How Do You Define a Dog’s Temperament?

March 9, 2016
You Are Not Doing Him Any Favors
March 11, 2016

How Do You Define a Dog’s Temperament?

The most important step in buying a puppy or adopting a dog from a rescue organization is also the step most often skipped. And, many times, even when this critical step is taken, it is completely misunderstood. This step is having an understanding of the temperament of the dog. Understanding the complex nature of the dog’s temperament is what we are going to explore, and I will apologize now for the length of this article and the amount of information jammed into it. However, if one is to truly understand the dog, a fairly comprehensive look at the temperament is needed. A simple definition of a dog’s temperament is impossible because there is nothing simple about it, but if I had to pack the definition into one sentence it would be something like this.

The inherited, unchangeable temperament of the dog is his complete emotional and psychological make-up, interacting with his level of drive, that governs how he responds to every event in his life, and every aspect of this temperament is genetically set at birth.

This is a very simple definition, and the intent of this article is to unpack what can be a very complex topic and make it as easy as possible to understand, using plain English and simple illustrations so that the reader will be able to take this information and apply it to any dog with any history. When the temperament of the dog is understood, every step of dog ownership is made easier.

Additionally, there are two steps that must be taken by the reader in order for the information in this article to have the intended result. First of all, every individual aspect of a dog’s temperament is part of a bigger picture. In order for this information to be of help, this article should be read in its entirety. Secondly, one can only help the dog if an honest evaluation is made regarding the temperament. In my many years of training dogs and their owners, one of the biggest roadblocks that I run into on a regular basis is an owner who refuses to accurately interpret his dog, opting instead to see the dog for what he wants him to be.

There is no “order of importance” when it comes to defining the different aspects of a dog’s temperament since everyone has their own idea as to what they want in a dog. The characteristics I like in a dog will undoubtedly be completely different from what someone else is looking for. Because of this, when I describe the parts of the temperament, it is done in an order that simply makes it easy to understand. I will let the reader determine any order of importance.

In describing the temperament, I am going to cover one part of it at a time. In reality, the individual components of a dog’s temperament often interact with and affect one another, influencing the way the dog will respond to events in his life. This interaction only makes sense once each part of the temperament is understood. Because of this, describing the way that this interaction happens will be saved for later in this article, after a description of the individual parts of the temperament has been covered. Additionally, a dog with a bad past, such as a stray fighting to survive on the streets, can present quite a challenge when it comes to interpreting the temperament, since survival skills and other habits learned on the street will affect that interpretation.

One final note before we get started. After reading this article, a student of dog phsycology might observe that this is not a completely exhaustive treatment of a dog’s entire temperament, and that would be correct. It is not my intention to write a book. My intention is to give a thorough examination of the temperament as it relates to selection, training, and understanding the dog, whether he is a puppy with a clean record or an adult stray that has been in and out of shelters and homes for his entire life. I will also assign meanings to certian words that Webster’s Dictionary may differ slightly on, but when I do that, I will make it clear what my definition of that word is.

We are first going look at the three main drives of a dog and how they relate to dog ownership, and when we use the term, “drive”, we want to have a clear understanding of what the word means. “Drive is an inherited, biologically determined urge to attain a goal or satisfy a need.” As it is with every aspect of his temperament, he is born with it.


The Social Drive of a dog is present at birth. This is the drive that causes the puppy to want to belong to his pack, whether the pack consists of the other puppies in his litter or the humans in his family. Later in his puppy-hood it will also partly govern how he responds to those outside of his pack. When he is born it is not yet fully developed, but it will develop very rapidly. The first display of social drive is seen when puppies instinctively huddle together for security. As they move through their first weeks of life they generally stick together and stay close to Mom. As they grow and become more aware of their surrounding environment, one can begin to identify individual characteristics pertaining to the social drive.

The puppy that spends most of his time apart from his Mom and littermates, never greeting people who come to visit, has a lower social drive than his brothers and sisters that constantly are together and greet every visitor to the house. A puppy or dog with a low social drive does not require much attention and may have a hard time bonding to a new family. A by-product of good training is that it develops a strong bond between dog and owner, and a dog with a low social drive will be a bigger training challenge because he really doesn’t need to bond.

High social drive is seen in the puppy or dog that wants constant attention and constant closeness to the pack. You can be out of the house for two minutes, and when you return he acts like he hasn’t seen you for a month. He loves going on a walk with you, and he is just as happy hanging out with you while you read a book. This high social drive will cause him to bond even more if he receives correct training. The desire to be “part of the pack” is very strong. It should be noted that the dog that has high social drive doesn’t necessarily need to act like a madman whenever he sees you. A calm and low-key dog can have a very high social drive, and this is seen more in the closeness of his bond rather that how crazy he acts.

When a dog appears to have a high social drive, we need to look at this drive with a discerning eye. Some dogs with moderate, or even low social drives can seem to be very high in this drive, and the culprit in this confusion is usually a very insecure temperament. This characteristic will be covered in more detail later on in this article, but the dog that attaches himself to the family out of insecurity wants to be close to them out of a fear of being alone. The dog with a healthy and high social drive attaches himself to the family out of a strong desire to be with them. This will be an easier distinction to make as we move through the other characteristics of the temperament.

Some dogs have what I call an inward only social drive. This means that, as far as the pack is concerned, his social drive is healthy (not driven by insecurity). It can be low, normal, or high, but it is healthy. As far as anyone outside of his pack is concerned, he has no interest in them at all. As far as he is concerned, there is no need for anyone outside of his pack to even exist. He is not aggressive or fearful of them, he just has no need for them.

Then there are dogs that have both an inward and outward social drive. They love everyone. They usually know who their pack is, but they want to be friends with everyone they meet. All are welcome. Many Labrador retriever owners are nodding their heads up and down in agreement as they read this.


What many call the prey, or play drive, I call the go and get drive, and it makes him want to GO! This is a drive that develops early in puppy-hood, although not as quickly as the social drive. When the puppy chases his littermates, or chases an old sock being dragged around on the ground by one of his human pack mates, this is the drive that is causing him to go. Later in life, when he chases the cat, looks for his ball in the back yard, or engages in play with his owner, he is exhibiting his go and get drive. The go and get drive is also the drive that will largely determine how much exercise your dog will need.

In reality, there are three distinct “branches” to his go and get drive. All three are unique, but they are all related, and they all have a component that tells him to go! The names we will call these three branches are his prey drive, his play drive, and his hunting drive. Once again, these drives are all related, and they all tell the dog to go.

Prey Drive – Prey drive can best be described as the drive in a dog to pursue something and capture it with his mouth. It can be a ball, a squeak toy, a cat, or a girl’s pony-tail. A dog high in prey drive will be very stimulated by movement. The sudden toss of a ball, or the cat that darts out from under the bush, will cause the prey dog to go from zero to full speed in the blink of an eye. And his pursuit is with the goal of capturing whatever it is that he is chasing.

This is also the drive he is exhibiting when he completely re-arranges your household belongings when you leave him loose in the house while you are gone for a few hours. And this drive will not be satisfied by taking him on a walk around the block. He needs to run, and he needs to catch what he is chasing. If he has a lot of prey drive, he cannot help it, and it is the responsibility of his Leader to give him a productive outlet for his energy.

A component of his prey drive that is normally thought of only in connection with his defense drive is his level of aggression. This is called his prey aggression and, like his level of prey drive, it is inherited. Prey aggression is seen in what he does with prey when he catches it, or how he reacts when you play tug with him. If his toy is a knotted rope and he shakes it furiously when he gets it, he is displaying prey aggression. Likewise, if you play tug with him and he growls and shakes the toy like he is trying to break it in half, you are experiencing prey aggression.

Correct prey aggression is not aggression aimed at his Leader when playing, or aggression aimed at a stranger walking up the driveway. It is a very normal part of his overall temperament, and with a properly trained dog, letting him express it in a game of fetch or tug is a great outlet for a drive he cannot help having.

Play Drive – Play drive is exactly what the words imply. He wants to play, and toys are not needed. His social drive is seen here because he wants to be with you, and the play drive is seen in the way he wants to interact with you. He wants to engage in physical activity. Owners of more that one dog will see play drive if their dogs play with each other. It can be wrestling, chasing each other, or rolling around on the ground. Correct play drive does not result in a fight, although many times it can sound pretty wild.

Play drive can become out of control if a dog is allowed to become too physical with the humans playing with him. It is not a good idea to allow a dog to become too rough in play as he can begin to exhibit dominance behavior with his humans, not to mention torn clothing and bruised arms. Play is healthy for a dog with high play drive as long as it can be safely channeled into chase or tug should the dog begin to get too rough.

Hunting Drive – Hunting drive is seen in the desire a dog has to find something that he cannot detect. He can’t see, hear, or smell it, but he knows it is out there! He charges around the back yard in search of………… something. Many owners of dogs high in hunting drive think that their dogs are crazy. “What in the world is he looking for?” It is a smart owner who channels this dog’s drive by making games out of it. Taking the dog inside, hiding his favorite toy in the back yard, and then turning his maniac loose to burn off his energy searching the yard until he finds his prize.

This is a drive that can, if not properly channeled, get the dog into all kinds of trouble if left to his own. He won’t need anything to stimulate his drive, he will just start in on his mission to find something, and woe to any plants, hoses, or sprinkler wires that get in his way.

To summarize, the go and get drive in a dog makes him want to go, and the owner of the dog high in this drive has a responsibility to find productive ways to allow the dog to burn off his energy. To go to a trainer with the complaint of a “crazy dog” and expect a few commands to calm him down while not providing proper exercise is absurd and completely unfair to the dog. Do stuff with him!! Every day. If you won’t, your dog got the wrong owner. This drive needs to be used. (see article ‘My philosophy on Dog Training)


I call the defense drive in a dog the “misunderstood drive.” It is a drive that is usually easy to see, but difficult to understand and evaluate. Simply put, the defense drive is the drive that tells the dog that something is a threat. It doesn’t matter if it really is no threat at all. It only matters what the dog perceives to be a threat. If he thinks it’s a threat, then to him, it is. And with the raw, untrained dog there are only two possible responses, both seeking to eliminate the threat. His first choice is to avoid, to run from it. His second choice of action is to eliminate the threat by charging it, by showing aggression.

One of the difficulties in understanding this drive is the way that it develops. While the social and go get drives develop rapidly in a puppy, the defense drive takes about three and one half years to fully develop. And as the drive develops (as he gets more and more of it) there are typically two “changes” that the dog appears to go through. First of all, more and more things appear to him to be threats. Secondly, as his drive develops and strengthens, he may avoid less often and aggressively charge more often.

Some dogs high in defense drive and low in confidence and aggression will avoid perceived threats for their entire life, only becoming aggressive if backed into a corner and thereby losing avoidance as an option. The final mature behavior of a puppy high in defense drive cannot always be predicted as there are other related factors in the temperament that influence how the defense drive matures, but there is one unavoidable fact concerning the puppy showing high levels of defense at a young age. He is off to a rough start because his drive is just beginning to develop.

It is normal for a young puppy to be intimidated by the many new things that this world has to offer. We don’t jump to the conclusion that a puppy is defensive because he backed up when Uncle Joe came charging into the room. It is hard for someone not used to “reading” puppies to correctly interpret truly defensive behavior. Additionally, the adult dog that was living on the streets may have been aggressively chased by other dogs and humans as he tried to survive, making him appear more defensive than he might be.

Real defensive behavior can be more easily and accurately identified by observing behavior over time, looking for a pattern to develop. Identifying this in a young puppy will be much easier than trying to evaluate a rescued adult dog. The young puppy doesn’t have bad experiences that have pushed him into certian drives. He only has his temperament to drive him. If he continues to avoid social contacts that are presented to him in a low-key, non-threatening way, he is being put into his defense drive. Remember that his drive is just getting started during puppy-hood. There is a lot more to come.

The way his defense drive ultimately matures is somewhat dependent on some other qualities in his overall temperament. These interactions will be covered as we go along. There is also a point to consider as we discuss this very important drive. It is not the job of training to change the temperament of the dog. That cannot be done. Good training will teach the dog to be safe and under control when properly handled by his Leader, but always within the framework of his inherited temperament.


Every dog has what is known as his dominant drive. This does not necessarily refer to the drive that he seems to have the most of. This refers to the drive that he “defaults” to when placed into a new or stressful situation. To give a simple illustration, picture three puppies, littermates that are four months old, resting together at the top of your driveway. A stranger comes casually walking up the driveway, presenting no real threat or emotion at all. The first puppy immediately runs up to him to say, “Hi!” This puppy is being dominated by his social drive. The second puppy runs to his favorite ball, grabs it, and runs to the stranger, hoping to have a play session. This puppy is being dominated by his “go and get” drive. The third puppy slowly back up, growls, and the hair on his back and neck stands up. This puppy is defense dominant.

You cannot identify a dog’s dominant drive by observing him in a comfortable and familiar environment. Many dog owners believe that their dog is socially safe based soley on the behavior exhibited around the family members that he already knows. He must be placed in a new environment with social contacts that are new to him. A first visit to the veterinarian’s office will many times reveal behavior not seen before.

Some dogs are harder to evaluate based on what can appear to be an unpredictable response to new situations. He may be fine with one new social contact and act aggressively or show avoidance toward another that seems to be the same as the first. When this happens, there is always something that was different. Dogs can see things in environments and people that we don’t see. Additionally, some dogs are so balanced in their drives that it can take some time to determine a dominant drive. There are other factors in a dog’s temperament that can make this evaluation difficult, and they will be covered as we get a bit deeper into our study.


Sensitivity is not a drive. It is a characteristic that covers all of the drives, much as an umbrella covers whoever is standing under it. Sensitivity is a reaction, or a lack thereof, to anything and everything in a dog’s environment, and there are different ways that it can present itself. The dog that notices everything is very sensitive. The dog that will sleep through a magnitude 7.0 earthquake or a loud and raucous party is not very sensitive.

There are three different kinds of stimulants that will reveal a dog’s level of sensitivity. The first, and most common stimulant is a visual stimulant, something that a dog sees. A new person walking into the house, a crazy dog encountered on the evening walk, or the branches of a bush flapping in the wind are examples of visual stimulants. The second is an audible stimulant, something the dog hears. Fireworks on the 4th of July, the trash truck rumbling by, or a door loudly slamming are examples of audible stimulants. The third is tactile, or touch stimulation. This is seen in how a dog responds to being touched, usually in certain parts of his body. The feet, head, and rump are common areas that will elicit a response from a touch sensitive dog, and it is usually worse when a stranger is the culprit. Going to the vet’s office for a nail trim can be quite a stressful event for this dog.

Sensitivity is present in puppies as soon as they are able to discern things in their environment. It can be seen in the way they behave and respond every time they explore and discover something new. It can also become more pronounced as a puppy matures into a dog if he is consistently left on his own in an environment that is stimulating him while offering no correct guidance on how to properly respond. Sensitivity is the characteristic that drives reinforcement in a dog’s behavior. The more sensitive he is, the faster his behavior – good or bad, wanted or un-wantad – becomes reinforced.


Stability is the platform that everything in a dog’s temperament stands on. Regardless of which drive dominates a dog or how sensitive he is, if his platform is stable (if his temperament is solid) he will be able, if raised properly, to “handle himself” and deal with all of the curve balls that life may throw at him. If his temperament is weak and unstable, life will be hard for him, and good training may yeild less than desired results.

Stability (or instability) doesn’t have a development curve like the drives do in a young puppy. It is just there. It is his drives going through their development period that may cause the puppy to appear to “change” as he matures into a dog. Likewise, it is the stability of the temperament that either allows or does not allow the rescued dog with a bad past to rehabilitate.


Now that we have all of the important parts of the dog’s temperament under our belts, it is time to discuss how all of these drives and characteristics work together to cause a dog to behave the way he does. I will preface this section by saying that this is not a training article to tell the reader how to fix a multitude of problems in a dog. That would require a book (a thick one at that), and that is not the goal of this article. I am pointing out why he behaves the way he does, and this is the first step toward understanding, training, and rehabilitating a dog.

The drives and characteristics that make up a dog’s temperament do not always display themselves independently. In fact, much of the behavior that a dog exhibits is an interaction between two or more parts of the temperament. A very common interaction occurs between the social and defense drives, driven by the level of sensitivity. A defense dominant dog will almost always have a high level of sensitivity. Since he feels that many things “out there” are threatening, he is usually on high alert (sensitive) so he knows where the next threat is coming from.

If his social drive is also high, he may find himself in social situations that can put him into great conflict. He may see someone he would like to say “Hi” to (social drive), and walk right up to the person as if he were a socially dominant dog. However, his sensitivity is working overtime and, when the person reaches to pet him, his sensitivity alerts him to the movement and he switches immediately into his defense drive. He may respond by quickly retreating (avoidance) or by biting (aggression). Both are defense drive responses, driven by his sensitivity, that were triggered by either the movement of the person’s hand toward him, or from something as simple (to us) as the person making eye contact with the dog.

Additionally, a dog can do what we call “loading”, and this can take place in any drive. When a dog is put into a drive by a stimulant but is unable to express that drive, he can begin to feel pressure. That pressure can continue to build inside of him while giving very little outward indication that he is getting ready to explode. He is loading, and eventually he will have to unload. In a social dominant dog this can be seen as he sits quietly for 30 minutes in the presence of a new person, all the time loading on the inside. When the person suddenly moves (the trigger), he cannot hold it inside any longer and, in a flash, is all over the person, happy as can be. He is unloading his pent up social energy that has been building up for the last half hour. This same process can take place in his go get drive and his defense drive as well.

To best understand how the temperament matures, two common examples of how behavior develops will be given. These examples may or may not cover the exact situation every reader of this article is experiencing, but understanding how life can affect a dog’s temperament in these examples will help in evaluating any dog. I will begin by using perhaps the most common example of a home environment and how it affects the development of a dog’s temperament.

Scenario One

Rocky is an eight month old Labrador retriever that is high in both his go-get drive and his social drive. He does have some defense drive but it really hasn’t developed enough to be noticed by his owners. He doesn’t appear to be overly sensitive since nothing really seems to bother him and, because of that, one would correctly conclude that his temperament is pretty stable. Rocky has what would be considered to be a well-balanced temperament, and anyone seeing him for the first time would consider him to be a nice puppy. A bit wild, but a nice puppy.

Since things at home and work have gotten busy, Rocky is spending more of his time outside. Now that his morning walks have disappeared, Rocky starts each day with a full tank of gas and no real direction as to how he should use it. With an elementary school just down the street, Rocky starts trying to get the kids that walk by his house every morning and afternoon to engage him in some sort of activity. The kids always seem to be in a hurry and never come to play. In an attempt to get their attention, Rocky begins to bark at them as they go by. His barking doesn’t get them to come to the fence, but they do start to respond. Sometimes they just talk to him as they walk by, but sometimes they yell at him and tease him.

As the days and weeks go by, Rocky begins to get very frustrated. His drives are never fulfilled, and the restraint that the fence provides just makes him try harder to get to the kids. (to fully understand what restraint does to a dog, see the article ‘Restraint – the big enemy of training’) As time continues to pass, Rocky’s defense drive has been slowly but surely developing. His frustration is showing signs of becoming aggression. His sensitivity has also become more pronounced because his drives are constantly being stimulated, but they are never fulfilled. His owners ignore their neighbors concerns that Rocky is barking more and more and that he seems to be acting a bit aggressively at the fence as the kids go by. They know that he is really just a happy, friendly dog. To make matters worse, because of Rocky’s wild behavior around their own kids, he has now become pretty much an outside dog.

As Rocky enters young adulthood, his defense drive has increased to the point where he acts aggressively toward anyone walking by his yard. His level of inherited defense drive isn’t really very high, but the constant stimulation, coupled with the lack of fulfillment and direction, has caused him to become a very frustrated young dog. He has been frustrated in his drives for many months now, and the occasional game of fetch that his owners play with him in the back yard comes nowhere near to fulfilling him. And he has been in charge of his own drives for too long now for the occasional commands his owners yell at him to have any meaning.

Then one morning, when the kids are teasing him more than usual, something unexpected happens. As Rocky is working his way down the fence, he hits the gate that someone forgot to latch. The gate pops open. This causes everything to change. His tormentors are suddenly faced with what has appeared to them to be an aggressive dog. They all run. Rocky, high in drive and very frustrated, is stimulated in his prey drive as the kids run, and he gives chase. Fueled by months of frustration, he catches the slowest kid and, in an act of prey aggression, bites him in the back of his leg. Aided by the motion of the kid’s legs, the bite causes lacerations that will require a number of stitches.

Who is to fault in this all too common scenario? Should Rocky be branded a vicious dog? Or should he be “put down”? If you were a witness to this one act on Rocky’s part, without knowing what led up to it over the previous months, what would you think? In this scenario, Rocky, like many dogs in similar homes, is a normal dog with a normal temperament. His upbringing was surrendered to the environment, and he became thoroughly “trained”. When a dog is put into this kind of environment, the way he learns to behave is not his fault. His owners will suffer any monetary damages, but he will be the one to suffer the physical consequence of potentially losing his home, or even his life.

Scenario Two

Let us now look at another very common scenario that is completely different from Rocky’s story. We will look at the life of Penny. Penny was a small mixed Chihuahua that was about six years old. No one knew exactly how old she was because the shelter she spent 16 months in found her living on the streets, starving and terrified. They didn’t know how long she had been a stray, but she had been “out there” long enough to look like a skeleton, and nobody ever came looking for her. She had some scars on her body, either from other dogs on the streets, or an abusive home.

The people who ran the shelter quickly realized that they couldn’t let any other dogs close to Penny. She was very afraid, and would try to hide in the back of her cage whenever another dog went by. If the dog stopped to investigate, Penny would sound very aggressive, but always from the back of her cage. Because of this, the people at the shelter concluded that she had probably been chased and attacked by other stray dogs while living on the street.

When Penny finally was adopted, she was at a healthy weight, but her behavior was pretty much the same. Her new owners were told about her past, but they fell in love with her as soon as they saw her and vowed to work with her on the issues that troubled her. Once at home, Penny bonded with her new mom and dad very quickly. Toward her new owners she was high in her social and go and get drive and would play with mom and dad for hours. Her new owners loved her very much and felt bad about the past she had, so they did everything they could to protect her from anything that seemed to be a threat. When she hid from house guests and barked furiously at dogs she saw on a walk, her new owners understood, explaining to everyone that it was because she had a bad past.

As Penny grew more accustomed to her new family and more comfortable in her new environment, she began to show less avoidance and more aggression toward people who came to visit. Her owners would try to tell her that it was ok, but they never tried too hard because, after all, people in her past had been mean to her, and that justified her aggression. As she became more and more reinforced in her behavior, it got to the point where nobody outside of her family could touch her. Then it was time for the annual visit back east to the Grandparents house. Since none of their friends could handle her, Penny would have to stay at a boarding facility for two weeks. Her owners tried to reassure the people who ran the facility. “Don’t worry”, they said. “She is a rescued dog. She’s still a bit shy with people she doesn’t know, but we are working on it.”

Penny’s owners had been working on it. They had worked hard on allowing her to reinforce defensive behaviors, first learned during her time living on the streets, then perfected in her new home. They did nothing to help her deal with the stresses that life inevitably has to offer. They passively stood to the side and allowed the environment to dictate scenarios to Penny, and they allowed her temperament and past life experiences to dictate her responses. Now, at the boarding facility, she would have no choice but to be handled by strangers. Undoubtedly, this was going to be an extremely stressful two weeks for her, and a potential risk to the workers at the boarding facility.


The temperament of a dog is inherited. It is a product of breeding and you cannot change it. This is why we tell people that the most important decision in getting a puppy or adult dog has nothing to do with how cute he is or what color he is. It is all about his temperament. While it cannot be changed, there is a great deal that can be done with it. Make no mistake, a great deal will be done with his temperament. If not by the dog’s new owners, it will be done by the environment. And as we have seen, the environment is a very thorough trainer.

For a rescued dog with a bad past, the environmental training he has received can become very deeply ingrained into his behavior in a short period of time, especially if he is sensitive. The street dog has not only learned behaviors that can get him into trouble at home, he is convinced that the behaviors learned are necessary for his survival. It will take a lot of structure, correct training, patience, and directed exercise to help him overcome his past. This is a process that will sometimes take years to achieve.

It is completely up to the owner to take charge of the raising and training of his dog. This is the great responsibility of dog ownership. Since training will happen no matter what, it is in the best interest of the dog to have the training be such that he learns to live a happy, fulfilled, and stress free life, all within the framework of his temperament.

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