by Vicki DeGruy, Wisconsin Chow
Today I'm going to cover a topic
that's critically important to breed rescue -- temperament and
temperament evaluation. Temperament is equally important to dog
breeders so even if you're not a rescuer, I think you'll still get
something out of it.
Purpose of rescue &
First of all, why do we rescue?
What's the purpose of it? The answer's obvious - to save canine lives.
Why do we breed? That's obvious,
too - to create canine lives.
That's the easy part. Anybody can
do that. But we can't keep all these lives for ourselves so the next
thing is to find good homes for them. That's the hard part. To be
successful in rescue or breeding, and this is where breeders and
rescuers probably have the most in common, we need to provide good
pets for good people. If the dogs we're trying to place aren't good
pets, nobody's going to want them.
Who are we adopting to?
We don't like to think of rescue
or dog breeding as a business but a lot of business concepts apply
here. To be successful, a business has to know the answers to two very
important questions: 1) what kind of people want our product? and 2)
what kind of product do these people want? You'll have an easier time
defining what good temperament means to you if you target the market
you're "selling" to and understand what that market wants.
So who are we adopting to? In my
experience, the average people looking for pet dogs are young married
couples with a few small children between the ages of 1 and 8. Both
spouses work, they have friends and relatives over a lot, it's a busy
household. Another large group are the newly marrieds who'll be having
kids in the next few years. If they had a dog before, it was a common
popular breed like a Cocker or a Lab and it was most likely the one
that they grew up with as children - Ol' Shep that they remember with
rose-colored glasses. They don't have much training experience because
Ol' Shep was born already knowing everything.
What people want in a pet
Now that we know who we're
dealing with, what is they want? What is their idea of a good
Families like this need a stable
dog that doesn't startle or snap easily, is confident enough to handle
the noise and bustle of a busy home, is protective yet smart enough to
tell the difference between the average stranger and a genuine threat.
He shouldn't have to tolerate abuse from children but his reaction
should be to walk away, not growl or bite. He should be able to
tolerate handling from strangers while he's on walks, at the vet,
groomer or boarding kennel. He needs to be loyal but adaptable enough
to adjust to a stay in a boarding kennel or with a friend while the
family goes on vacation.
To an extent, a good temperament
can be breed specific - what's considered good in your breed might not
be good in mine. There are still a lot of generalizations we can make,
though, that apply to almost every breed: a dog with a good
temperament is happy and cheerful, he's trusting and has an optimistic
outlook on life.
He enjoys human companionship, he
wants to be near people and he's eager to please. He looks to people
for direction and can accept appropriate discipline. There's room for
breed specific variation in all these characteristics but overall,
they meet most breeds' standards for good temperament without
comprising the breed's basic nature.
There's one thing people want
most in a pet dog and that's good temperament. They're willing to
compromise on breed, size, sex, age, appearance, intelligence and
certain aspects of behavior but not temperament. They demand a dog
that's friendly, reliable, trainable and above all, safe to handle and
Now that we understand
"good" temperament, what is a "bad" one? Truly
evil dogs are rare but many dogs have problems that interfere with
their ability to be good pets.
The most common temperament
problems I see are shyness, fear-biting, various forms of aggression
and dominance. These problems can be man-made or inherited. Man-made
problems occur from abuse, improper training or a lack of any training
or socialization. Some man-made problems can be corrected with
appropriate training and good care.
Inherited problems are there for
the duration. Personality is as inherited as coat color or
conformation. The dog has been genetically programmed to think and
behave in a certain manner. The problems can be modified and often
made better but they never really go away.
My breed provides a good example
when we take a look at shyness. Suspicion of strangers is part of the
Chow's basic nature but scooting under tables to hide from visitors is
not. The most common misconception in dogs is that all shy dogs must
have been abused at some point in their lives. It ain't so. Shyness
_can_ come from abuse, but the vast majority of shy dogs were born
that way. It's an inherited personality defect. They've been abused by
bad genes, not by bad people.
Socialization and obedience
training helps build confidence and can make some of them into
acceptable pets but a dog that inherited his shyness will never be as
confident and comfortable as the one that just needs a little
Shy dogs are problems in rescue
because they don't handle change well. They have trouble adapting to
new homes and situations. They need homes that will provide structure
and stability because they fall apart around anything that scares them
or that they don't understand. Shyness comes in degrees - from dogs
that are just a little flighty to ones that are so paranoid that their
lives are nothing but stress.
People feel sorry for shy dogs
and often adopt them because they think that, with enough love, the
dog will eventually straighten out. Rescues often spend lots of time
and money on them thinking the same thing. The results, though, can
often be pretty disappointing.
Fear-biting is an extreme form of
shyness. Although many shy dogs would never bare a tooth if their
lives depended on it, fear-biters can and will bite anytime they feel
threatened, whether or not a threat actually exists.
Dogs react to what they perceive
as danger by running or fighting. Shy dogs run away. Aggressive dogs
fight. Fear-biters panic. They don't know what they should do so they
try some of each. Sometimes they try to fight and run at the same
time! They send mixed up signals because they don't know what to do -
so you don't know what they're going to do either. In their panic,
some of them lose control over the force of their biting causing a lot
of injury in just a few seconds. I consider fear-biters to be more
dangerous than outright aggressive dogs because they're so
unpredictable. You never know what will set them off and how they'll
react. I believe that they're mentally unstable and I don't consider
There are so many different forms
of aggression problems that it's too big a subject for today. I'm just
going to talk briefly about two of the most common - aggression toward
other animals and dominance aggression.
Aggression toward animals
Until recently, I didn't consider
aggression toward animals to be a very big deal. After all, that and a
tendency toward fighting is part of my breed's nature. It's part of
the nature of lots of other breeds, too. However, most of the public
has forgotten what some of our breeds were created for and that all
dogs, essentially, are predators. There've been a lot of good dogs
needlessly destroyed because their owners panicked when they saw them
rip apart an opossum or the neighbor's cat and wrongly assumed their
kids were going to be next.
Fortunately, aggression toward
animals and aggression toward people are two different things in the
mind of a dog and one seldom leads to the other. But -- a dog with
such a high prey drive that it is impossible to take it for a walk or
to obedience classes or goes through fences (and sometimes, doors and
windows) to go after another animal is a tough dog to live with and it
can't be controlled by the average family.
Since Wisconsin law and the laws
of several other states say that biting a domestic animal carries the
same legal consequences as biting a human, an animal aggressive dog
also carries some liability baggage. So I've taken another look at
what we consider to be adoptable when it comes to dogs with animal
Dogs that can't get along with
other dogs in the same household, even if they're absolutely super
with people and kids, are another rescue problem. Many of these dogs
can be fixed with training because their incompatibilities are
actually caused by the people in their families. However, there are
some dogs that can't get along with _any_ other dog for any length of
time no matter what you do with them.
The need to be an only dog limits
their placement potential a great deal because most people want to
have the option of adding a second dog someday or are looking to adopt
a companion for the dog they already have.
Dominance and dominance
Now we come to what I consider
the most common and most interesting temperament issue of all -
dominance problems. Chows along with many of the northern, oriental
and terrier breeds are naturally domineering creatures. Without firm
leadership from their people, they can quickly take over and tyranize
a whole household. They can be pretty subtle about it, too -- you
might not realize you have a problem until the dog is several years
old. Dominance issues aren't limited to these breeds, though, you'll
find them in every one right down to the toys. In fact, toys can be as
bad as the big dogs.
The majority of dominance
problems occur because people don't understand the canine social
structure. Dog society is not a democracy, it's a dictatorship.
There's one leader who makes all the rules and everyone else follows
them. Nobody argues. We call the leader "alpha", a word that
the dictionary defines as "first".
Just as there are natural born
leaders in the human world, there are natural leaders among dogs. It's
an inherited tendency. You can tell the alphas easily both as puppies
and adults. They're the first ones out of the whelping box. They rule
the food dish, they're the first ones out the door, they're not afraid
of much and they argue the most when you make them do something they
don't want to.
An alpha dog isn't necessarily a
bad thing. Alpha dogs are highly confident, self assured and they make
the best show dogs because they have the most ring attitude. Show
breeders deliberately select for alpha qualities whether they realize
it or not. Alpha dogs can make very good pets because they're often
exceptionally friendly and good with children. They take everything in
stride and aren't easily rattled. As long as their owners have
stronger personalities than they do, everything is fine. An alpha dog
may challenge your leadership once in a while but he'll obey you if
you always keep the upper hand.
The trouble starts when an alpha
dog is allowed to become dominant over his family. The dictionary
defines "dominate" as: "to rule by superior
power". Although the terms are often used interchangeably, I
consider alpha and dominant to be two somewhat different things. An
alpha dog wants to be first in his "pack". A dominant dog
_is_ first. This can be a big difference!
The dominant dog knows he has the
upper hand, whether you know it or not! Dominant dogs are made, not
born. Lack of training and discipline and/or the owner's failure to
recognize and deal with an alpha dog's challenges are what creates
dominant dogs. It can be hard to recognize a truly dominant dog.
They're often very well-behaved, loving and easy to live with - until
you push them or threaten their leadership position.
Most dominant dogs aren't
outwardly aggressive but they'll react with greater violence than
other dogs. You see....Alpha dogs challenge - but dominant dogs
_defend_. Alpha dogs challenge when they feel their leader can
be defeated. A dominant dog defends his position against challenges
and he'll use whatever force he feels is necessary. A dominant dog
considers you to be subordinate to him so he won't tolerate your
corrections or discipline. He might humor you for a while, sometimes
for years, until the day comes when he's had enough of your nonsense.
Dominant dogs will also punish you for crimes they think you've
committed. They _will_ bite you if they think you have it coming.
How does an alpha dog become
dominant? It's easy, actually and starts innocently enough. A lot of
pet owners buy alpha dogs without realizing it. How many times have
you heard someone say very proudly: "I didn't pick that
puppy...he picked -me-!" Well, that's not exactly
what happened.... What happened is that the most alpha puppy in the
litter, true to his highly confident and fearless nature, strode
boldly up the visitors, looked them in the eye and said "Hey,
look at me! I'm the leader of this bunch! Who are you?"
Completely misinterpreting this big red flag the puppy's waving, the
buyer falls instantly in love and takes home more than he's prepared
As I said earlier, most people
don't understand the canine social structure. Instead of providing
firm, consistent leadership from day one, they treat the puppy as if
it's a little kid in a furry suit and give it all the privileges of
being a person. Except for teaching it to sit for treats and walk on a
leash, they don't do any real training. Before long, the puppy's
figured out that no one's really in control here. Since he's hardwired
by nature to either lead or be led, he decides he'd better assume the
position since no one else has.
Lest you think that only the
natural alpha's have this potential, many lower ranking puppies will
undergo an interesting personality change when they're removed from
their litters. With no mom or siblings to beat up on them and no
adequate human leadership, these once meek and mild puppies can also
grow up to be little tyrants.
Many of the young Chows we get in
rescue are alpha's on the edge of achieving dominance. They're usually
spoiled brats who were never taught anything. We find this in dogs
that have spent their whole lives chained up outdoors, too. They
weren't spoiled but no one has ever taught them that they weren't king
of their little worlds.
Once they're in our program, they
find out pretty quickly that things are different here and they're
expected to do what they're told. As long as their temperaments were
fundamentally sound, we've had good luck with these dogs once they get
their attitudes adjusted. They do require adopters, though, that are
strong willed and understand what the dog's position in the family is
supposed to be.
A dog who's enjoyed a dominant
position for some time, though, is another story. This dog isn't going
to give up his spot easily, if at all. He likes being in charge and he
has every intention of staying there. It's sometimes possible to turn
these dogs around in rescue but they don't always stay turned around.
Evaluating temperament is a lot
like judging dogs at a show. If you have a standard in your mind -- a
standard for good temperament -- you compare the dog to it and see how
close he comes. If he has faults in some areas, you need to decide
whether those faults interfere with his ability to be an appropriate
pet and how much.
Unlike conformation which is
right out there for you to see, temperament qualities aren't always
easily visible. It can take time to find out what a dog is like. In my
opinion, many rescue groups don't keep their foster dogs long enough
to really know what they have. It's been my experience that most new
dogs are on their best behavior for the first 2 to 3 weeks while they
settle in to their new environment. When they first arrive, they
don't know your rules, they don't know how far they can push you, they
don't know what they can get away with. Once they've figured that all
out, then you start to see the _real_ dog, for good or bad.
Initial temperament evaluation - shelters
In rescue, the first contact we
have with most dogs is at the animal shelter. This is, really, a poor
place to evaluate them because of all the various stresses they're
under. You also have to make a quick judgement -- either the dog might
have potential for your program or it doesn't. The finer points of
evaluation are going to have to wait until the dog is actually home
At shelters, I like to take the
dog outside and spend most of my time just observing him, watching his
body language and his posture, how he deals with his sorroundings. An
alpha dog is confident and fearless. He stands tall -- his head, ears
and tail are carried high and forward even when he's in strange
territory or meeting new people. Just _how_ alpha he is will have to
be determined later. A more submissive dog is a little apprehensive --
when he greets you or is taken into a strange place, his head is
slightly lowered and his ears are back or off to the sides. A fearful
dog isn't necessarily a write-off, his degree of fear will determine
that. It could be considered normal for a fearful dog to slink through
the shelter's waiting room, but if he's in a panic, wrapping himself
around your legs or trying to bolt and run, he could have some serious
problems with shyness.
A dog's eyes will tell you a
great deal regardless of breed. Some people can do this automatically,
for others it takes practice. You can and should read a dog's eyes
without making direct eye contact. I want to see what I call a
"soft" eye, frightened maybe but it has a look to it that
tells you the dog won't hurt you unless it absolutely must. It has a
warm, hopeful expression. A freaky dog has a panicked look. This kind
of dog might bite without much provocation even if it's not a
"mean" dog. A really smart dog will have a sparkle to the
eye even if it's frightened. You can see that it's thinking about
what's going on and what it's going to do next. Then there are the
hard, cold eyes of a truly nasty creature although it may not act
nasty. My husband calls these "empty" eyes. Fortunately, you
won't see many of those and I shouldn't have to tell you not to mess
Once I've given the dog time to
run around a little and enjoy himself, I start to handle him. My first
test is a bit of a risky one and you shouldn't try it if you feel
uncomfortable or don't have good reflexes. But I think it's very
important and if the dog flunks, it saves me the rest of the
evaluation. It's the "startle" test.
With the dog facing away from me,
concentrating on something else, I walk up behind him and lightly
brush my fingers down his back. If the dog doesn't react, he gets an
A. If he startles and turns around in surprise, he gets a B. If he
gives me a highly annoyed look, he passes for now but he'll need more
evaluation later. If he growls or snaps at me, he flunks and gets sent
back to the shelter with a recommendation that he not be put up for
This test might seem a little
unfair. After all, we're taught not to do this to dogs and we get
really mad at show judges that come up on our dogs from behind. But --
this is a common occurrence in pet homes especially homes with
children. Kids run up on dogs from behind all the time, they fall on
them when they're sleeping, they drop things on them, they trip over
them, they hug them. A family dog _has_ to be able to handle this and
if the dog can't, I don't want it in my adoption program.
Ears, Teeth, Feet, etc.
Once the dog passes the startle
test, we do more handling. This is done with me in a standing position
and in a friendly but matter of fact way. Don't get down on your knees
or coochy-coo to a dog you don't know -- if he's an alpha dog, he
might try to dominate you and and if he's a dominant dog, he might
actually attack you. You should always maintain an alpha posture and
attitude without being intimidating. Avoid direct eye contact.
I look in the ears, look at the
teeth, pick up feet, run my hands over his body. I tug gently on his
ears and tail, I bump into him with my knee. I grade the reactions
similar to the startle test -- no reaction is excellent, scared is
okay (for now) and slightly annoyed isn't necessarily an F. But
growling, snapping or that look in the eye that says "Lady, don't
push me!" is grounds for failure.
This is about all the temperament
evaluation I feel I can do accurately in a shelter environment.
It is not meant to be a definitive judgement -- it simply gives me a
basic idea as to the dog's adoptabilty and whether I want it in my
If the shelter allows, and most of them will, I take the
opportunity to do a little cat testing. I don't have cats but a lot of
our adopters do. Most shelters have cats hanging around the waiting
room or in a cat kennel area. All I want to see is the dog's basic
reaction to them -- does he ignore them, show some curiousity or is he
lunging and barking trying to get to them? I don't use this test to
determine adoptability, I just try to get an idea of potential for
compatibility in a home with small pets.
Once they're home
We normally don't put new dogs on our adoption listing for at least
30 days. During this time, they're critically observed, handled every
day, groomed, taken to the vet, put under stress and experience
corrections. We pet them while they're eating, we introduce them to
other dogs, we teach them some basic manners (not to bolt out of
doors, for example). We push them, especially the alpha dogs. What do
they do when they're corrected or yelled at?
The standard by which we evaluate behavior is - how do they handle
the kinds of things they will be exposed to every day in the average
adoptive home? Are they safe for the average family? Imagine the kinds
of things the dog will encounter - kids that hug and pull on tails,
the mailman, the vet, the neighbors, a walk on the street, toys and
food dishes - and test him with them. Does he react predictably and in
a non-aggressive manner? Be especially critical after the first two
weeks have gone by because now the dog is more comfortable with you
and will let his real personality show.
One of the biggest concerns for rescues and dog clubs in today's
society is liability. It isn't a problem for breeders yet but I think
someday it will be. Many clubs are terrified of getting into rescue
for fear of being sued over something a rescued dog does after it's
been adopted. And I'll be honest -- it's a legitimate concern.
The subject of liability is so big that it's a program in itself.
So all I'm going to talk about today is the probably the biggest
liability issue and the one that's also the easiest to avoid. That has
to do with dogs that bite or have a strong potential for biting.
The laws of most states are
pretty strict -- the owner or caretaker of a dog is liable for any
damages or injuries the dog causes. In addition, the many states
declare a dog to be "dangerous" or even "vicious"
after its first bite (whether it bites person or animal), putting
special restrictions on the ownership of such a dog or even ordering
it destroyed. Here in Wisconsin, if a dog with one bite already on
record bites again, the injured party is allowed to sue for _double_
damages. That $20,000 plastic surgery bill just jumped to $40,000 and
that doesn't include money for pain and suffering, scarring and
punitive damages if the court determined your negligence caused the
incident in the first place.
Most of us have homeowners
insurance that covers these things if they happen on our property. But
as some of you might already know, the insurance company will only
cover the first incident. After that, they'll cancel your policy.
There are insurance policies now
for clubs that do rescue but they only cover injuries that occur while
the dog is still in the rescue's care -- they won't cover something
that happens once the dog has been placed. And this, of course,
is where there is the most risk -- after the dog has been placed. We
can't control what the dog does or what the adopter does with it. But
if it can be determined that we were negligent in some way -- either
in the evaluation or placement of that dog, we could still be held
liable for a bite that happens after the dog is in its new home.
Biting dogs - protecting
The most important step that you
can take to protect yourself is to _never_ place a dog that has bitten
someone. I can't stress this enough. No matter how minor the bite or
the circumstances. The law doesn't make a distinction between a big
bite and a little one. If you want to be safe, neither should you. In
many states, the law also doesn't take into account mitigating
circumstances. Whether or not the dog was provoked may not make a
difference in the final judgement.
It's not fair, that's for sure.
Dogs have teeth and anyone with a lick of common sense knows that they
might see fit to use them once in a while. But the bottom line today
is that our society, our legislators and our insurance companies no
longer understand canine behavior and they no longer tolerate dogs
that bite. Period. If you place a dog with a bite history or one that
displays a high potential for biting, you're taking a huge risk that
you can't afford.
Bite issues come up often in
rescue and they can be heartbreakers. Perfectly good dog bit a child
and for just cause. Can you safely place him even in a home without
kids? No. Can _you_ keep him? No, not if you want to
keep your insurance. There's no option for that poor dog except
euthanasia. Not if you want to make sure you always get to keep your
house and your rescue or club keeps its assets.
The issue of bite potential comes
up with every dog you rescue and needs to be determined in your
temperament evaluation. Obviously, if the dog has teeth, he might find
the opportunity to use them someday so when it comes down to it, every
dog has bite potential. But some have more potential than others and
that can usually be assessed in your evaluation.
This is why I consider the
"startle" test critically important as well as the dog's
ability to accept authority and corrections. These are areas where
bites are likely to occur in an adoptive home.
It's essential that you be
objective in your evaluation and not make excuses for the dog's
behavior. "Gee, he must've been scared once by a man with a
beard" or "he'll be okay as long as kids don't run up behind
him". We hear excuses at dog shows, too: "he doesn't like
male judges", "that judge shouldn't have touched him like
These excuses won't hold up in
court. If a dog threatens or appears likely to bite under the
circumstances he can expect to meet in his day to day life - he's not
a candidate for adoption and he's not fit for a breeding program
Trust Your Instincts
In your evaluations, I also think
it's critically important to trust your instincts as well as your
judgement. There are going to be times when a dog passes all your
tests but for some reason, he still makes you uncomfortable. You don't
quite trust him. Well, most of the time, our instincts are right.
There's something wrong with that dog even you can't explain what it
is. You should listen to those instincts and not place the dog.
The cases are especially tough
because you want to second guess yourself and if you do, you really
won't know which way to go with it. You can't rationally explain why
you think the dog shouldn't be placed and you worry that people will
think you're crazy.
I had two situations where I felt
like this and didn't listen to my instincts. The first one involved a
dog at a shelter that some friends of mine looked at for me. They have
longer experience in the breed than I and they thought the dog was
great. As soon as I saw him, I didn't like him. I didn't know
why, he was a friendly dog and passed all my shelter tests. But I
still didn't like him and my insides said to leave him there. I took
him home anyway and things were fine for awhile until I had to correct
him for something. All I did was scold him and he tried to attack me.
Needless to say, he wasn't put up for adoption.
The second case didn't end so
well and it will always bother me. This was a young alpha dog with a
lot of potential but he didn't like _me_ and I didn't like _him_.
He and I had some difficulties at the beginning but we came to an
understanding and after that, we got along fine. But I still didn't
quite trust him. Because of that, we tested that dog extensively and
he passed with flying colors. Everyone who met him really liked him,
even my husband who's as critical as I am. I began to wonder if
I was just prejudiced against the dog and whether I was even capable
of making accurate evaluations anymore. I didn't feel the dog was safe
but nobody else agreed. So we placed him and everything went well for
the first few weeks. Until he seriously injured a relative of his
So, trust your evaluations and your tests but also trust your
instincts. If you have to make a mistake, make it on the side
of safety. Don't make excuses and don't take chances. No
dog's life is worth a child's face or a million dollar lawsuit.
There are so many variations of
canine temperament and behavior that it's impossible to go into the
"what if's" of adoptability here today. Things like
"what if he's perfect with almost everything but he growls if you
take his food"? Likewise, there's no time today to go into
dealing with all these behavior variations. The main point I want to
make is that you will have the most success in your rescue program and
your breeding program if you concentrate your resources on dogs that
can easily fit into the _average_ family because that's who you're
going to be dealing with most.
It's as easy to become kennel
blind in rescue as it is in breeding. You need to be objective and
judge the dogs with your mind, not your heart. It's especially tough
in rescue to put your emotions aside because our hearts are what got
us into this in the first place. But if you invest a lot of time,
space and money into dogs that have to fit into special niches in
order to live as pets, a lot of good family dogs will die because you
won't have the resources to get them out of the shelters.
The thing people want most in a
pet dog is a good temperament. They'll compromise on just about
everything else except that. Today's society demands a dog that's
friendly, reliable, trainable and above all, safe to handle and live
with. If we're going to be successful and be allowed to stay in
business, that's what we have to give them.
at a 1998 meeting of the Badger Kennel Club,
this article is copyrighted by author, Vicki DeGruy, and appears here
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