Temperament is considered by breeders and experienced dog owners on a daily basis. To many of us, it’s one of the essential breeding considerations. But for the first-time or average dog owner, it can be a new concept. What, exactly, is temperament, and why is it important?
A dog’s temperament is the aspect of his personality that is innate. It determines how he responds to the world around him, and is predominantly driven by genetics.
In other words, a dog’s temperament is what makes him who he is, and for purposes of simplifying this discussion, he gets that mostly from his mom and dad. For those well-versed in psychology, we’re very near the nature end of the nature vs. nurture debate. Other things to know about temperament:
- The components of a dog’s temperament are complex
- The element of inheritance is even more complex
- The study of temperament cannot be learned overnight
- There are many different ways to test temperament
- Temperament is not graded on a pass or fail basis
- Temperament should not be oversimplified as good or bad
- Temperament can only be predicted by testing; it is not a foolproof measure
- Temperament is not the be all end all (but we’ll cover socialization and training in a separate post)
Barrett Weimaraners are thoroughly temperament tested. We casually observe for distinguishable temperament traits as early as three weeks. At seven weeks of age, a formal evaluation is conducted for each puppy with results contributing to placement decisions. (In some cases, puppies that we keep are tested again at 12 weeks and 16 weeks depending on what the litter was bred for.) Our current method is a hybrid of different tests, including but not limited to the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test and the Avidog Puppy Evaluation Test.
The following is an oversimplified analogy to help provide the prospective puppy owner with an overview of temperament traits, and how that impacts puppy selection.
Think of temperament elements as the different types of fruit in a bowl.
- Strawberries represent scent focus
- A green strawberry represents weak scent focus, a red strawberry represents strong scent focus
- Mangoes represent food desire
- A dry mango represents weak food desire, a juicy mango represents strong food desire
- Peaches represent task focus
- An unripe peach represents weak focus, a ripe peach represents strong focus
Now let’s imagine for a moment that I’m breeding a litter for hunting ability. And in this litter, I have three puppies. Each puppy is carrying a basket of fruit. But wait. The basket is covered, and the only way to see what’s inside the basket is to temperament test the puppies. So that’s what we do.
- Puppy A is carrying a basket full of ripe and succulent peaches, but his mangoes are dry and his strawberries are green.
- Puppy B is carrying a basket full of juicy mangoes, but his peaches aren’t ripe and his strawberries are green.
- Puppy C is carrying a basket full of red, ripe strawberries, but his mangoes are dry and his peaches aren’t ripe.
Now let’s assume that there are three people on the interest list for these three puppies:
- Owner A does competitive agility and needs a puppy that will enjoy the sport.
- Owner B is a hunter and needs a puppy who has a strong nose.
- Owner C is looking for a companion puppy.
Who gets which puppy, and why?!?!?!
Puppy with innate focus = Agility home. Reason: All else being equal, the puppy with the innate task focus has an advantage over other puppies that don’t in the sport of agility, because agility requires great task focus. In other words, it’s one less trait to have to encourage and develop in this dog going forward; he’s a natural.
Puppy with best scent focus = Hunting home. Reason: All else being equal, the puppy with the best scent focus has an advantage over other puppies that don’t because when it comes to hunting, that natural ability in scent focus could be the difference in finding that quail that’s buried deep in cover, or not.
Puppy with best food desire = Companion home. Reason: The other puppies were earmarked for the agility home and the hunting home, because those homes were hoping to get dogs that would serve a special purpose. In this scenario, the leftover puppy is the one who gets placed in the companion home.
Did I just confess that the companion home was getting the leftover puppy that nobody else wanted?
Yes. But hear me out:
If you’re not going to hunt over your dog, should it really matter to you how great his nose is? If you’re not going to compete in sporting events with your dog, should it really matter to you how much focus he has? Actually, I would argue that the average/first time puppy owner shouldn’t have the puppy with an insane amount of focus. This temperament trait is one that needs to be channeled. In the proper environment (for example, an agility home that can zero in on that capability), it will make him a great dog. In another environment, this focus is the same trait that can drive a dog to tear up an entire chair… all because one. little. piece. of. kibble. fell under the cushion, and he just. had. to. have. it. HAD TO. #sorrymom
Going back to the companion/pet home. That family is getting a puppy that was tested to have a very high level of food desire. As the breeder, I’m going to tell this family that their puppy is very food motivated, and I’m going to ask them to use that trait to their advantage. In other words, from the moment they bring their puppy home, they should be lining their pockets with treats, and every single time that puppy goes outside to potty, they’re going to celebrate that moment by giving that puppy a cookie. In exchange, that puppy is going to think, I JUST GOT FOOD FOR PEEING OUTSIDE, and because we know he’s food motivated, chances are better that he’ll remember this the next time he needs to potty, and he’ll run outside to do it because he’ll GET A COOKIE!!!! [See also: Weimaraners are smart.] I will also caution this family to prevent their Weimaraner from learning the art of counter surfing, because once you open that Pandora’s box, the FIRST time you don’t pay attention will also be that FIRST time your entire batch of peanut butter cookies go missing. (And it won’t be the LAST time, either. Because, Weimaraners.)
This is my kitchen. These WERE my cookies. They’re now all gone. #weimcrime
Oh, and remember, this puppy also doesn’t have a strong sense of focus (he’s the one with the basket of non-ripe peaches). He may get easily distracted. Maybe this trait will strengthen on it’s own as he grows; maybe it won’t. Knowing that this needs to be honed, this puppy will also being going home with a list of exercises (both training and socialization) to help make better at what doesn’t come to him naturally.
We can talk through scenarios ad nauseum, but I’ll stop here.
In summary, temperament testing is a powerful tool to help breeders determine a dog’s individual strength and weaknesses, and contributes greatly to making placement decisions. This data is also passed along to the new owners so they have a better understanding of the dog they’re going to bring home.
From the opening paragraph of the Weimaraner Breed Standard: He should present a picture of grace, speed, stamina, alertness and balance… From the temperament section: The temperament should be friendly, fearless, alert, and obedient.
(Above photo: Jynni from the 2019 Swede x LadyBug litter during her temperament test. She has a confident tail, and zero hesitation in grabbing the retrieve object.)
These puppies all “look the same.” Temperament testing is what led us to choose Orange Girl back in 2017. You can read here to see what she’s like today.
All this to say: Please find a breeder who understands what temperament is and uses testing results as part of their evaluation in placing their puppies. Otherwise, no one will be preparing you for the cookie monster that you may be up against. Thank you thank you thank you! Signed, responsible breeders everywhere. 🙂