Dog Temperament: Guide to a Successful Dog Relationship

Dog temperament is the most important thing you should consider before deciding on a dog. 

In this guide, we’ll look at the two main components of dog temperament: breed temperament and individual temperament. And we’ll discuss how to use knowledge of both to make a responsible decision that will result in a happy family and a happy dog.

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Most of us have done it at least once. We think about how nice it would be to have a dog (or maybe a second dog). We either decide to buy a specific type of dog from a breeder, or we start looking at local shelters or rescues to adopt one.

You may have fallen in love with a neighbor’s dog who is well trained and has a sweet disposition. Or you walked into a shelter and immediately set your heart on the most adorable dog whose sad eyes are begging to go home with you.

If you were to choose a dog this way, you might get lucky. But chances are good that it won’t end well.

Why?

Because just like with people, there is a wide range of personality difference in the dog world. Adding a dog to your family is a lifelong commitment (for the dog, that is) when it’s done correctly. Far too many dogs end up in shelters when it’s not.

Table of Contents

Why Understanding Dog Temperament Matters 

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that 3.3 million dogs are surrendered to shelters every year. Of those, 670,000 are euthanized. In many cases, the reason given for giving up a dog is behavior problems.

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If the adopters had known more about temperament, they could have avoided most of these behavior “problems.” 

To make the right decision on a breed, you need to research and possibly make some tough decisions to find the right dog for your family’s lifestyle.

Something most people don’t think about is that it’s equally important to the dog to be chosen by the right family. 

There’s a lot more to bringing a new dog home than dog-proofing your home and deciding on a name. Getting a dog should never be an impulsive decision.

 But first, let’s talk about how we define temperament.

What Does Dog Temperament Mean?

So what is this thing called temperament? It’s a little tough to pin down because there is more than one thing that makes up a dog’s temperament. But basically, it can be compared to what we call personality in humans.

We can also define dog temperament as how a dog responds to people, other dogs, and changes in its environment. It’s not the same thing as behavior, but it does affect a dog’s behavior. 

Dog temperament is stable and for the most part, doesn’t change. But there are a few exceptions, which we will touch on later in this guide. Whereas, behaviors can be controlled or managed with training and socialization.

Choosing a dog with the right temperament for your family is critical to ensuring that your dog will find its forever home with you. 

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And isn’t that what we all want?

In the dog world, breed is an important indicator of what a dog’s temperament is likely to be. But we can’t rely on breed alone, because just like humans, individual dogs will also have individual temperaments. 

That’s why you should take both typical breed temperament and an individual dog’s temperament into account when choosing the best dog for your family.

Understanding Breed Temperament

We often hear the questions, “What’s the best breed of dog?” and “What’s the worst breed of dog?” The short answer to both questions is that there isn’t one.

There are no “best” or “worst” dogs—only good and bad matches. 

A better question would be, “What’s the best breed of dog for my lifestyle?”.

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Here’s how to figure that out.

Start by making a shortlist of breeds that appeal to you and your family. Then research those breeds. 

On this site, we have articles on every breed of dog you can think of, both common and rare. We offer a lot of information in those articles designed to help in the decision-making process.

You’ll want to know a breed’s primary temperament traits.

On this site, we lay out the typical positive and potentially negative characteristics of each breed (because, like people, no dog is perfect!) to help you make an informed decision. 

Know What You Don’t Want 

For example, you will want to take a dog’s energy level into consideration. Certain breeds need a lot of exercise.

If you’re not prepared to see that they get it, you shouldn’t consider breeds like the Airedale, the Siberian Husky, or many other sporting or herding dogs.

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Border Collie Playing Frisbee

You will have an unhappy and, again, potentially destructive dog on your hands.

Let's say you’re a working family where no one is home during the day. You will not want to choose a dog that is prone to separation anxiety (like the Bichon Frise or the Bernese Mountain Dog). 

Or maybe you don’t have a lot of free time to spend training a dog. Then, independent-minded breeds like the Lhasa Apso, the Chow Chow, and many herding and hunting dogs aren’t good choices for you.

On the other hand, you might be choosing a dog for an older person living alone. A toy breed with a devoted temperament and a low exercise need—like the Pomeranian—may be just the right fit. 

A final point to consider would be the “temperament” or “personality” of your family.

Are you a calm, quiet family? Or more of a free-wheeling, fun-loving family?

Choose a breed with a temperament to match for a perfect fit.

Temperament and Instinct

A helpful way to do this is to consider what a breed was initially designed to do.

Because dogs have instinctive behaviors that are ingrained. A hunting dog will behave a particular way, but a herder or a lap dog is likely to have a completely different set of behaviors.

Some of this is instinct (behavior that was natural to a breed before humans began breeding them). But some of it is bred into them by the practice of selective breeding (or artificial selection by humans). 

So What is Selective Breeding?

Over decades or even centuries, most breeds have been altered by humans who try to eliminate undesired traits in a breed or to reproduce desirable ones.

Or possibly to create a new breed that has the desired characteristics of two different breeds in one package. 

The Toy Fox Terrier is an excellent example of selective breeding for temperament.

Photo of Toy Fox Terrier Standing Portrait| DogTemperament
Alert Happy Toy Fox Terrier

This breed was created by humans to combine the feisty, self-confident traits of the Smooth Fox Terrier with the calmer temperament and smaller size of a lap dog.

The breeders crossed the Smooth Fox Terrier with the runts of several smaller breeds (Manchester TerrierChihuahuaItalian Greyhound, and Miniature Pinscher).

After several generations, breeders had developed the dog they wanted. This process created a new breed (the Toy Fox Terrier) with a distinct temperament all its own.

This is the process of selective breeding for temperament. 

For more information on the development of this breed, see Toy Fox Terrier Temperament.

Breeding “to Type”

After the establishment of a breed, registered breeders begin a process of “breeding to type” (or conformation). This means that they specify in each breed’s standard exactly how that breed is expected to look and, to some extent, behave.

These breed standards include a section on the expected temperament of the breed. For example, the AKC breed standard for the Great Dane contains the following wording:

“Temperament: The Great Dane must be spirited, courageous, always friendly, dependable, and never timid or aggressive.” (See the AKC site for the entire Great Dane breed standard.)

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Happy Owner with her Great Dane

So responsible breeders select for breeding only those dogs that fit that standard, or are “true to type.”

Any Great Dane who is aggressive or shy would not meet those criteria. The AKC would consider that dog not fit to breed.

He would, therefore, not pass that undesirable trait to the next generation.

Breeders use this standard as a way to ensure that dogs of a particular breed will have very similar temperaments.

Individual temperament is also important and can vary widely, but this is why you should consider breed temperament carefully when choosing the right breed for your family. 

Breed temperament is not a guarantee of a breed’s “personality,” because each dog is an individual. But it’s a reasonably reliable guide to natural behaviors you can expect from dogs of that breed.

A Word of Caution

Same-breed dogs bought from reputable breeders will indeed have reasonably uniform breed temperaments. But if you were to purchase a dog from a pet store, online dog seller, or “backyard breeder,” your experience may be very different.

Dogs bought from these sources are likely to have been bred in puppy mills.

Dogs bought from these sources are not bred to a standard and are often inbred. Their temperaments are more likely to vary from the standard that reputable breeders use. 

These puppies are often raised in horrendous conditions, as well. These conditions can change the natural temperament of individual dogs, causing them to be shy, timid, and afraid of people.

For this and many other reasons, we don’t recommend buying a puppy from these sources.

For more information about the breeding process and how to find a reputable breeder, see The No-BS Ultimate Guide to Finding the Right Breeder.

Ancestral Dog Temperament 

So we’ve established that looking at what a breed was bred to do is an excellent way to identify a breed’s temperament. It’s a useful tool in choosing a suitable breed, so let’s expand on that a bit.

To do its ancestral job well, a dog needs certain behavioral and temperamental traits.

These are the evolutionary traits that individuals carry forward from generation to generation.

They are often hard or even impossible to train out of a dog.

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When dog owners acquire dogs without an understanding of the inherent temperament of the breed, they often end up dropping them at shelters because of behavior problems that they can’t resolve.

Most often, the issue wasn’t a behavior problem at all. The behaviors these owners can’t tolerate are often part of the natural temperament of the breed. 

The breed wasn’t a good match for that person or family from the beginning. Or the owner had no idea how to train a dog of that particular temperament. 

Either way, it’s a heartbreaking situation for the dog, who couldn’t understand what he was doing wrong. He was only doing what came naturally. A little research beforehand on the owner’s part could have prevented the problem.

Identifying a Breed’s Natural Temperament 

The relationship between humans and dogs began as mostly working relationships. Ever since we began domesticating them, we have used them to help with various tasks in exchange for food, shelter, and care.

So over time, dogs have gained specific evolutionary skills that have become inherent to their breeds. 

For example, the Rat Terrier can make a wonderful family pet. It’s an intelligent breed that’s obedient and easy to train. It has a cheerful disposition and loves kids. Sounds great, right? 

Photo of an Alert Rat Terrier Outside
Male Rat Terrier

But the Rat Terrier, as its name suggests, has historically been used for hunting rats and other small mammals, both above and below ground. We don’t have much need for these skills today.

But these dogs retain their breed instinct to dig nevertheless. And because of their energetic temperaments, most are very enthusiastic about it.   

If you’re a home gardener who takes pride in your landscaping, you probably won’t want to invite a Rat Terrier into your family.

Yes, he digs, but to him, it’s not a behavior problem; it’s just how he is.  

Proper training can control some instinctive behaviors like these, but some you may never eliminate.

See Dog Temperament and Bad Dog Behavior for targeted training tips on dealing with behavior “problems” like these.

Use AKC Groups to Learn About Breed Temperament 

One way to research the temperament of a breed you’re considering is to visit the American Kennel Club (AKC) web site. They place dogs into seven groups, determined by the tasks dogs have been developed to do. 

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Identify into which group they have placed your breed. This can tell you a lot about your breed’s instinctive temperament, as many breeds in most groups will have similar traits.

Most dog breeds fall into one of the following categories.

Herding Dog Group

Examples of these herding dogs are the Border CollieGerman Shepherd DogCardigan Welsh CorgiPembroke Welsh CorgiOld English Sheepdog, and Australian Shepherd.

Most of these breeds don’t work with livestock anymore, but most of them still have their herding instincts. It’s not unusual to see these dogs trying to herd humans or family pets! 

As a general rule, herding dogs tend to be intelligent, happy, athletic, and energetic.

They also tend to form strong bonds with their humans and are usually devoted and protective toward them (particularly the children).

So if you’re considering a dog in the herding group, expect them to have a high need for exercise. The jobs they were bred to do required considerable effort and endurance.

Closeup of A Friendly Pembroke Welsh Corgi
Pembroke Welsh Corgi – Active, Friendly, Playful Temperament

Because they are intelligent and active dogs, most of them will also have a high need for mental stimulation.

For the most part, dogs from the herding group have temperaments that don’t do well in sedentary families.

They are best for families who are active outdoors. At the very least, they need frequent vigorous walks, and ideally, a job to do. 

Training and competing in canine sports like agility and rally and, of course, herding trials, would be great physical and mental stimulation for these breeds. 

But they can also be content with regular long walks, hiking, swimming, or extended fetch or Frisbee games.

You should also consider that herding dogs often bark when they work. Some herding dogs aren’t good choices for homes where this would disturb close neighbors.

What to expect if you can’t meet their needs?

Boredom and frustration. Boredom and lack of exercise can lead to destructive behaviors such as chewingdigging, and nuisance barking.

Herding Group Highlights

Herding dogs are NOT good choices for:

  • Sedentary families.
  • City or apartment settings with no room to run.
  • Families who can’t tolerate barking (some breeds). 
  • Families with very young children (some breeds, like the two Corgis, as they often try to herd by nipping at heels). But keep in mind that most breeds in this group are good with children overall.

Sporting Dog Group

This group includes retrievers, pointers, setters, and spaniels. These are bird dogs, also called gundogs.

Examples of common sporting dogs are the Golden RetrieverLabrador RetrieverCocker SpanielGordon SetterBrittany (formerly known as the Brittany Spaniel), and English Setter.

There is a little more diversity in this group than in the herding group, so you will want to spend more time researching individual breeds.

Many hunters still use these dogs for their original purpose of bird-hunting partners. But this group also includes some of the most popular family dogs, and with good reason. 

Many of these breeds are friendly, affectionate, loyal, and even kind. The retrievers, especially, are loving and easily trained. Most are very good with children.

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Active Brittany Spaniel

But most of the breeds in this group are also highly intelligent, and with that often comes an independent nature and even downright stubbornness.  

A good hunting dog needs to work with a certain amount of independence.

Their job description often includes being out of sight of their hunters and needing to make fast decisions on their own. 

Some of these breeds have learned to trust their instincts, so you will need to work hard to earn their respect before they accept your authority. 

These breeds can be a training challenge. Examples include the Irish Setter and the German Wirehaired Pointer.

Sporting Group Highlights

  • The sporting group includes some of the best all-around family dogs, i.e., retrievers and some spaniels.
  • But some sporting dogs are NOT the best choices for:
    • People who don’t have a lot of time to spend exercising them.
    • People with no experience in training more challenging breeds.
    • Those who would prefer a breed that is less independent-minded.
  • There is a fair amount of variety in the sporting group, so if you’re considering a dog in this group, you should be aware of differences in individual breeds.

Hound Dog Group 

Where breeds in the sporting group hunt birds, those in the hound group specialize in “furred” creatures.

There are two basic types of hounds in this group: Scenthounds and Sighthounds. There are slight differences in temperament between the two groups. 

Scenthounds

This group includes breeds such as the BeagleBasset HoundBloodhoundBlack and Tan CoonhoundDunker, and English Foxhound.

Scenthounds often make lovely family pets. Most will be patient and gentle with children and will accept other household pets with good grace.

They also tend to bond well with their human families. 

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English Foxhound

These breeds can present training challenges, though. The most common issue with scenthounds is their nearly single-minded instinct to follow their noses. 

This makes them highly prone to distraction. You may have a harder time holding their attention for training sessions when they detect an exciting smell in the air.

Most scenthounds are also known for their voices—called baying—which they use to communicate with their hunters. Baying can be loud and prolonged.

Some find the sound pleasant, others not so much. Close neighbors aren’t likely to appreciate it.

Many scenthounds tend to have dominant personalities, but they’re relatively easy to train with firm and consistent methods. 

Sighthounds

This group includes the GreyhoundWhippetIrish Wolfhound, Basenji, and Scottish Deerhound.

These breeds are built for speed and live for the chase. Their specialty is sprinting, not endurance like the scent hounds. 

Most are happy to be couch potatoes, needing only short bursts of exercise. But finding a place for them to get that exercise can be a challenge.

They do need a safe place to sprint their energy out. Without it, these breeds can be high-strung.

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Greyhound Racing

Sighthound breeds tend to be very loving and affectionate toward their families and great with children. They are often shy, though, and aloof with strangers.

Most are sensitive and need gentle training. 

They present a training challenge for the same reason as the scenthound—they have a strong prey drive.

But for the sighthounds, it’s the sight of a fast-moving object that causes them to run off suddenly.

Many sighthounds are pack dogs, and some do best when living with at least one other dog. 

They are also very intelligent, and some can be a bit stubborn. And because most sighthounds are not food-motivated, you may need to be creative with training methods. 

Hound Group Highlights

  • Both scenthounds and sighthounds can make great family pets. Most tend to be loving, affectionate, and good with children.
  • Hound breeds may NOT be the best choice for:
    • Sedentary families or people who don’t have time to exercise them properly.
    • For scenthounds, people who have close neighbors or can’t tolerate barking. 
    • For sighthounds, families that would find it challenging to work with their sensitive natures.
    • Active families who would prefer an off-leash recreational partner for outdoor activities.
    • Families with small pets. Rats or ferrets may prove irresistible to these dogs with intense prey drives.

Working Dog Group

Working breeds include the BoxerDoberman PinscherGreat PyreneesNewfoundlandRottweiler, German Pinscher, Dog, and the St. Bernard.

Breeds in this group are the heavy lifters of the dog world. They perform a wide variety of jobs for humans:

  • guarding livestock
  • Search-and-rescue work
  • Police work
  • Drug and bomb detection
  • Guarding prisoners
  • Pulling sleds
  • Guarding property and family
  • And many more. 

In general, these breeds are intelligent and highly trainable. They are also alert and watchful. 

Most are friendly to humans because they are bred to work closely with people. Because of this, most working dogs make great family pets with proper training.

The breeds in this group are generally large breeds that require space and careful attention to training simply because of their strength and power.

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Because of the great variety in the work these dogs do, there will naturally be variety in breed temperament.

But aspects of their temperaments can be predicted somewhat reliably by the work they were designed to do.

For example, guardian livestock dogs (GLDs) like the Great Pyrenees or Maremma, will often have very protective, nurturing, and reliable temperaments. They can be especially good with children.

However, most of these breeds can also be territorial and aggressive with other animals. A few can be aggressive with people. 

They are also independent thinkers because they are trusted to work alone guarding flocks and herds while their humans are elsewhere.

Many are barkers because they need to do that in the course of their jobs. 

Working Group Highlights

  • Breeds in this group tend to be intelligent, watchful, and trainable. 
  • Breed temperament will differ according to the tasks individual breeds are designed to perform.
  • Many make excellent family pets because they are trained to work closely with humans.
  • There is too much diversity in this group to make generalizations about their suitability for most families. Our best advice is to carefully research the tasks and common behaviors associated with a breed you may be considering.

Terrier Dog Group

The breeds in this group include the Scottish Terrier (or Scottie Dog), Airedale TerrierYorkshire Terrier (or Yorkie), Cairn TerrierParson Russell Terrier (formerly called Jack Russell Terrier) and West Highland White Terrier (or Westie).

Terriers were developed to hunt and kill vermin.

They have historically worked on farms, on ships, and anywhere their services were needed.

They were typically bred to work alone, so they can be feisty or even aggressive with other dogs.

Most terriers tend to be independent, determined, and somewhat stubborn (some more than others). They needed these traits to do their job of rooting out vermin well.

Most are active dogs that need a lot of exercise.

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Westie

Terriers also tend to be playful, loyal, and courageous. Most are confident dogs, and some will show symptoms of “small dog syndrome” if not firmly trained.

Terriers can bark—a lot. As rat and badger hunters, they barked to communicate to their handlers that they had found what they were looking for. 

Also, because they had to dive underground sometimes to root out their prey, the ground would sometimes cave in on them. Their barking will alert their handler that they needed rescuing.

So it should be clear by now that terriers are famous for digging.

They also have a high prey drive, so they may not be trustworthy around other small pets in the household.

Terrier Group Highlights

  • Terriers lively and can be a lot of fun. They can become good pets with a firm and consistent training program.
  • Breeds in this group may NOT be good choices for:
    • People who are not comfortable with firm training that may take a while.
    • People who can’t tolerate digging (unless you can set up a digging field that they will be content with).
    • For some breeds, families who have other dogs.
    • For some breeds, people who don’t want to deal with a dog that can be bossy and impulsive.
    • People who have close neighbors or can’t tolerate barking. 
    • People who prefer laidback dogs to highly active ones.

LEARN MORE: The often-misunderstood “pit bull” (or “bully”) breeds are also part of the terrier group. But the well-known controversy over the temperament of these breeds (the American Pit Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier) is too involved to address in this guide.

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Pitbull

We have covered these breeds in detail in the following articles: 

Nonsporting Dog Group

Breeds in this group include the DalmatianFrench BulldogLhasa Apso, Miniature and Standard Poodles, Chinese Shar-Pei, Chow Chow, and Tibetan Terrier

This group is more diverse than some of the others. It was initially made up of working dogs that no longer serve their original purpose.

Later, the AKC began adding breeds to this group that didn’t fit anywhere else. Some are hunting dogs, and others are companion breeds that are too large to fit the toy group.

Many people refer to this group as the companion group. The AKC writes that most of these breeds are “good watchdogs and house dogs.” 

The best way to get a sense of breed temperament is to research each breed within the group to find out what job they were initially bred for. 

  • Generalities can’t be made about temperament because the group is too diverse.
  • The breeds in this group should be researched individually for ancestral work histories.

Nonsporting Group Highlights

  • Generalities can’t be made about temperament because the group is too diverse.
  • The breeds in this group should be researched individually for ancestral work histories.

Toy Dog Group

This is another group that contains breeds with a variety of temperaments. Breeds in the toy group include the HavaneseShih TzuToy PoodleMaltesePapillonPug, and the Boston Terrier.

Photo of Two Stylish Woman Pose With Toy Dogs

A dog only needs to be small to belong to this group, so there is a lot of variety here.

However, most breeds in the toy group are loyal and loving. They were bred to be companions, and they do it well. Many are excellent choices for the elderly.

Many toy breeds have big personalities. A few can be possessive or aggressive and need to be trained and socialized carefully.

Some breeds in the Toy Group are fragile. These dogs are not good choices for families with young children, for the safety of the dog and the children.  

Toy Group Highlights

  • Most toy breeds make great companions.
  • They are great for alleviating loneliness and even depression in the elderly.
  • Some toy breeds make poor choices for:
    • Homes with small children. 
    • People who want an active outdoor companion.
    • People who don’t want a “Velcro” dog.
    • Families who are away from home for prolonged periods.

Working vs. Show Lines

Some sporting and working breeds have both “show (or pet) lines” and “working lines.”

These include the German Shepherd, the Border Collie, the Doberman Pinscher, and the Labrador Retriever.

There will be some temperament differences between the two lines, more with some breeds than with others. 

The English Springer Spaniel is a good example. A study published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science evaluated aggression in several breeds. 

One of their findings was that the show (conformation-bred) lines of this spaniel were more likely to be aggressive to strangers than dogs from the working (or field-bred) lines were.

If you are interested in one of these dogs, you will want to ask the breeder which line they work with and about any significant temperament differences.

Can You Predict the Dog Temperament of a Mixed Breed?

To a degree, but with less reliability than with purebred dogs.

If you can identify a dog as a mix of two breeds, you can check out the breed temperaments of the two breeds. This will give you a sense of traits you might see.

But it will take time to get to know the dog before some of those temperament traits will emerge. It’s not possible to predict upfront. 

If the dog is a thoroughly mixed breed with who-knows-which-or-how-many breeds in his lineage, his temperament will be impossible to predict.

This is one of the reasons people choose to purchase a dog from a breeder rather than adopting. They want to have some control over what they’re going to get.

If you would prefer to adopt or rescue (and we’re all for it!), you can get a sense of a mixed breed’s temperament by visiting and interacting with the dog you’re considering.

Ask the shelter or rescue personnel about their observations, and conducting temperament testing of your own with the dog.

Can You Predict Dog Temperament of a “Designer” Breed?

Designer breeds (also called hybrids, though this is not strictly correct) are pretty popular these days.

Photo of White Zuchon (Bichon Frise Shih Tzu mix) Dog Showing Off It's Cheerful Temperament
Zuchon – (Bichon Frise Shih Tzu mix)

These are “breeds” created by purposely mating dogs of two different breeds to form a new breed. 

Popular examples include:

Technically speaking, most of these crossbreeds are not actual breeds (yet). A crossbreed needs at least three generations to be considered as a registered breed. 

Some have breed clubs (like the American and Australian Labradoodles), but others have no breed standard yet that dictates temperament. 

However, we can still make some generalities based on what we know of the parent breeds.

In the case of the Goldendoodle, for example, these seem to inherit the best of both of their parents.

They are very intelligent, like both the Golden Retriever and the Poodle. And they tend to be outgoing, friendly, and lovable.

Overall, Goldendoodles make great family dogs, just like their parent breeds.

Gogeous Goldendoodle Puppies | DogTemperament.com
Goldendoodle Puppies

The Shichon also seems to inherit positive traits somewhat equally from both parents. 

A word of caution, however. The traits we describe here may be fairly consistent among first-generation crossbreeds.

They are likely to have temperament traits that are generally somewhere between those of the dam (mother) and sire (father), in many cases pretty evenly split.

With second and later generations, though, the traits begin mixing in unpredictable ways.

Some puppies within the same litter can act (or look) much more like one parent. His littermates may be more like the other or anywhere between the two. 

So when it comes to designer dogs, only the first generation is at all reliable when it comes to temperament.

However, with crossbreeds created out of two breeds with desirable temperaments, you’re unlikely to get any significant surprises. (Though they do happen.)

Understanding Individual Dog Temperament

Understanding breed temperament is a good start in choosing a breed that’s a good fit for your family and lifestyle. But you will be basing your final decision on a dog’s individual temperament. 

Dog Temperament Types

In general terms, an individual dog’s temperament will fit one of the following five descriptions:

  • Nonresponsive, or relaxed.
  • Active.
  • Independent.
  • Shy.
  • Aggressive.

The majority of members of most breeds will fit into one of these categories in a general way. But the temperaments of individual members will vary in specific ways. 

For example, three Golden Retriever pups from the same litter will probably show the general traits of the breed (gentle, great with kids, friendly).

Photo of Little Boy Kisses Dog
Little Boy kisses his Golden Retriever Dog

But one may be more relaxed, another may be shy, and one may be a little more adventurous, or independent, than the others.

Knowing their breed is helpful in that you can reasonably expect that none of these pups is going to behave like a Pekingese or a Bluetick Coonhound.

But they will all have different temperaments.

So why is this so important? 

Because each of these puppies’ temperaments would do best with families with a specific type of lifestyle. 

The laidback and shy pups might do well with an older couple or a family with a more sedentary lifestyle, but the active puppy would be unhappy in that situation.

He needs to be part of an active family with kids to play with, or maybe as a running or adventure partner.

If you adopt a dog that’s a poor fit for your family, that dog will be unhappy and may never bond with you in the way we all wish for.

He may also become depressed, lonely, or destructive.

And chances increase that that dog will end up in a shelter—a heartbreaking situation for everyone.

Temperament and Training

Temperament is also important to consider when it comes to training your dog.

Photo of Woman Training Bernese Mountain Dog Min
Woman Training Bernese Mountain Dog

While the responsive dog may be highly motivated to learn, the active dog may get overexcited and easily distracted. He will need different handling.

The independent dog will have an active mind of his own and may also be a lot harder to train.

And the aggressive dog?

He needs a firm, dominant trainer, and even then, he may never be completely reliable in all situations.

Aggressive dogs are not good choices for most family situations.

Knowing a dog’s temperament before making a choice will help you to decide whether you are comfortable with the methods of training that dog will respond to best.

LEARN MORE: For more insight on how identifying a dog’s temperament can help with training, check out our article here

Is Dog Temperament Genetic?

In other words, is it nature or nurture?

Photo of Smiling Woman Lying Down With Dog

Scientists have been studying the “nature or nurture” question for a very long time with regard to humans. More recently, researchers have been applying the same ideas to dogs.

The consensus is that temperament does have a hereditary component. Some even say that temperament is 100% genetic.

In a study called The Dire Wolf Project, that’s precisely what the National American Alsatian Association concluded. They add that we can control temperament traits with training and socialization. 

But they go on to state that in times of stress, dogs will revert to their natural, genetic temperament. 

Not all scientists agree with that theory, but nearly all will agree that temperament is hereditary to some degree. But training and socialization (or lack of one or both) also play roles in an individual dog’s temperament. 

An understanding of how this works is especially important when adopting an adult shelter or rescue dog.

Their genetic temperament may be significantly affected by what they have lived, especially in abuse or neglect situations.

If you are considering adopting an adult dog, assessing their individual temperament will be much more important than knowing their typical breed temperament.

We recommend temperament testing for all potential dog owners, but in situations like these, this is especially important. 

Can Dog Temperament Change?

We see a lot of questions about dog temperament and whether it can change with various events in a dog’s life.

As we discussed earlier, many dog experts feel that dog temperament is stable from birth. Though behaviors may change, the dog’s base temperament generally does not.

But there are situations where a dog’s temperament does appear to change, at least temporarily. 

Following are some of those situations.

Dog Temperament After Vaccinations

We weren’t able to find any credible data that vaccinations caused temperament changes in dogs.

What we did, find, however, is that there is undoubtedly a risk of physical side effects with vaccinations. Thankfully, most of these are minor and short-lived.

If a dog does have side effects from vaccinations, you may see temperament or behavioral changes while the dog isn’t feeling well. 

Photo of Sick Puppy Lying Next To Food Bowl

But the vast majority of vaccination side effects are minor. There should be no permanent temperament changes. The benefits far outweigh the risks of vaccinating your pets. 

If you see significant changes in your dog’s temperament or behaviors following a vaccination, call your vet immediately.

Dog Temperament After Spaying or Neutering

Many people will see a temporary change in their dog’s temperament following surgery. 

If they’re in pain, they may be grumpy or defensive for a time. They may be snappy while they’re healing. 

A high-energy dog may be frustrated from being forced to rest.

But are there permanent temperament changes after spaying or neutering?

That’s a little less clear. 

Experts have long thought that spaying or neutering has a positive effect on a dog’s temperament and behaviors. It was thought to “calm them down” and to make them less aggressive. 

Photo of Pretty Woman Hugging Dog

In recent years, though, a few studies on male dogs have concluded that the opposite is true, that neutering can make dogs somewhat more aggressive. 

They also found that it seems to make some male dogs more fearful and anxious and that it can change a dog’s status in the social hierarchy. 

These are early studies, and other things could have played a role in these results (like the quality of owner care and training).

A lot more research is needed before the theory is fully accepted.

For now, experts agree that dogs do need to be altered to prevent overpopulation. Some researchers are looking for ways to prevent breeding that don’t involve surgery.

In the meantime, it’s clear that spaying or neutering can change the behavior of your dog.

  • Both males and females are likely to roam less.
  • It eliminates aggression that can happen when males fight over a female for “breeding rights.” 
  • It is likely to slow down or eliminate male spraying as well.
  • And it will also eliminate irritability and discomfort females experience with heat cycles and pregnancy. 

So there are still plenty of good reasons to have your dog spayed or neutered.

Dog Temperament When Females are in Heat 

You will likely see some behavior changes when your female is in heat.

These can range from mild to dramatic. But these don’t represent true temperament changes.

It's actually hormones that drive these behavior changes. Irritability isn’t uncommon.

Your dog may find it hard to concentrate on training sessions. A dog who is usually obedient may suddenly ignore commands. 

Photo of Couple With Golden Retriever In Park

She may become unusually clingy and demand more attention than usual. Or a dog who’s usually a snuggler may want to be left alone.

You may also see aggressiveness when intact males are around or an intense drive to get outside.

She may become aggressive toward other female dogs.

Some dogs will have a “false pregnancy” (also called pseudopregnancy) during their heat season. They will show the physical and behavioral symptoms of being pregnant when there is no pregnancy. 

You may see restlessness, depression, and loss of appetite with a false pregnancy.

She may also show nesting behaviors and might even “adopt” a stuffed animal or another object to mother. 

All of these changes are part of the reproductive urge and aren’t permanent changes in your dog’s temperament. 

After your dog’s heat season is over, these behaviors should stop.

Dog Temperament Related to Pregnancy and Birth

This is another situation where temperament appears to change. But again, the changes are related to hormones and not permanent temperament changes. 

While she’s pregnant, your dog may become possessive and “bossy.” She may be territorial about the safe space she’s picked out for delivery of her puppies. 

She may have a lower energy level and may even be sedentary. She may also become irritable and solitary. 

In the last few weeks of her pregnancy, she may become more clingy than usual and want to stay close by you.

Photo of Man Woman Petting Dog At Home

After the puppies are born, your dog will almost certainly show temperament changes. She will have only one thing on her mind—caring for and protecting her puppies.

She may be irritable, snappy or even become aggressive to people and other pets who try to get close to her puppies. 

Her energy levels may be low and she may not be eating well. 

You can reduce the degree of stress and temperament change in your dog by keeping her and her puppies in a quiet and lightly traveled location.

She will do best if she’s disturbed as little as possible.

About 60 days after the puppies are born, mom will decide that her puppies are independent enough and that her job is done.

Your dog should gradually return to her “normal” temperament. 

Temperament Changes with Age

Many dog experts feel that dog temperament is stable throughout their lives and that only their behaviors change.

But a study called “Old Dogs, New Tricks,” published in April 2019 in the Journal of Research in Personality, found that a dog’s personality does change as the dog ages. 

One significant change the researchers found is that these personality (temperament) changes are brought on mostly by the quality of a dog’s bond with its owner. 

Outgoing people are more likely to have dogs that are “excitable and active.”

People with more negative personality traits often have dogs that are fearful and anxious and more difficult to train.

Sudden Changes in Dog Temperament 

There are lots of things that can appear to cause sudden changes in your dog’s temperament.

Photo of Serious Dalmatian Dog
Dalmatian Dog

In most cases, these aren’t true temperament changes. They’re most often temporary changes in behavior.

Following are some of the things that can cause a sudden change in your dog’s behavior.

Life Stage Transitions

You will often see changes in your dog’s behavior when he passes from puppyhood to adulthood. An improperly socialized dog will have more difficulty with this.

The better the early socialization, the easier the transition is likely to be. 

You may also see temperament changes with other stages of life: pregnancy, motherhood, and advanced age, as we’ve already touched on.

Adding a New Pet to the Family

Dogs often have a tough time adjusting to a new pet.

Behavior changes to expect are mild (or not so mild in some situations) aggression toward the “interloper,” jealousy, and a need for more attention from you.

These behaviors should all improve with time.

Loss of Another Pet

This can be especially difficult for dogs who have bonded strongly with another pet.

They can feel grief and loss, and they will need extra love and attention from you while they adjust. 

Trauma

Photo of Sad Looking Brown Dog

Dogs can experience PTSD from emotional trauma that makes them fearful and anxious. An attack by another dog or severe abuse can cause this.

Past abuse or neglect can cause them to become depressed and anxious even years later. 

PTSD symptoms can include increased aggression, hypervigilance, irritability, and lethargy. You may also see increased fear and avoidance or less responsiveness to training.

Some behavioral changes will improve on their own with time. But if you’re not noticing any movement in the right direction, you should call your vet or a dog behavioral specialist.

Medical Issues

Any sudden temperament change that you can’t explain might also be health-related. You should call your vet as soon as you notice signs of a temperament change with no apparent cause.

Can I Change My Dog’s Temperament?

The “Old Dog, New Tricks” study implies that yes, you can. Apparently, we’re already doing it without realizing it. 

William Chopik, one of the authors of the study, says that we gradually shape our dogs’ personalities with our own behaviors.

Photo of Pretty Woman With Back And White Dog
Woman with Dog enjoying the coastal outdoors

More positive interaction with your dog will result in more positive traits in his temperament. 

If that’s the case, then it makes sense that abuse and neglect would have the opposite effect on a dog’s temperament. 

Understanding this process can be crucial with a shelter rescue. A shelter dog that has had a stressful or abusive history will have traits and behaviors shaped by that experience. 

But if you bring that dog into a home with loving care and attention, that dog may relax and become more sociable. 

Another interesting finding of the study is that dogs who have had obedience lessons have more positive personality traits throughout their lives.

But apparently, not all temperament traits can be changed, or at least not easily.

The study found that fear and anxiety were less likely to change over a dog’s life span regardless of the environment.

Which Breeds Have the Best and Worst Temperaments?

As we discussed earlier, there is no such thing as a “best” or “worst” temperament.

There’s only the temperament that’s the right fit for your family.

To help you to make that decision, we’ve rounded up lists of breeds with the most commonly sought-after or unwanted temperament traits.

You might find your perfect match right here!

But please—don’t take our word for it! These breeds do have certain temperament traits in common, but each has its own sets of pros and cons.

Please do further research on any breeds on these lists that interest you. 

Best All-Around Family Breeds 

Photo of Labrador Retriever With Girl
Little Girl hugging her Labrador Retriever

Most Loyal Breeds

These are the dogs that will stand by you, no matter what.

Photo of Great Pyrenees Outdoors Being Pet By Owner
Owner petting Great Pyrenees

Breeds That Form Intense Bonds with Their Owners 

Photo of Man With Akita
Akita

These are exceptionally devoted breeds that thrive on attention from their favorite human.

If you want a dog that forms intense bonds with its owner, your perfect match might be on this list. 

Best Breeds for an Active Person or Family

Photo of Portuguese Water Dog Black Outdoors
Portuguese Water Dog

The breeds on this list have lots of energy and are always up for an adventure. They’re great companions for running, biking, hiking, and in some cases, swimming.

Best Breeds for Families That Work All Day 

Photo of Lhasa Apso Outdoors Min
Lhasa Apso

We recommend these breeds because of their independent temperaments.

However, please research carefully. Some of these breeds are not for inexperienced dog owners and can be challenging to train. 

Best Breeds for First-time Dog Owners

A group of veterinary professionals was asked by Vetstreet to name the best breeds for the new dog owner. This list was the result, with #1 being the most recommended.

Photo of Happy Woman With Yorkie Min
Yorkie with his very Happy Owner

There are dogs of all sizes and types on this list, so there’s something here for everyone. Some even come in three sizes!

Common Breeds That are Not Recommended for First-Time Dog Owners 

Photo of Aggressive Rottweiler Dog Pulling Leash On Hind Legs Min
Aggressive Rottweiler

The breeds on this list have a lot to offer the right family.

But some have strong minds of their own and can be stubborn, which can make them challenging to train.

Others need special care or have an unusually high need for exercise. 

Best Watchdog Breeds 

Photo of Doberman Pinscher Standing Outdoors
Doberman Pinscher

We recommend the following breeds because of their watchfulness, protectiveness, or guarding temperament traits. If you’re interested in one of these breeds, please research carefully. 

Some of these breeds have aggressive tendencies. Some can be unsuitable for inexperienced dog owners or families with young children. And some can be challenging to train. 

Best Breeds for Homes with Young Children

Photo of Kerry Blue Terrier and young girl | Dog Temperament
Kerry Blue Terrier Love Kids

Best Breeds for Active Seniors

Photo of Poodle White Outdoors | Poodle Temperament
Poodle

We recommend these breeds based on their loyal temperaments and being reasonably easy to care for and train.

These dogs make great companions but also have outdoor exercise needs, some breeds more than others.

Best Companion Breeds for the Elderly

Photo of Bichon Frise in front door | Dog Temperament
Bichon Frise

The breeds on this list are loyal and bond intensely with their humans.

They’re all comfortable with living in an apartment and don’t require a lot of exercise.

They make exceptional companions for seniors who live alone. 

Best Breeds for Snuggling

Photo of Two well groomed hairless Chinese Crested | Happy Temperament
Hairless Chinese Crested Dogs

These breeds are known to be loving and to enjoy cuddling. But there is a lot of variety in this list. You will want to research individual breeds to find the best match for you. 

Best Breeds for Laidback Families 

Photo of Shih Tzu  Standing Portrait Min
Shih Tzu

Some of the breeds on this list can be labeled couch potatoes. Others just like to take it easy. They all have relatively low exercise needs.

Breeds That Don’t Like Being Home Alone

These breeds wouldn’t be good choices for families where no one is home during the day. Some are prone to separation anxiety

Others have high needs for physical exercise and mental stimulation. These breeds could become destructive and cause problems with the neighbors due to excessive barking. 

French Bulldog Price and Cost
French Bulldog

LEARN MORE: For tips on how to recognize separation anxiety and how to deal with it, see the following articles: 

Ten Top Ways to Prevent Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation Anxiety in Dogs – What Signs and Symptoms to Look For?

Training Tips to Eliminate Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Helpful Medication to Treat Separation Anxiety in Dogs

To find out more about dealing with destructive temperaments, you may be interested in these articles:

Dog Temperament and Bad Dog Behavior

Is Your Dog’s Chewing Driving You Nuts? 

The Most Effective Methods to Stop Dog Barking

Most Aggressive Breeds

The breeds on this list are those who ranked highest in a study of dog bite data from 1982 to 2011. They are rated with #1 being the highest number of bites recorded.

Photo of Aggressive Barking Black Brown Dog Outdoors
  1. American Pit Bull Terrier.
  2. Bullmastiff.
  3. Rottweiler.
  4. German Shepherd.
  5. Husky.
  6. Chow Chow.
  7. Doberman Pinscher.
  8. Akita.
  9. Wolf Hybrids.

LEARN MORE

For more information on each of these breeds, please see our article The 9 Most Aggressive Dog Breeds.

To read more about dealing with dog aggression in general, please see the following articles:

How to Deal With Aggressive Dog Behavior

How to Handle Aggression Towards Other Dogs

Temperament Testing

So you’ve done your research and have a shortlist of breeds. You’re ready for the last step!

It’s time to use what you’ve learned about temperament to narrow down your choice. 

The best way to do that is with temperament testing. 

Photo of Young Woman Petting Golden Retriever Outdoors Min

Breed Temperament Testing

At the breed level, The American Temperament Test Society has already done a lot of the work for you. 

The ATTS is an organization that offers temperament testing and certification for dog owners wishing to demonstrate that their dogs have met standards in temperament.

All purebred dogs and spayed or neutered mixed breeds are eligible to participate.

The test takes 8-12 minutes and assesses a dog’s reaction to a series of 10 stimuli, including response to strangers, unexpected noise or visual stimulus, etc.

For a full description of the testing process, visit the ATTS website.

The organization keeps detailed statistics of breeds’ pass-fail ratings. With a visit to their web site, you can research your breed and get a sense of that’s breed’s stability of temperament.

For example:

  • 122 Norwegian Elkhounds have participated in the program as of 2017, and of those, 74.6% passed.
  • 130 Schipperkes tested, 91.5% passed. 
  • Interestingly, 90.9% of Staffordshire Bull Terriers passed the temperament test out of the 143 tested.
  • Mixed breeds come in at 2018 dogs tested with an 86.3% pass rate.

These statistics will give you a general idea of how the breeds you’re considering measure up.

Individual Dog Temperament Testing

Whether you decide to purchase a dog from a breeder or to adopt an adult dog, the process of testing its temperament is the same.

If you’re purchasing from a breeder, you should visit the breeder’s site several times if possible and watch the puppies interact with the mother and with each other.

Photo of White Dog Playing In Sand

Get a sense of their individual temperaments.

Some may be shy, others may be very active and confident, and still others may have a more relaxed demeanor.

Decide which temperament you would be most comfortable with, as discussed earlier in this guide.

When you’ve narrowed it down to one or two, pick up each puppy and evaluate it individually.

See our article 5 Tips For Conducting A Dog Temperament Test for a step-by-step guide on how to get an accurate evaluation of each pup before you make your choice.

If you’re adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue, the same process applies.

Spend as much time with the dog you’re interested in as you can, and use the same test to evaluate its temperament.

If the dog doesn’t ace the test, you may want to pass that one by and keep looking.

Disappointing, we know, but if the fit isn’t right, it’s the best thing to do for both yourself and the dog.

Conclusion

So there you have it. If you’ve read through this whole guide, your commitment to making a responsible decision is admirable! 

Photo of Woman Lying With Her Dog In Grass

With the right knowledge and the patience to take your time with the process, the odds are exceptional that you will be delighted with your choice.

You will be unlikely to encounter any unpleasant surprises after you’ve brought your new family member home.

You will also give that lucky dog his best possible chance at finding him his forever home.

We wish you the best of luck in finding your perfect match.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING 

  1. Anasazi Animal Care. “How will spaying change my dog?” 
  2. Coren, Stanley, Ph.D. Psychology Today. “Are there behavioral changes when dogs are spayed or neutered?”  
  3. Coren, Stanley, Ph.D. Psychology Today. “Does genetics determine a dog’s personality?”
  4. Duffy, Deborah L. et al. Applied Animal Behavior Science. “Breed differences in canine aggression.” 
  5. Everyday Health.  “How to care for your pregnant dog.”
  6. Michigan State University. “Good dog? Bad dog? Their personalities can change.” 
  7. National American Alsatian Association. “The Dire Wolf Project.” 
  8. PetMD.  “False pregnancy in female dogs.” 
  9. PetMD. “How your dog’s behavior can change with age.” 
  10. The Nest.  “Sudden changes in dog behavior.” 
  11. VetInfo.  “Interpreting dog personality change.”