Musings on the idea of “temperament”

Over the last 18 months, we’ve had the following dogs come into or through our household.

Rupert, Sussex Spaniel: Being rehomed because he bit a child.

Wilson, Poodle x: One day past his euthanasia date, bit everything that touched him, and he bit with intent to harm. His first day home he put a hole in my sister’s thumb that was visible for months.

Sparky, Catahoula: On his last day before euthanasia, uncontrollable, pulled, barked, attacked other dogs.

Ginny, Papillon x: Same pound as above two. Screamed and bit every human who touched her ears, tail, feet.

Bastoche, Bramble, Trixie: Littermate Dachshund/JRTs who arrived here from Tennessee at 8-10 weeks; we kept Bramble and found the other two great homes.

Each of these dogs, though very especially the four adult dogs, displayed a few, or MANY, behaviors that most people would say were the sign of a “bad temperament.”

Today, I watched Ginny clean Zuzu’s face as Zoob hugged her and buried her face in Ginny’s fur, kissing her. Later, when I was nursing Zuzu, Ginny climbed up on my lap beside Z. Zuzu reached behind her and grabbed Ginny’s tail, pulling her tail over and playing peek-a-boo with it and laughing. Ginny never moved a muscle.

Rupert is rehomed in California and is thriving.

Wilson is groomed every four weeks and tolerates every procedure beautifully. He has not so much as growled in months.

Sparky is the star of his agility class.

All of these are the proofs people give for what a “flawless temperament” their dogs have.

So what happened? These are the same exact dogs, just a year later. Did they have bad temperaments and now have good temperaments? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Or look at my lovely, lovely Bronte. She never put a foot wrong, never put a TOE wrong, from the day she arrived here until the day she went to Kate’s house. She was the most instinctively polite, beautifully behaved dog I’ve ever seen. Every command was learned instantly. If I put her in a settle-stay, she wouldn’t move for hours. Everyone adored her. But she worried incessantly. She was pretty convinced that she must be at least a little at fault whenever there was a big conflict, and with six (very loud) humans and between three and (good Lord, I had to count on my fingers) eight other dogs around at all times, with dogs coming and going constantly, there were a lot of conflicts for her to blame herself for. I would never say that she was a sad dog, or a shy dog, and she ADORED people and other dogs, but she always had at least one ear on whatever chaos was whirling through the house. She was happiest when we went up to Maine, where everything is quiet and we all sleep late and the kids scream outside and not inside. She was at her absolute best when we went tracking Clue in the woods when Clue was lost – she was confident, pushy, totally focused. It was a side of her I’d never seen before.

When she went to Kate’s house, Kate e-mailed me the next day and said “Wow, she’s so mellow. Nothing bothers her.” I about fell over. Bronte is many things, but mellow? But it was the truth. And Bronte has gone on to be happier and happier and happier by the day –  she’s a confident and masterful brood bitch, she doesn’t take crap from anyone, she frisks around the farm and flaunts her freedom to the dogs who are in their pen. 

So does Bronte have an easy-going temperament or not?

I think the inescapable conclusion is that “temperament” is a completely fluid and changeable thing. There are some aspects that are closer to “personality” that I think DO hold true. A dog who is “soft” will always be soft. But that dog will not always be shy or reactive or, conversely, obedient and respectful. A dog who is “hard” – with a ton of drive and independence – will always be hard, but can be a bonded, tolerant, confident dog or an utter nightmare. But asking whether or not a dog has a “good temperament” is probably going to tell you more about the owner or the situation or the training than about the dog.

This is coming closer and closer to home for me as I can now actually consider breeding Clue. Clue is, if I haven’t already harped on it enough, what I’d consider my ideal dog in terms of personality – she is gleeful, hard-driving, exuberant, endlessly forgiving, and very very smart. And she has an outrun you wouldn’t believe. But I know that she’s the ideal fit IN OUR HOUSE. In another home, with an owner who is less exacting, she might be one of those dogs that get described as obnoxious, dominant, “up” all the time, leash-puller, ignores commands except when she feels like it, hard-headed jerk who runs away all the time. So when a stud dog is described (by others, of course) as a big jerk, what does that mean? Is this a dog I want to avoid like the plague or a dog I want to move mountains to breed to? If he is disobedient, is he mentally ill or just high-drive and I’d adore him? If one is described as a big mush-ball, undemanding, super obedient, would that dog – or the offspring of that dog – be a cowering mess in our loud, noisy, chaotic household?

This is why people end up buying their own stud dogs! Sigh. 

Anyway, I’m going to go grab my reactive child-aggressive toy dog and sling her over my shoulder so she can keep my neck warm while I type. She’s pink right now, which somehow makes her extra cozy :).


2 thoughts on “Musings on the idea of “temperament”

  1. The question that I grapple with in my own head is not whether I want to create Cardigans with my perfect ideal personality…but rather whether the Cardigans with “my” perfect ideal personality are really correct CARDIGANS.

    I love Lizzie. She’s a mush, a total people dog, adores and I do mean adores kids, and she gets along with other dogs. She does not usually LIKE strange dogs. But she is not aggressive. She tells dogs, in their language, what she wants. So many of our friends and family would adore a dog just like Lizzie, because she’s easy, willing, quiet, and loving.

    However, she’s a total couch potato. Working dog? I rather scoff at the idea of her with livestock. She has taken to agility surprisingly well, but that’s because she loves to be with people.

    So does she have a good temperament? I think so, as a pet I think she has a great personality. But I wouldn’t say that she has an ideal Cardigan temperament. Cardis to me are supposed to be much more like Brady (and Clue)…brainy, opinionated, loving, driven.

    So I admit that I’m conflicted.

  2. Jeri–

    It’s a bit of “horses for courses,” isn’t it? I don’t have a huge problem with the idea of a working/herding/sporting/whatever breed having individuals that don’t have the ideal performance personality, as long as the “improper” personality is a functional one that makes them a good or great companion. I realize that not everyone wants to herd or do Schutzhund or do field trials, and in fact there are many ideal working dogs that are not great house dogs for the very reasons that they’re winning everything out in the field.

    I also don’t want breeds to die because we insist that they be perfect for their jobs – nobody’s ever going to hunt otter again, and there are very very few that are actually making a living by ratting, but I’m not sure that should mean that the Otterhound or the JRT should die out or be owned by only ten people in the entire country.

    So it may be true that the puppy I want, the one who barrels over and jumps on my lap, and then jumps off again and tugs my pant leg, is the more original/faithful/effective cattle dog, but the one who is happy to be calm and watch TV is going to be the easier pet for the typical family. As long as we’re sticking to those as extremes, we’re fine. I do worry about the shy/reactive dogs, though, the ones who have a difficult time living in any world, and which seem to be all too common in the breed.

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