Temperament, Personality and Behaviour: It’s a Fine Dividing Line!

A conundrum faced by the lay-psychologist is the difference between temperament, personality and behaviour. In the dog training world behaviour is much discussed, temperament sometimes, and personality rarely. Temperament is inherited – it is something we HAVE and can do little to change. For example a person – or dog – may be described as a socialite or a loner. Personality we acquire with age and is a combination of one’s experiences, education, socialisation, culture, and to an extent, temperament. Behaviour, on the other hand, is something we DO – we CAN change this in most cases, though animals (including humans) may find this challenging due to, for example, heritable traits, poor role modelling, poor training, lack of mental stimulation, bad experiences including abuse or received aggression, poor health, stress and anxiety, poor diet, mindset/lack of motivation and/or encouragement/incentive, surroundings and the environment, change of routine, lack of exercise, poor housing/kenneling, the weather; the list is almost endless!

Possibly the most important trait in the family dog, but the most difficult to breed for, is temperament. The adjectives ‘character’ or ‘personality’ (as discussed) also come to mind but these are perhaps more subjective. They may imply a level of consciousness more appropriate to humans, primates, elephants, dolphins and others! Dogs are, however, sentient beings with a range of emotions and sensitivity. Breeding for temperament is paramount when later training for assistance dogs, be these dogs for the blind, hearing assistance dogs, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, explosive and drug detection dogs, herding dogs and so forth. Companionship however – if that’s what we are looking for – is not as clearly defined! Due to the intermingling and coupling of genes of different content from both parents, not all dogs, even from the same litter, will attain the required standard. They are all individuals. Breeding for temperament or behaviour is far more complex genetically than breeding for looks as there are many more genes involved and do not code readily for temperament. Because of this, there is no chance that the same combination will occur twice. Selecting the top pedigree, therefore, is essential in this scenario. Notwithstanding, the way we train and treat our dogs will also have a profound and lasting effect on their temperament and behaviour.

The American cynologist Clarence Pfaffenberger, a respected figure in the mid 1940s in the training of assistance dogs for the blind, confirmed that temperament traits, including the willingness to work with humans, are carried genetically (The Intelligence of Dogs – Coren). He further concluded that temperament was not enough and that this, combined with ‘intelligence’, was paramount. Measuring intelligence in dogs and the ability to problem solve is another subjective and moot point. To measure this, we need to compare against something else. Do we compare with humans, a primate or another dog? IQ tests have been designed for dogs but what exactly does this prove? According to Pfaffenberger a more appropriate term would be ‘ability’, but let’s not forget also ‘aptitude’ or ‘inclination’!

Dogs live in the moment, with no concept of the future (McGrath). Their short term memory is thought to be a matter of minutes – though they do appear to remember a bad experience from long ago. They do not possess the cognitive ability to acknowledge the threat of a bad outcome for unwanted behaviour although will ‘learn’ from the repeated experience of bad (and good) outcomes. This could be, for example, single or multiple punishers including verbal/physical threats or actual abuse, frustration due to the withholding of a treat or other reward, negative reinforcement, for example, the removal of pain (as with a chock chain), release from confinement etc. All the dog learns is how to cope with and manage the threat and avoid the perpetrator rather than learn the desired behaviour, resulting potentially in an unhappy and unbalanced dog able to ‘snap’ at any time.

These related blogs may be of interest: https://richardthedogtrainer.com/2020/04/29/dog-breeders-need-to-pay-more-attention-to-behaviour-and-health-traits-not-simply-looks/

https://richardthedogtrainer.com/2020/05/17/what-exactly-do-we-mean-by-the-science-of-dog-training/

The sweet tempered Canaan dog but an
independent thinker with a strong
survival instinct.

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