In the simplest of terms, temperament could be defined as behavior towards the environment. In the broadest of terms, temperament is the collection of behavioral traits that make your dog who he is.
Like opinions regarding desirable German shepherd physical characteristics, opinions about temperament are equally varied. Most dog experts agree that some scale of temperament can be applied by testing dogs against a cache of stimuli. One end of the scale characterizes dogs in whole or part as shy, timid, fearful and aggressive. At the opposite end of the scale are dogs that just don’t care, are distant or even depressed.
Dogs' usefulness to early human civilizations must have evolved when the two developed a working relationship that included a high degree of trust. Early man certainly would have made no effort to domesticate dogs if aggression could not have been tempered.
A human-canine work relationship, regardless of the duty, is far more efficient if the dog trusts the handler. When not at work, a friendly and relaxed dog allows for faster development of trust, which directly translates to predictability from the dog in the work environment. A dog who is hair-trigger dangerous unless all measures of restraint are applied is a complete nuisance.
Temperament testing methods vary. Typically with working dogs, the results are used to vet prospects for appropriate service. An indifferent puppy could prove to be the perfect dog for an individual craving a training challenge. With good effort, this same dog may prove to be a whole new animal, driven by work or sport that may have sparked his interest.
A consistently shy or nervous puppy most likely will not make the best candidate for K9 duties. These dog temperaments typically bring about nervous aggression. They may also be described as sharp, hard or both. I believe a dog can be friendly and good-natured with definite sharpness and/or hardness in a working environment.
The same sharpness and courage that manifests correctly as aggression for protection, carries over to other work (e.g., herding, tracking, retrieving) as drive and persistence.
Our dog Kohl is good-natured and friendly. He is typically relaxed save for a few excitement triggers he has. He is sharp in response to certain other dogs, black bear and cats that resemble black bear.
On-leash when confronted by a bold dog he responds aggressively and is hard against correction. When playing ball he is sharp to the degree that his full attention is on either the ball or the ball thrower. If other dogs are in the game, his sharpness is directed to any dog that thinks about working his ball except for the Lab I mentioned in my comments on dog work.
He never barks at strangers he sees from the window as they walk by. The doorstep is a different story though; all within earshot are alerted that there is someone at the door. If the visitor is known, redirecting his friendly excitement takes some effort and patience.
Very few strange people hold Kohl’s attention while walking on-leash. He ignores most people, but from time to time he deems certain people suspicious and lasers his attention on them until all is clear.
Kohl certainly has high-energy. Although temperament is a function of the chronic energy level of the dog, a dog described as having “high-energy” does not necessarily define the behaviors for which the energy is being applied.
Concerted testing and observations provide a fairly accurate baseline from which to judge a puppy’s temperament. Just prior to 5-weeks of age, our puppies all show some drive for dominance over their littermates, humans, and other dogs. There is a decisive change that occurs just after the needle teeth arrive where exploratory biting replaces sucking and licking. In short order, sharp counter bites from littermates check even the most dominant. Through these encounters, temperament is being formed.
The pups learn to avoid certain siblings, how to react when accosted, and test how to approach unknown dogs. Most of the experiences are different and individual dogs develop unique responses to similar stimuli.
Fortunately we have had well timed decent weather recently. This allowed us to acclimate the litter to the big outside world with few surprises. As the weather worsens, the puppies’ tolerance for gusty winds and light rain improves quickly.
We have gradually introduced new objects, sounds and environments to the puppies. Our location in downtown Ketchikan (a pseudo-urban environment) allows for a plethora of stimuli to the pups from the apparent comfort of the yard. Every hot rod and Harley-Davidson motorcycle that passes through the tunnel below our home must do so at full throttle; certainly an ear opener for a puppy. Added to the arbitrary list of sounds the litter has adjusted to are float planes wailing to get airborne, sirens from the downtown fire department’s engines, and repeated hammer blows from pile driving and other machinery at the main dock.
Proper acclimation to various environmental stimuli and effective dog handling will aid in the support of a workable temperament. For each alarming but benign stimulus that results in no ill effect to the puppy, added courage emboldens them. Our intended results are happy, balanced, and well-adjusted dogs.
Next: Puppy update