What is good temperament in dogs?

What does it mean for a dog to have ‘good temperament’?

How would you describe yourself to someone new?  I think my husband might describe me as being ‘high maintenance’.  Intelligent, but a bit tricky, demanding and emotional.  Others might add that I am caring and thoughtful.  My sister would add ‘feisty’.  Thinking about my own temperament makes me realise why I love Border Collies so much – we are pretty similar.

“Beautiful Border Collies, bred for better temperament and health”

I think the picture of Aura above sums her up really well.  She is looking adoringly at me, because she wants me to throw the ball!  She is an extremely loving, caring dog who is generally happy and confident, liking nothing better than to cuddle up to you.  However, she is also a bit neurotic, as she is on the ‘fussy’ side, easily spooked and a bit wired when it comes to coping with different situations.  Aura is the most typically collie of my girls.  She gets really excited when someone arrives, squeaking and wriggling around them, wanting a fuss.  Busy tends to stay in her bed when Chris arrives home, remaining calm and slightly aloof.

Aura reacts to high-pitched noises, such as the food processor, or the knife sharpener, so she starts whining and rushing about when we open the cutlery drawer, in anticipation of ‘something happening’.  If Sunny happens to be singing ‘Happy Birthday’, Aura will get hysterical with excitement and usually bite Sunny.  Not ideal.

All these characteristics are typical for Border Collies.  They are not really a problem for us, as the house is generally pretty quiet and we are easily able to manage Aura, putting her away in another room when making soup, for example.  But they are good examples of how temperament affects the behaviour of our dogs and how we need to manage them.  A great description of Border Collies and why they are so ‘special’ can be found on the Border Collie Breed information page.

What should you be looking for?

The puppy is not like her cousin.  Ounce is much more like her mum, Busy, in that she is relatively placid and easy-going.  This is what I am aiming for in my puppies.  I would like a dog that can ‘cope’ with new situations and not worry about much. I want a dog who is confident enough to go into a new, busy environment and find it interesting and stimulating, rather than stressful.

At the same time, I want my dogs to have ‘focus’ and ‘intent’.  I want them to want to learn and do things for me.  I want them to be motivated to please me, so that I can train them to behave well and ‘work’ in agility, or in school, or doing tricks.  Other breeds of dog are far more easy-going than border collies, but they don’t care about what you want so much.  A Labrador will be happy to hang out, but won’t necessarily work too hard to figure out what you want from them, unless you have sausage of course!

How do we get good temperament?

As so often, good temperament comes down to a combination of nature and nurture.  First of all, we need good lines to breed good dogs from.  I absolutely knew that Ounce would be lovely; easy-going yet engaged, loving and bright, because both her parents are like that.  I’m feisty because I’m like my mum and my son is the same (only one of them thank goodness!)

Once we have the building blocks for good temperament in place, we then need to add to this with a good breeding environment.  As you know, I have my puppies in my house at all times.  They are constantly being handled (cuddled) and I work hard to ensure that they are exposed to as many different people as possible, usually around a hundred in the first eight weeks.

I also work on some basic bits of training and expose the pups to different experiences and all the usual noises that are in a normal family home.  Border Collies are not bred to cope with noise (see Border Collie Breed information), but early exposure really helps.

Finally, I provide my new puppy owners with plenty of information and advice on how to develop their puppies over the first few weeks and months after they take them home.  They are told to take them out and about and introduce them to a variety of situations and environments.

Can you change your dog’s temperament?

I’m not sure about this question.  I know you can change a dog’s (or a person’s) behaviour, but their underlying temperament is harder to alter.  A dog will have a predisposition to cope with life, or not. What do you think?

Ultimately, we want a dog who is happy to live the life we provide for it.  A happy dog is easy to live with and means we don’t have to spend time worrying about it all the time.  We can ask other people to look after it for us, or we can go out for a few hours, without having to rush back, thinking about it howling or wrecking the house.  We can relax in the knowledge that we will have less visits to the vet because our dog is suffering from stress-related illness.

Aura is going to be taking part in the Great Big Hairy Winter Stress Study being run by the Royal Veterinary College (for more details go to RVC Canine Epilepsy Research).  A hair sample will be examined for cortisol levels, indicating her level of stress over time.  I am going to keep a record of her behaviour and activity over the next 3 months, to demonstrate any particular incidents, so that the study can see if there is a spike in stress related to these incidents.  All of this is part of a bigger study to relate stress to epilepsy in dogs, particularly collies.

I have chosen Aura because she is the most likely to get stressed – the others are too laid back to care!  Love my princess!  NB: Stress is not always a bad thing – she is my ace agility girl after all 🙂


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