Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He works mostly with dogs and also spends time training and caring for his own canine family.
Temperament and Personality Types in Dogs
Are you ready to go to your local animal shelter and choose your new dog? Temperament is the attitude a dog has towards people and the world around him. Testing a dog's temperament allows the shelter staff to identify dogs that are most likely to bite.
In most shelters, the dogs have already been tested for temperament by shelter personnel. Some of the dogs are sad, depressed, and stressed out because of the recent move and the loss of their family, but most of them will display their normal temperament, at least part of the time, during their forced visit and allow for temperament testing.
Here are the normal types of dog personalities you are going to run into:
- “Happy-go-lucky”: This is the default personality for most of the dogs you and I run into every day, and most of the dogs at shelters that have already undergone some temperament testing (or at least some behavioral evaluation) are going to be this type of dog. Not everyone wants a happy dog that is easy to get along with, but from the shelter's standpoint, this is the safest type of dog to adopt.
- Independent: These dogs might be a lot quieter than the happy-go-lucky type but are not aggressive to humans at all. (Most dogs with this personality are good watchdogs and defend their yard but are not aggressive with other dogs.) If your dog is going to be around the house all day and not have many visitors, an independent dog is better than a happy-go-lucky type. Many of the senior dogs that are given up at shelters are independent special cases and deserve to be looked at by those not looking for a bouncy, in-your-face kind of dog.
- Fearful: This kind of dog may act normal and quiet most of the time but under certain circumstances can display fear by acting nervous, shy, and fear-aggressive. If shelter staff see this kind of dog growling and snapping when being fed, playing with a toy, or being taken out for a walk, they may realize the dog's potential for biting and take the dog off the adoption list.
- Aggressive: (Also can be the dominant and over-confident personality type) This dog may feel the need to defend his territory, attack other dogs, and may also dislike being touched or given commands. Most of the aggressive dogs have already been identified by shelter staff so you should not run into too many of them, but if the dog you take home for personality testing is aggressive he is not likely to become a good family pet.
How to Test Your Dog's Personality
Take the dog away from the shelter
Happy to go for a walk
May remain stiff or even growl
Does not mind leaving shelter
Put on leash
Willing and interested in putting on the leash, which means he will be going outside
Barks and lunges at strange dogs
Usually does not act excited or nervous
Talk to the dog
Enjoys being talked to
May hunch down, act like being hurt
May mount or jump up on the person speaking in a high voice (this is not being friendly!)
Listens but not overly expressive
Introduce other pets
Ignores or plays with other pets
Likely afraid of other animals
Barks and pulls in an effort to reach other pets
Ignores other pets, may chase cats
Play and toss some dog toys
Plays and retrieves toys
Will not fetch or play in any way
If excited he barks, mounts, jumps up
Looks at the toy that you throw without fetching, may get excited but do something else like dig a hole
Will Your New Dog Do Well in Their New Home?
Shelter personnel may not have much time to devote to evaluating each dog, so although they may take out the obviously aggressive or fear-biter animals, it is still up to you to figure out which dog is going to do well with your family. This is not a temperament test, and it should be done by his new family, not by a professional dog handler. What you want to find out during this test is if the dog is going to work out in your environment.
Here are a few steps you should follow to find out if that dog to see is going to get along:
- Ask to take the dog away from the shelter: The shelter will not always allow you to take a dog home for evaluation, but it is very important since not all dogs are going to act the same inside the shelter. Tell them about the new adoptees' home environment, if they ask. If they also make you fill out paperwork and a questionnaire, or leave a deposit, do not be surprised.
- Put the dog on his leash: If the dog you are interested in adopting is shy and nervous when you put his leash on him, be careful. Shelter personnel does not want to adopt out fear biters but it does happen and this may be the earliest thing you notice. If the dog is fearful he is not a good choice for a family with small children.
- Talk to the dog: Since you are not really aware of your new dogs' personality until you take him home, how he responds to your voice is going to tell you a lot. If you are the kind of person that speaks baby talk to your dogs, a dominant/aggressive dog will probably assume that he is in charge. An independent dog will probably not care, and a happy dog will just assume that all is normal.
- Watch the dog around your other pets: If the dog treats your cat like prey, and tries to chase her as soon as being introduced, it may be treatable but it is still a problem. Some dogs that you bring home to evaluate will just ignore the cat or the old dog. (If you have a hamster, a pet rat, or even a pet as large as a rabbit, be very careful. Your new dog may end up killing your small pet when introduced, and a tragedy like this can happen all too quickly.)
- Throw him some toys: Reaction to toys will tell you a lot about how a new dog is going to fit in with your family. If your dog ignores the toys, he is probably independent. A happy dog will likely bring a toy back to you, and puppies that are going to be trained to be service dogs are chosen for their willingness to fetch for their owners. These dogs are often great for families.
- If the personality testing goes well, take your new dog to his new regular veterinarian: The shelter has probably already done some brief health exams and might recommend a vet on their list. If you have a regular vet, however, take the dog you are interested in adopting and have him examined before taking him home and becoming attached.
(Temperament testing can also involve a dog´s reaction to being pet, a strange object, a loud noise, and his behavior when given food. All of these things can be important, but if you take a dog home and run through the tests listed above you will be able to determine what type of personality you are dealing with.)
Which Dog's Personality Is Best?
One of my dogs has an independent personality type. She is quiet most of the time, sure of her place in the world, and is confident enough to sleep in another part of the house without needing to look at me or seek my approval. She needs me when it is time to be fed, when she needs to go for a walk, and for about 15 seconds when I get home in the evening.
An independent dog is special and definitely the best personality type.
Another of my dogs is the happy-go-lucky type, and although she is a lot of fun she does require a lot more of my time and attention. When I come home after a long day and just need to relax and take a nap, my happy dog is not going to allow it before I spend some time scratching her ears and talking with her. If I am in the mood for a long walk on the beach and want to play fetch with the sticks I find, the happy-go-lucky dog is more than willing to interact with me while the independent dog goes off walking alone.
A happy dog is special and definitely the best personality type.
I do not own an aggressive dog. I spend a lot of time training aggressive animals, and in my opinion, most of these dogs were made aggressive through their owner´s actions or ignorance. An aggressive personality never has to develop. Even a dominant puppy will develop an independent personality if put into a household where he does not feel the need to be aggressive.
Do independent and happy-go-lucky dogs get along? Sure they do. My independent dog actually chose the happy dog when we were visiting a rescue group one day. Although she is cold towards most other dogs, when she met this happy little female, they played and I decided to take her home. Dogs with different personality types can become amiable pack members and do not feel the need to fight for dominance.
Do Your Research When It Comes to Adoption
There are plenty of places to look if want to learn to select a new dog who does not shed much, a dog that does not bark much, or even a breed or mixed breed that sleeps a lot. Reading and learning more about dogs will give you the best chance of finding the perfect companion. And, although all of these things are important, consider which personality type is going to be best suited to your situation most days. Look around. The shelter may have just the dog you are looking for.
- Miller DM, Stats SR, Partlo BS, et al. Factors associated with the decision to surrender a pet to an animal shelter. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1996; 209: 738-742.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Mark dos Anjos DVM (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on March 16, 2017:
Thanks so much for stopping by, Bob. At the humane society that I volunteered at, over 25 years ago, most of the volunteers were doing court mandated community service so had no training at all! Still, they all cared about their dogs a few people always tried to do behavioral evaluation before the dogs were put up for adoption. I know some fear biters always got through, though, so I hope anyone adopting from a shelter evaluates for himself before taking a dog home for good.
Bob Bamberg on March 16, 2017:
You get better with age, Doc! This is a really good guide not only for people contemplating adopting a shelter dog, but for shelter workers as well. I'm not aware of any standard shelter training, so some volunteers are not as well trained as others. I'll bet even seasoned shelter volunteers can learn something from this.