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Picking a Dog With the Right Personality for You

Updated on June 20, 2015

God Sent Us This Dog!

Me and my dog Daisy, a prey/pack-driven mixed breed who is neither aggressive nor afraid of anything.
Me and my dog Daisy, a prey/pack-driven mixed breed who is neither aggressive nor afraid of anything.


Dogs, like people, have personalities - inner drives, if you will. Just as some people are shy, aggressive, thoughtful or gregarious, dogs have different internal drive mechanisms that motivate their behavior. These five basic internal drive mechanisms once helped dogs survive in the wild and find their place in dog society.

As dogs left the packs over the centuries and joined human societies, their colors changed from a more or less uniform grey, dun or black color to the wide variety of hues we see in today's domesticated dogs. This happens over just a few generations after a truly feral dog joins human society. The old "personality traits that once helped them them to survive in the wild also change. Usually these trates become toned down somewhat, but they never quite go away. Some breeds.actually have these "drives" bred into them more strongly than other breeds by breeders looking for specific traits. It's true that some types of dogs are more aggressive than others. Others are more fearful.

A domestic dog can be driven by any one or a combination of these four factors:

1. Prey driven
2. Aggression driven/territorial
3. Pack/Rank driven
5. Fear driven

Your dog's personality will be something of a composite of these four primary drives. Whichever drive dominates, that drive will shape the dog's personality and will to a great extent, determiine the chances of success or failure of the dog in the role you hope for it to assume in your family unit.

Think of your family as the dog's pack. Famed dog whisperer, Cesar Millan, teaches his clients how to train their pets by assuming the role of pack leader. It's important to understand your dog's dominant natural drives, if you are going to effectively train the dog to function comfortably within your family pack.

Below are some psychological tests that you can perform with a new dog to give yourself an idea of what motivates a dog you are considering admitting to your family. You can perform these tests with a dog who is already a member of your family if you are having problems with the dog. Understanding the dog's instinctive psychological drives can help you with the training process and also help keep you from making mistakes than can make your dog into a crazy canine.

Making a dog pile with the Alpha Female
Making a dog pile with the Alpha Female
Smells like my Dad so I like to sleep here.
Smells like my Dad so I like to sleep here.

What You'll Need to Perform the Tests

To perform the test you'll only need a few basic things.

  1. An assistant to help you with the test
  2. An open practice field
  3. A leash
  4. A Squeaky fetch toy (It's important that it squeaks when squeezed)
  5. A Tennis ball
  6. Note pad and pen to record behaviors
  7. Treats to reward the dog

Prey-Driven Dogs

Working dogs tend to be prey driven, therfore easier to train and more reliable performers.
Working dogs tend to be prey driven, therfore easier to train and more reliable performers.
Aggressiveness has little to do with size
Aggressiveness has little to do with size

Testing for The Prey Drive

Take the dog out on the practice field on a leash. If the dog knows how to "sit" on command have him sit down beside you. If not keep the leash close to you. Now have your assistant step back ten or twenty yards. Have him squeeze the squeaky toy and toss it in front of the dog. Try throwing a tennis ball and see what happens. Do you see any of the following behaviors.

  1. Visible excitement caused by the thrown object?
  2. Intently tracks the movement of the thrown object with his eyes.
  3. Attempts to pounce upon the squeaky toy.
  4. Does he pick up the squeaky toy and bite it so that it squeaks?
  5. Does he shake the squeaky toy violently.
  6. Does he chase the moving tennis ball?
  7. Does he grab the tennis ball and carry it off in his mouth?
  8. Does he chase the ball every time you throw it?

Other observable traits: If you know the dog, here are some other things to look for:

  1. Does he "stalk" other animals,
  2. Does she crouch or lie down in the grass and appear to be waiting to pounce when she sees squirrels or rabbits or cats?
  3. Does he bark excitedly at moving toys or objects in the grass.
  4. Does she steal garbage or food left about,
  5. Does he like to shake and “kill” squeaky toys. Does he chew holes in them to get the squeaker out?
  6. Does she wolf down her food?
  7. Does he like to carry things around in its mouth.
  8. Does she like to dig holes and bury things?
  9. Does he fetch thrown objects?
  10. Does she have a tendency to herd things like groups of children, cats or the neighbors cows?

If you answered yes to more than half of these questions, your dog is at least partially prey driven. Some dogs are more prey driven than other dogs. This is not a bad thing. Such a dog may be quite affectionate and entirely good-natured around you and the kids, but appear aggressive when pursuing target objects. Don't be fooled by this. A truly aggressive dog may ignore a squirrel or rabbit running by. To a dangerously aggressive dog, a squirrel may be beneath is notice, but a prey-driven dog cannot ignore a moving animal to save his life. You may train him not to chase it, but it will be a great trial for him to sit there and let the hippity-hoppity bunny wunny loo escape without at least a good chase.

Managing a Prey Driven Dog

Prey driven dogs are fun dogs by and large. They like to fetch tennis balls or anything else. They are playful and sometimes will bring toys to you for you to throw so that they can chase them. Kid and prey-driven dogs have a lot of fun together. Competitive Frisbee dogs are highly prey driven. Prey driven dogs are very easy to train. They love food and small treats will keep them working on new tricks and routines for hours. Many so-called "working" dogs are animals with a strong prey drive.

Warning: Never let your prey-driven dog actually kill anything. The chicken-killing dog is almost impossible to break of the habit once its established it. A prey-driven dog, unfamiliar with a group of humans can mistake small children and pets for legitimate prey. You want to establis consistent discipline early on with your dog to prevent accidents. A running child can easily excite a prey-driven dog and in pursuing them in play, may hurt very small children unintentionally. Fortunately, prey-driven dogs are really easy to train. They are suckers for doggie treats and will do back flips (literally) to earn a reward from you.

Testing for the Aggression-Drive

Aggression drive dogs are fiercely territorial and by territorial we include "personal space". The best way to test for this is to put the dog on the leash and walk him around the neighborhood or in a dog park where you can observe his reaction to other dogs. Give the dog the squeaky toy and then try to take it back from him. Watch for these signs of aggression:

  1. Does the dog stand his ground when meeting a strange person or dog or an unusual sound?
  2. Does it play tug-of-war to win? Does he try to bite you or nip at you if you pull the object away from him?
  3. Does he emit a deep-throated growl, raise the fur at the back of his neck at approaching dogs, people or anything that invades his space.
  4. Does he try to pick fights with other dogs?
  5. Does his bark sound "menacing" rather than excited.

Other Observable Signs:

  1. Does he growl when the doorbell rings? (Prey driven dogs will bark excitedly. Aggression-driven dogs growl or bark menacingly)
  2. Does she dislike being petted or groomed?
  3. Does he snap at people or animals that touch its food or toys or come too close to its owners?
  4. Does he act aggressively toward anyone who comes into the house or the yard who is not a family member?
  5. Do you have to lock up the dog when company comes?

It is important to understand that size had little to do with whether or not a dog is aggressive or not. In fact, many tiny little dogs are mean as second skimmings and fiercely territorial. Breed only partially influences whether or not the dog has aggressive tendencies. I've know Rottweilers that were sweethearts and poodles that should have been named Cujo! An aggression-driven dog can be a fine one-person dog if you intentd to remain a hermit and don't like people EVER coming around for a visit.

Managing the Aggression-Driven Dog

If you have visitors at all, you'll have to have a place to confine the animal during the visit. You should also understand that if it gets loose, there's a good chance someone will get bitten. For safety purposes you need to invest a lot of energy and time in training the dog. If you don't want to do that, don't get an aggressive dog.

An aggressive dog is great if you need something to protect your property, to bring down fleeing criminals, to represent your interests at an illegal dog fight, to earn you a nice lawsuit or to get you kicked out of the NFL. An aggression-driven dog, however, is not a good animal to have around children, timid owners or the elderly. Such dogs do not tolerate children's rough behavior or sudden approaches or movement within their personal space. Timid or weak owners can find themselves bullied by the dog and even threatened. They make great guard dogs, but not so great pets and terrible pack leaders. They can be the Adolph Hitler/Joseph Stalin of canines in the wrong hands. Successful management of an aggressive dog is primarily about the owner's ability to dominate the dog. If you can't do it, don't bring the dog home.

Prior trauma can create a powerful fear-drive in a dog.
Prior trauma can create a powerful fear-drive in a dog.

Testing for the Fear-Drive

Some dogs are driven by fear. Have your assistant throw the squeaky toy or ball in the direction of the dog. Walk the dog around the dog park and see how it behaves around other dogs. Clap your hands or make a loud sound and observe the dog's reaction. Look for these tell-tale signs:

  1. Does the dog shy away from objects thrown in his direction?
  2. Does she run away when she hears loud sounds?
  3. Does she shy away from strange people or animals?
  4. Does he hide behind you when confronted by an aggressive dog or even a friendly strange person who wants to pet him?
  5. Does she tremble or whine in stressfull situations?

Other Observable Traits:

If you've had the dog for some time or already own it, do you recognize any of these traits:

  1. If you scold the dog, does he cowers or turn over on his back, legs in the air? This is a sign of submission and any dog will do this before the pack leader (hopefully that's you), but if the dog does it at the slightest noise, sudden movement or raised voice, there's a problem.
  2. Does the dog hide from you when you call it?
  3. Does the dog tremble or seem anxious when you brush or otherwise groom it?
  4. Does the dog bite when frightened, cornered or anxious?
  5. Does the dog run away when stressed or urinate in a corner?

This is not a terribly useful trait for a dog and such animals don't usually survive long in the wild. Dogs with a nervous temperament most likely have experienced severe trauma, abuse or erratic training which may have brought out its natural timidity. Fear-driven behavior can be induced by bad training or abuse and may be correctable in a dog who is not naturally timid. In the dog pack, these animals are the followers, skulking around the edge of the pack; the last to the food and the favorite target of aggressive dogs looking to establish their bonifides with the rest of the pack.

Managing the Fear-Driven Dog:

A dog with a strong fear-drive requires consistent training, lots of love and a quiet environment in which to settle its nerves. Because of the strong correlation between abuse or trauma and the fear-drive, it is not recommended that you bring such a dog into a houseful of rowdy children. A patient grandma or a single person who lives a quiet life is an ideal companion for such a dog. With a fear-driven dog, the training regime will be rehabilitative. Talk to people who do dog rescues for guidance in helping heal your poor dog's shattered confidence. Such a dog is an investment in time, patience and lots of TLC. Be sure you are up to it before taking on the job.

Keeping an eye on you so you don't get far away.
Keeping an eye on you so you don't get far away.

Testing for the Pack/Rank Drive

In this test we will observe the dog for pack-driven behavior. All dogs have some level of pack driven behavior unless the dog is one of those loner, aggressive types. To test for the strength of the pack instinct requires observation in situ. You'll have to keep the dog for a while to figure it out. If you have already tested for the first three traits, you probably know whether you want to keep him or not. Determining your dog's pack-drive is all about figuring out how to train him.

Watch him for several days and answer these questions:

  1. Does he get along well and play with other dogs and people?
  2. Does she hate being left alone.
  3. Does he enjoy being groomed and petted?
  4. Does she get excited when there are visitors and jump up on them?
  5. Does he follow you around the house constantly, setting up near wherever you are working?
  6. Does she like to crawl up in your lap or sleep at the foot of the bed?
  7. Does he treat you as his leader and your kids or spouse like equals?
  8. Does she attempt to "discipline" unruly kids by barking or nipping at them when they fight or shout?
  9. Does he join in on your side (assuming you are the pack leader) when you are scolding one of the children?
  10. Does she like to be a part of human/dog piles? Does she want to be right next to you when you are settled in a chair or piled up in bed?.

Such dogs are usually well-satisified with their position in the pack, so long as their owners take their role as alphas seriously. You just want to make sure that the dog doesn't become confused by your training and come to believe there's a leadership vacuum in the pack. If he feels there isn't a strong leader, he may feel it is necessary to become the pack leader himself. In the absence of a strong pack leader, a pack driven dog will assume the rank it feels it needs to in order to bring the pack into some sort of order with which it is comfortable.

Managing the Pack-Driven Dog

Pack-driven dogs are all about rank. In a typical pack there is an Alpha (usually male) a Beta (usually female, often called the Alpha female) and then the rest of the dogs sort themselves out into some sort of loose ranking among themselves. This ranking may change over time as your kids grow up and take a stronger hand with the dog's discipline. A strongly pack-driven dog doesn't much care what its rank is so long as it clearly understands its position in the pack. Behaviors like aggression, fear and prey seeking behavior will mirror the pack's. If the pack (your family) is behaving aggressively toward someone or some thing, the dog will bark and growl and make aggressive movements toward the object of the pack's wrath. If the pack is happy, the dog is going to be dancing around having a good old time.

Observe your dog's rank-related behaviors closely. He may nip excited or rowdy dogs or children if you don't watch him, especially those he believes are beneath him in rank. The aggressive behavior is not capricious. It is corrective in intent. If the dog perceives that one of the pack, a tantrum-throwing child, for instance, is out-of-rank in the pack, he may bark or nip as a disciplinary action - just trying to help the alpha keep order is all. You should instantly react to such behavior so the dog knows that nipping the babies is not its job. A timely word from the alpha usually works very well if you are well-established as the alpha in the family "pack".

If a perceived higher-ranking human shows weakness, depression, sadness or sickness; even lying on the floor, a strongly pack-driven dog who is particularly conscious of rank may make a move to increase his rank by bullying the perceived weak pack member. This may take the form of rough play. A dog that is pack-driven who is also aggressive can be dangerous to their families if not properly trained and dominated by its owners. The dog that assumes it is the alpha in a home setting can bully family members in order to preserve its rank and keep a canine sense of order in the house.

Finally, be aware of changing pack ranks in the household. A child the dog sees as its equal will have trouble managing the dog's behavior if you suddenly make the child responsible to take the dog for a walk, for instance. If you are going to give the child new responsibilities over the dog, you need to get the child involved in the dog's training. Teaching the dog to respond to the child's commands to sit, stay, roll over or whatever is a good way to begin the process of moving the child up in rank in the dog's mind. Go with the child on several walks, allowing the child to handle the leash an prompting the child to use consistent commands and leash techniques. With you as the alpha to reinforce the child's authority, the dog is not likely to resent its change in status, unless it is one of those innately aggressive types. In that case you will have to take a firmer hand.

Fortunately, for us and despite naysayers who say it's all about food, our dogs really do learn to love us. They're well worth the time and effort.

What drives your dog?

Which drive do you think is dominant in your dog?

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