to this intense gaze. Photo credit: Vetstreet

After eyeing the prey comes stalking and chasing.  Because of careful selection processes in their breeding, most border collies draw the line right after that.  The next stages of the predatory sequence are biting, killing, dissecting, and consuming, none of which fit into a sheep farming operation!  The breeders who developed this working dog in Scotland over about 100 years appear to have selected very carefully because these qualities are obvious in most individuals.

Appearance or Instincts? Both? 

In 1995, Border Collies became an AKC-recognized breed allowed to be exhibited in conformation shows.  For a long time before that, some breeders had been rallying for just that recognition and working to standardize the appearance of border collies, not just the herding instincts.  As a result, the selection criteria changed for this group of dogs.  Breeders who wanted to win in the show ring chose different dogs than breeders who wanted to herd sheep or compete in agility, another area where border collies tend to excel. 

There are now multiple varieties of border collies, differing both in appearance and in behavioral tendencies, as a result of this relatively new development.  They are not designated by being called different breeds, but Border Collie afficionados in the different areas know which kennels to choose from when looking for their next dog.  This is just one example of the broad influences of genetic selection. 

Genetic Influences on Breed Tendencies

If you want a dog to retrieve the ducks you shoot, you’ll look for a Labrador, Golden Retriever, or another breed that has been bred through careful selection to do this job.  These hunting breeds take the predatory sequence to the next level, which is biting; but they only to grab the prey so they can pick it up and bring it to the hunter.  You’ve heard of the “soft mouth” retrievers have, and this is why.  No one wants to have their ducks chewed up before they cook them!

 If you want a dog to guard your home, you’ll choose a dog with the genetics for boldness and confidence along with size and shape to carry out a threat.  These dogs have been bred to take the predatory sequence to the level of biting for sure, and usually not with a soft mouth.  They may have been bred to take it even further, which we won’t talk about here, but the results can be ugly when the dog is large and powerful with the genetic tendency to kill, dissect, and consume his or her target.  We can’t ignore the importance of socialization, puppy development, and proper training in terms of a dog’s ability to do a job well and to still be easily handled.  We’ll talk about the role of learning and experience later.

Unfortunate Breed Tendencies

I often talk about humility.  Humans are far from perfect.  We make mistakes, set our focus on outcomes without considering all the impacts, and choose dogs for breeding that have the desired characteristics but may also have some other characteristics that are unfortunate.  This process, along with controlled laboratory studies, is contributing too our ongoing discoveries about genetics.

Flank-sucking in Doberman Pinschers

A single gene has been identified in Doberman Pinschers that causes flank-sucking, an odd behavior that is just what it sounds like.  It can also manifest as blanket-sucking.  I don’t think anyone consciously selected for this behavior in Dobermans!  This gene came along for the ride like others, many of which we don’t yet know about.  It’s interesting that the same gene influences “hoarding” behavior in Dobermans, and likely in some other breeds.

Hank does not have the flank-sucking gene! He’s just a beautiful and well-behaved Doberman Pinscher visiting the vet clinic for a regular check-up.

Aggressive Behaviors

Aggressive behaviors are concerning.  The wide variety of defined behaviors involved mimics the variety of contributing factors.  My Dog Reading course helps define the hierarchy of aggressive behaviors along with some of a dog’s reasons for displaying them and how humans can safely respond to de-escalate the situation.  It’s a challenge to sort through aggressive behaviors, define them, and determine their functions.  Understanding dog body language allows people to notice what’s about to happen before it happens, especially when a dog is showing subtle signs of making his way toward aggressive behaviors. 

Aggressive Behaviors Necessary for Survival

Most aggressive behaviors are necessary for survival.  It takes analysis of the behaviors and environment to pinpoint functions. Some aggressive responses indicate fear.  When very scared, a dog may defend himself, which involves growling, showing teeth, lunging, snapping, and biting. Predatory or feeding processes involve behaviors that look like aggressive behaviors but are necessary for catching prey to eat, which is a whole different ball game.  Aggressive behaviors are used to protect territory, the dog himself or puppies.  In the first steps of defense, aggressive behaviors may be used to increase distance between a dog and the stimulus that is bothering him, which can prevent a fight and in some cases save the dog’s life.  Aggressive behaviors can also be used for killing. 

Animal behaviorists have developed entire careers focusing specifically on canine aggressive behaviors, their functions, forensic analysis, and behavior modification to help dogs and humans live fulfilling lives.  This post is not really about aggression, so we’ll stop there.  I get carried away because I find it so interesting that, in many cases, we humans have been able to pick out exactly where to link into the predatory sequence to create the breed-specific behaviors we want.  It’s important to understand that the process is far from perfect, though.

Breed Tendencies Gone Bad

It’s easy to see how selecting dogs for guarding purposes can lead to mistakes or unintentionally uninformed choices, resulting in dogs with tendencies toward biting that are far too powerful to be easily managed.  Problems can arise when behaviors go awry during the genetic selection process, complicated by a dog’s circumstances interfering with his genetics. 

Retrievers may have tendencies to retrieve that are much stronger than necessary, but these are less problematic.  A Labrador who carries three tennis balls with him on a walk may be a source of delight.  A herding dog who herds the children may be funny or a problem, depending on the qualities of the behavior and the family’s ability to manage it.  A dog who tends to bite to kill in the course of guarding home territory can be a serious problem in a residential neighborhood.  Considering the purpose(s) a dog was originally bred for is important in selecting a dog for a pet.

Leo, the golden retriever, often had a toy in his mouth. I built on his genetic tendencies with positive reinforcement to build a reliable retrieve.

Learning and Experience

Set genetics aside for a moment.  The circumstances surrounding a puppy’s birth, whether he was born in a sheltered area, what the weather conditions were, whether his mom had strong maternal behaviors or was physically able to care for him, all contribute to his experience.  

As he grows, experiences continue to teach him.   Discovering behaviors that solve his problems creates resilience and the ability to survive.  Imagine if a puppy gets cold and crawls under an available blanket.  He becomes warmer and more comfortable, those consequences of his behavior incorporating into the development of his brain for later use.  The puppy has gained an element of resilience to cold temperatures that he can build on. 

Experiences equal learning.  A puppy is born with not only his physiological conditions like sensory abilities or even illnesses or deformities, but also with psychological conditions resulting from stress in the womb or even his mother’s stress.  These, too, are his experiences and his brain is developing in response to them.  That’s learning.

Learning Continues Forever

Dogs (and all beings) are learning all the time.  Associations are created, consequences occur, learning happens, and brain neural pathways change.  Brain plasticity is now known to continue throughout life.  You can read more about the newest discoveries regarding brain plasticity at Dr. Michael Merzenich’s website. 

When people go through occupational therapy after suffering brain injuries, they are using brain plasticity to learn to do essential tasks in a new way.  They learn the mechanical skills we can see in their hands and arms, and that requires the entire body system to send messages back and forth between the brain and muscles.  It’s a great example of learning throughout life, as many adults go through this process after traumatic injuries, strokes, and other brain events and go on to lead fulfilling lives.  This is the same process that dogs undergo as we shape their behavior, as they learn to move in new ways on new cues and accomplish the tasks we train them to do.

The Brain, Behavior and Temperament

Once a dog learns that a particular behavior works to produce consequences that he likes, it’s easy to imagine how he would choose to do it again.  But when we consider the changes in his neural pathways that occur as he learns, we realize that he can’t help but do that behavior again and again after it has become so deeply ingrained.  His temperament or personality changes as the fluency of new behaviors develops.   

As stated at the beginning, temperament (personality) is who dogs are, what they like or dislike, how they tend to respond to things, and what kind of companion they are to humans or other animals.  When a dog learns that an item or event he previously thought was fun can be a source of threat, it will stimulate avoidance and possibly defensive behaviors.  He learns to behave differently, illustrating a change in who he is, what he likes or dislikes.

Learning Doesn’t Take Long

Contrary to some beliefs, learning does not take long; it happens all the time.  Every experience teaches.  When a dog responds to something, he is practicing that response and the neural pathways driving it are getting stronger.  This is the basis of the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  The statement is false, but it is true that the more a behavior is practiced, the better a dog becomes at performing it. 

Practice Makes Behaviors Permanent

We train dogs to get better at behaviors by giving them opportunities to practice, resulting in positive reinforcement, or consequences desirable to them.  The better a dog is at a behavior, the less likely it is that he will ignore the drive to perform it in order to perform a new behavior instead.  So it is more of a challenge to change fluent or deeply ingrained behaviors than it is to change a behavior you’ve only observed once or twice.

 It is important to recognize the learning that is taking place from the very beginning and do what we can to make it easy for dogs to learn what we want them to learn.  An essential part of training is making sure dogs don’t learn that “bad” behaviors can get them things they want.  If your dog never scratches on your beautifully finished wooden door, that behavior becomes less and less likely over time because he learns other behaviors that get him the opportunity to go outside.

Learning causes dogs’ behavioral repertoires to grow as they adjust to their circumstances.  We can take an active role in that learning and influence results to our benefit, which is usually the dogs’ benefit also as it furthers the possibilities of our relationships with them.

Simple, but Not Easy

The process is simple, but not easy, as Dr. Robert E. Bailey often says.  It’s not productive to just love them and wait for good things to happen, because there is a lot of room for bad things to occur, and dogs learn from every experience.  Changing the brain takes commitment and focus, and that’s what we’re doing with training.  

Our training takes place over a dog’s lifetime while a dog’s genetics have been built over his entire heritage.  Nature and nurture work together in an intricate dance, to help animals survive and reproduce.  Current research is typically focused on helping them thrive and live fulfilling lives.  Both nature and nurture influence these goals.

Let’s Not Forget Genetics

This leads to a concern regarding the breed descriptions we see on social media and other places online.  Marketing of dogs is just like any other marketing – making the product seem attractive to the greatest number of people seems like a good approach for selling lots of individual dogs.  How a dog is reared and trained has a great influence on his personality/temperament; but so do his genetics, which have been built over decades, maybe hundreds of years.  Genetics are not to be set aside.

“Rescue Dog” is Not a Breed

Think about “rescue dogs”:  they are often described as a group of dogs who have fallen on hard times, sad and lonely, and need love.  They are not all the same; they are different breeds and mixes with different experiences and different needs that must be met if they are to become thriving pets in human families.

Quill came from a shelter and has an unknown genetic background. His heritage is most likely highly varied. We can learn about his temperament through observations of his behavior.

Read Breed Descriptions with a Critical Eye

If a breed was developed to guard, aggressive behavioral tendencies are built in.  Aggressive behaviors are part of every dog’s make-up, and for that matter, the make-up of every human.  Those behaviors are essential for certain circumstances, but only certain, and mostly very limited circumstances.  We cannot quickly change the genetics that influence aggressive behaviors.  We can learn to respond to the earliest alert offered by a guarding breed and we can teach dogs other behaviors that can help them get what they want and need.  Nature is not in conflict with nurture to win control; they work together to develop an ever-changing synergy. 

Training Changes Lives

How strong is the herding instinct in a herding dog breed one might consider for a pet?  Herding behaviors can be fun if a dog is trained to use them in appropriate circumstances.  The herding instincts of some individual dogs are not strong enough to cause a problem in daily life.  But a herding dog with strong herding instincts can quickly become a problem when he has no way to express himself appropriately.  Training an Aussie to “herd” soccer balls into goals in the back yard can give him an outlet that is harmless and fun for him.

Not All Dogs were Bred for Companionship

It is simply not true that any dog will make a great companion or family dog if reared properly.  The genetics of the breed play an important role in who a dog will be.  Some dogs were bred to be independent and not as companionable as others.  Think Great Pyrenees vs. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.  Livestock guardian breeds like Great Pyrenees were bred to live alone with herds of hoof stock, sometimes not coming into contact with humans for extended periods of time.  Cavaliers were specifically bred to be lap dogs.  To complicate these tendencies, as with border collies, individual humans have chosen to breed individual dogs with other qualities in mind than those that were generally selected over decades.

Proper socialization, which is preparation for the realities of life in a human world, is essential from birth to the age of about 4 months for all pet dogs.  Training in simple skills like leash walking and relaxing where they are asked to remain are essential throughout a dog’s development to maturity.  Training prepares dogs to function in the circumstances in which they live, even when those circumstances are very different from those they were bred to excel in.

Behavior Principles Apply to Every Breed

Genetic factors that have been bred into a dog over hundreds of years are definitely part of who he is, not only in terms of what he looks like but in terms of his behavioral tendencies.  This is NOT to say that “certain breeds must be trained with a heavy hand” or “some breeds require their owners to show dominance”.  These beliefs are not consistent with what science has demonstrated about how animals learn best.  They remain incorrect, no matter what breed tendencies are involved.

Positive reinforcement is simply the best way to teach new behaviors and directed classical conditioning is the most effective way to help dogs develop into companions that can live with humans in a human world.  Dog owners are responsible for understanding the genetic background of a dog and applying science-based training to help him be the best dog he can be and to ensure long, fulfilling relationships between humans and their dogs.

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