Before Adopting a Dog Check Its Temperament
by Kathy Batesel
Test Your Puppy
What do you get when you cross four dogs, two cats, two exotic birds, and a hamster? You get the Batesel household! Bad jokes aside, pet temperament is no laughing matter if you're getting ready to adopt or buy a dog.
That wagging tail and doleful eyes, or the extra playful spirit a pup exhibits when it first chooses us, might lead us to believe it's the perfect pet for our household. Unfortunately, that's not always the case, and it causes problems for dog and human alike.
For this reason, I recommend learning about and understanding a dog's temperament before becoming its pack leader.
Have you heard of temperament testing before?
Obedience Dog Training and Temperament
Obedience training will not overcome a dog's natural temperament. Training your pet to follow commands will produce good behavior and establish you as its leader, but it won't change the dog's personality any more than your personality changes when you get trained to do a job at work.
Zira is a great example of training and temperament. I adopted her just hours before she was scheduled for euthanasia. The Waynesville Animal Shelter's caring staff put a plea out for someone to take her in. "She is a well-behaved dog and great with children, but not with other dogs," it said on the message board where I discovered her. I was concerned about whether she'd get along with my lab, and asked the staff to bring her to my home to evaluate her behavior.
As it turned out, she was fine with my other dog. Barbara, the shelter's employee, told me Zira had been turned into the shelter not once but twice! Her first human "pack" was a military family that turned her in when they moved, and the one who adopted her next discovered that she fought with their dog over food.
I tested her and discovered that she did have a problem when it came to taking food or treats from her. She growled, but did not snap or bite. I recognized that she had a temperament problem, but with proper training it was one I thought I could resolve. I put her through a few other tests and finally agreed to take her into my home.
Zira is a fantastic dog for me. She follows basic commands with nothing more than a hand signal. I can take her on walks with or without a leash and have no problems. She doesn't run up to other dogs, sits when I tell her to, comes on command, and leaves playing children alone. She learned to stop being food aggressive within a matter of days, though I am aware that if she feels her food source is threatened, she can still turn aggressive.
When I remarried to a man with dogs, that behavior reappeared briefly. Her temperament overrode her training, and additional training was needed to remind her that she is not to growl or snap at others.
What is Temperament?
A simple definition of temperament is the emotional disposition to behave in an angry, emotional, or out-of-control way.
A dog's temperament will govern how it responds to many situations:
- Startling sounds like firecrackers, gunshots, or thunder
- Sudden noises or movement, like children yelling or running
- Seeing other people or dogs that can be approached
- When strangers or dogs approach
- Following commands
- Boredom, loneliness, or anxiety
If you understand your dog's personality before you take him or her into your family, you'll be better able to anticipate or avoid problem behaviors later on.
The American Temperament Test Society (ATTS) is a non-profit group that was formed to provide uniform testing of dog temperaments for all breeds and mixed breeds. Although a pet that is a non-neutered mixed breed will not be awarded their certificate for passing the temperament tests, an owner can have their dog evaluated according to the ATTS standards for about $30.
Although ATTS testing is performed throughout the U.S., it could be months before one is scheduled in a city near your home. If you're thinking of adopting or buying a dog, you can use some of the ideas from their complete list of testing methods to gauge your soon-to-be-pet.
Bring a friend or family member who can help you complete a few of the tests performed by the ATTS. Although you aren't a certified tester trained to recognize subtle canine behaviors, you'll still be able to get a better idea of your pooch's personality.
The video below demonstrates an actual ATTS temperament test using a German Shepherd. As you'll see, the entire formal test takes less than five minutes.
An Actual Temperament Test from the ATTS
Is the Dog Well Socialized to Get Along with People?
1. Before approaching the pet you're considering, ask your friend to approach the dog's current caretaker and shake hands while ignoring the dog. Watch the pup's reactions. It should look alert and confident, or relaxed. If its ears are back, its hackles are raised, or it stands stiffly with a rigid tail, the dog may have strong protective instincts that could prove dangerous in a busy household, but could be perfect for a person who lives alone and wants protection.
2. After noticing the dog's reaction to passive socialization, you'll make a more direct approach and greet the dog directly, this time ignoring its handler. Use a friendly voice, approach purposefully, and pet the dog. Again, look for signs of discomfort to determine if the dog feels threatened. Bared teeth, growling, or attempts to back away from you are clear signs that the dog is not well socialized and could become problematic when approached.
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Angel Mae's Temperament - Good and Not Good
One of our dogs, Angel Mae, was acquired by my husband's son, who left her behind when he moved out. While we love her and get a lot of laughs from her antics, like the way she'll try to dominate a water hose for hours on end, we have to be careful.
She becomes fearful around men and aggressive with other dogs when it comes to food. She tries to bully them to keep them from eating. My husband and I must be strong, confident pack leaders to ensure that she doesn't try to assert herself as the dominant alpha in our household.
How Does the Dog Act Around Other Dogs?
Although the ATTS test doesn't incorporate a dog's reaction to other animals, it's a temperament trait I evaluate when I take in an animal. Zira, for instance, generally gets along fine with other dogs, which I tested when I got her.
We can walk by other dogs and she shows no interest or distraction. However, she defends herself if another dog tries to challenge her for her position in the pack. I was fine with her temperament, but it can still pose problems. When my husband and I moved in together, she got into a couple of fights with one of his dogs that continually strives to elevate her pack rank.
If you're testing at a facility like a dog shelter or in a pet store, check the dog's behavior around other dogs both on and off leash.
3. With both dogs on a leash, approach within thirty feet of each other. Watch for the dogs' responses as you slowly come nearer. Dogs tend to be naturally curious and alert when other dogs approach, but may feel vulnerable because they cannot escape the leash. This can give you an opportunity to identify the signs the dog shows when vulnerable, and to evaluate whether he or she tends toward aggressiveness with other dogs. If signs of discomfort are very high (growling, bared teeth, rigid stance and tail) stop approaching and discontinue this portion of your testing with an awareness that the dog can be unnecessarily aggressive.
4. If the dog passes the leash test, he or she will likely be more comfortable when meeting dogs off-leash. Because you've seen the pup's reaction to other dogs while under stress, you can also test without a leash. Dogs who allow another dog to sniff its rear, or who roll over and show their belly to another dog are submissive, while dogs that try to mount other dogs or put their paws on the other dog's back may be seeking dominance.
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Startle Response: Noise
The ATTS tests for noise include testing the dog's response to gunshots, which I don't recommend trying at a local clinic! However, one part of their test may be useful.
5. Have your helper rattle a coffee can of coins or rocks from a short distance in front of you. (The test doesn't specify a distance, but I would say ten feet is probably good.) Watch your dog's response to hearing the noise, and also evaluate what happens when your helper puts the can down and you approach it with the dog. Does the dog appear curious and alert or timid and afraid?
Startle Response: Visual / Movement
6. The way the ATTS tests a dog's response to visual stimuli is to walk the dog near a helper who is holding a closed umbrella parallel to the ground and facing across the dog's path. When the dog is five feet away, the helper opens the umbrella suddenly. The dog's handler encourages the dog to investigate the umbrella. With this and the can test above, the handler should not focus on the dog but instead, pay attention to the objects.
A dog that doesn't recover quickly from being startled or that becomes aggressive may exhibit behavior problems later.
Aggression and Responding to Threats
If you want to evaluate a potential pet for its ability to protect and guard your home or family, the ATTS has additional steps you may want to examine with the help of a trained professional. Because a dog that fails these tests could seriously injure a tester who isn't using protective gear, I don't recommend tackling them alone. Find an ATTS scheduled test, ask a local police K9 training unit, or find an animal behaviorist with experience in treating aggressive animals. They can help you determine if your dog is able to distinguish between unusual people and events and actual threats, and evaluate your dog's response. They may help you use the ATTS test methods or have suitable tests of their own.
Dog Breeds and Temperament
Although dogs are pack animals, they're similar to humans in important ways. Just as some human tribes or societies are more aggressive or dominant than others, individuals within those cultures have unique traits that result in their individual personalities. This is also true for dogs.
Some breeds have been cultivated because of their "cultural" tendencies. German shepherds, have long been used for police work while Saint Bernards have been the dog of choice for snowy mountain rescues, but one Saint Bernard might be timid and fearful with another is confident and friendly.
On the ATTS website, you can find breed-specific information about temperament, but it should not replace a careful consideration of an individual dog's personality before acquiring it.