Before I work with a dog, I spend a couple of hours on the phone talking to the dog’s owner and noting down its case history. I start by asking the owner for some very basic and standard information – contact details, vet details, dog’s medical history and the like – and then we spend some time discussing the main behaviour problem. I then ask the owner another series of questions, and as we start to go through them I often detect an air of ‘why is she asking me this?’ from the other end of the phone-line. At that point I explain that although the questions may not seem to bear any relevance to the problem itself, the answers will enable me to gain an insight into the dog’s general temperament.
Temperament is an important factor in working out how best to resolve a behaviour issue. Temperament determines how an individual dog responds to the world, and so provides me with a predictable foundation on which to base a dog’s behaviour therapy and training plan.
Take the Canine Mind Temperament Test! Which set of the following temperament traits best describes your dog?
- Friendly and bold
- Takes an ‘approach and explore’ attitude to novelty
- Enthusiastically plays fetch and tug
- May be startled by sudden noise or movement but recovers and adapts
- Will tolerate close contact and petting when eating and will allow food items to be removed without objection
- Friendly but passive
- Takes a considered approach to novelty
- Willingness to fetch and tug but lacks enthusiasm
- Not easily startled by sudden noise or movement
- Will tolerate close contact and petting when eating and allows food items to be removed without objection
- Lacks the ability to problem solve and avoids novelty
- Ignores toys, half-heartedly chases a ball but then walks away, won’t take hold of a tug-toy
- Takes flight or freezes when startled and shows lingering signs of fear, may become defensive if cornered
- Moves away from food items when approached and allows their removal without objection
- Touch sensitive
- Does not habituate to change and novelty
- Intolerant of restraint
- Possessive of toys, all take and no give
- Tendency to bark when startled and may lash out
- When eating will stiffen up and/or threaten anyone who approaches or attempts to remove food items
If set 1 best describes your dog, he shows traits of stability and extroversion.
His temperament type is sanguine – ‘S-type’.
If set 2 best describes your dog, he shows traits of stability and introversion.
His temperament type is phlegmatic – ‘P-type’.
If set 3 best describes your dog, he shows traits of instability and introversion.
His temperament type is melancholic – ‘M-type’.
If set 4 best describes your dog, he shows traits of instability and extroversion.
His temperament type is choleric – ‘C-type’.
(NB ~ I have used 'he' and 'his' only for descriptive purpose, replace with 'her' and 'she' if your dog is female!)
S-type ~ It is uncommon for owners of S-type dogs to call me with a problem unless the owner is not devoting enough time to exercise or providing the dog with social, environmental and breed-specific enrichment and basic training – in other words, the dog is bored and seeking stimulating and rewarding activity (what we see as destructive and hyperactive behaviour). Occasionally S-type dogs can be overly-sensitive to sudden noise or movement, but with the right training approach and their otherwise stable temperament, this threshold can be raised.
P-type ~ It is very rare for owners of P-type dogs to call me with a problem unless the owner’s circumstances have changed and the dog is experiencing longer periods of separation than it is previously used to.
M-type ~ Fear, anxiety, nervousness, separation and compulsive behaviour issues are common with M-types. Around a third of the dogs that I am called on to help with are M-types.
C-type ~ Without a doubt, the C-type dog presents more potential for problems than the other temperament types. C-types have low stress and emotional tolerance thresholds, making them extremely sensitive to social and environmental stress that involve loss, novelty, change, aversion, threat and punishment. Excitability, frustration, impulsivity and aggression issues are common with C-types. Around two-thirds of the dogs that I am called on to help with are C-types. I often refer to them as my ‘training school drop-outs’ because many have already passed through the doors of at least one training school where inappropriate handling and training methods have done nothing to resolve the ‘bad’ behaviour (or have made it worse), or the owner has been asked to leave the class because of the dog’s persistent barking.
There are of course degrees of temperament traits and expressions of behaviour, but ultimately it’s a dog’s temperament that determines how he reacts to the world around him, and in turn, how the world reacts towards him shapes his temperament. If introverted dogs are mismanaged they can become progressively unstable and move towards M-type traits, however, under the influence of stability-enhancing training activities, introverted dogs can learn to cope more effectively with social encounters and their environment and make the shift towards P-type traits. Systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning techniques should be used to overcome fear and nervousness issues. When resolving M-type separation behaviour, it will initially be owner scent, not a food-stuffed activity-toy, that allows the dog to cope with being left alone. An M-type dog will never become extroverted, and there may be situations that the introverted dog who tends towards instability, will find stressful. Respecting an introverted dog’s social limits is therefore important if the development of M-type traits are to be discouraged.
If extroverted dogs are mismanaged – particularly if they are subjected to threats and punishment for intrusive, impulsive and excessive behaviours – they may become progressively unstable in the direction of C-type traits. C-types are prone to panic-evoked aggression. C-types react negatively to punishment – they do not learn from negative consequences and therefore require highly structured, reward-based training activities aimed at reducing social conflict and tension, alongside management strategies that minimise the provocation of reactive behaviour. This approach helps the C-type to learn to control impulses and delay gratification (waiting for the good stuff), which in time helps to make the gradual shift towards S-type traits. Rehabilitating and training a C-type dog is hard work. C-types need a lot of exercise and focused attention. Dietary changes may be necessary. Training is often an around-the-clock affair – it’s exhausting, and can at times be frustrating, but as handlers of C-types, we simply have to keep our cool and positively focus our training efforts. Many C-types end up in rescue or worse, are put to sleep, because they are misunderstood and mishandled.
Because the brain is malleable, because all dogs, whatever their temperament type, have the same underlying instincts and emotional command systems, under the right social, environmental and training conditions, desirable temperament traits can be encouraged and learned. With the right approach, the instabilities of M- and C-type temperaments can be overcome to varying degrees, with an observable move towards the stable traits of S- and P-type dogs. M-type dogs can grow in confidence and become more relaxed – they can even learn to retrieve with the enthusiasm of an S-type – and C-type dogs can learn tolerance and impulse-control through reward-based training methods.
Your dog’s behaviour is an expression of his temperament traits, and understanding his temperament type is key to how you can influence and shape his behaviour ... for the better.