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Temperament Evaluation
In Rescued Dogs

by Vicki DeGruy, Wisconsin Chow Chow Rescue

Today I'm going to cover a topic that's critically important to breed rescue --  temperament and temperament evaluation. Temperament is equally important to dog breeders so even if you're not a rescuer, I think you'll still get something out of it.

Purpose of rescue & breeding

First of all, why do we rescue? What's the purpose of it? The answer's obvious - to save canine lives.

Why do we breed? That's obvious, too - to create canine lives.

That's the easy part. Anybody can do that. But we can't keep all these lives for ourselves so the next thing is to find good homes for them. That's the hard part. To be successful in rescue or breeding, and this is where breeders and rescuers probably have the most in common, we need to provide good pets for good people. If the dogs we're trying to place aren't good pets, nobody's going to want them.

Who are we adopting to?

We don't like to think of rescue or dog breeding as a business but a lot of business concepts apply here. To be successful, a business has to know the answers to two very important questions: 1) what kind of people want our product? and 2) what kind of product do these people want? You'll have an easier time defining what good temperament means to you if you target the market you're "selling" to and understand what that market wants.

So who are we adopting to? In my experience, the average people looking for pet dogs are young married couples with a few small children between the ages of 1 and 8. Both spouses work, they have friends and relatives over a lot, it's a busy household. Another large group are the newly marrieds who'll be having kids in the next few years. If they had a dog before, it was a common popular breed like a Cocker or a Lab and it was most likely the one that they grew up with as children - Ol' Shep that they remember with rose-colored glasses. They don't have much training experience because Ol' Shep was born already knowing everything.

What people want in a pet

Now that we know who we're dealing with, what is they want? What is their idea of a good temperament?

Families like this need a stable dog that doesn't startle or snap easily, is confident enough to handle the noise and bustle of a busy home, is protective yet smart enough to tell the difference between the average stranger and a genuine threat. He shouldn't have to tolerate abuse from children but his reaction should be to walk away, not growl or bite. He should be able to tolerate handling from strangers while he's on walks, at the vet, groomer or boarding kennel. He needs to be loyal but adaptable enough to adjust to a stay in a boarding kennel or with a friend while the family goes on vacation.

To an extent, a good temperament can be breed specific - what's considered good in your breed might not be good in mine. There are still a lot of generalizations we can make, though, that apply to almost every breed: a dog with a good temperament is happy and cheerful, he's trusting and has an optimistic outlook on life.

He enjoys human companionship, he wants to be near people and he's eager to please. He looks to people for direction and can accept appropriate discipline. There's room for breed specific variation in all these characteristics but overall, they meet most breeds' standards for good temperament without comprising the breed's basic nature.

There's one thing people want most in a pet dog and that's good temperament. They're willing to compromise on breed, size, sex, age, appearance, intelligence and certain aspects of behavior but not temperament. They demand a dog that's friendly, reliable, trainable and above all, safe to handle and live with.


Temperament Problems 

Now that we understand "good" temperament, what is a "bad" one? Truly evil dogs are rare but many dogs have problems that interfere with their ability to be good pets.

The most common temperament problems I see are shyness, fear-biting, various forms of aggression and dominance. These problems can be man-made or inherited. Man-made problems occur from abuse, improper training or a lack of any training or socialization. Some man-made problems can be corrected with appropriate training and good care.

Inherited problems are there for the duration. Personality is as inherited as coat color or conformation. The dog has been genetically programmed to think and behave in a certain manner. The problems can be modified and often made better but they never really go away.


My breed provides a good example when we take a look at shyness. Suspicion of strangers is part of the Chow's basic nature but scooting under tables to hide from visitors is not. The most common misconception in dogs is that all shy dogs must have been abused at some point in their lives. It ain't so. Shyness _can_ come from abuse, but the vast majority of shy dogs were born that way. It's an inherited personality defect. They've been abused by bad genes, not by bad people.

Socialization and obedience training helps build confidence and can make some of them into acceptable pets but a dog that inherited his shyness will never be as confident and comfortable as the one that just needs a little socialization.

Shy dogs are problems in rescue because they don't handle change well. They have trouble adapting to new homes and situations. They need homes that will provide structure and stability because they fall apart around anything that scares them or that they don't understand. Shyness comes in degrees - from dogs that are just a little flighty to ones that are so paranoid that their lives are nothing but stress.

People feel sorry for shy dogs and often adopt them because they think that, with enough love, the dog will eventually straighten out. Rescues often spend lots of time and money on them thinking the same thing. The results, though, can often be pretty disappointing.



Fear-biting is an extreme form of shyness. Although many shy dogs would never bare a tooth if their lives depended on it, fear-biters can and will bite anytime they feel threatened, whether or not a threat actually exists.

Dogs react to what they perceive as danger by running or fighting. Shy dogs run away. Aggressive dogs fight. Fear-biters panic. They don't know what they should do so they try some of each. Sometimes they try to fight and run at the same time! They send mixed up signals because they don't know what to do - so you don't know what they're going to do either. In their panic, some of them lose control over the force of their biting causing a lot of injury in just a few seconds. I consider fear-biters to be more dangerous than outright aggressive dogs because they're so unpredictable. You never know what will set them off and how they'll react. I believe that they're mentally unstable and I don't consider them adoptable.



There are so many different forms of aggression problems that it's too big a subject for today. I'm just going to talk briefly about two of the most common - aggression toward other animals and dominance aggression.

Aggression toward animals

Until recently, I didn't consider aggression toward animals to be a very big deal. After all, that and a tendency toward fighting is part of my breed's nature. It's part of the nature of lots of other breeds, too. However, most of the public has forgotten what some of our breeds were created for and that all dogs, essentially, are predators. There've been a lot of good dogs needlessly destroyed because their owners panicked when they saw them rip apart an opossum or the neighbor's cat and wrongly assumed their kids were going to be next.

Fortunately, aggression toward animals and aggression toward people are two different things in the mind of a dog and one seldom leads to the other. But -- a dog with such a high prey drive that it is impossible to take it for a walk or to obedience classes or goes through fences (and sometimes, doors and windows) to go after another animal is a tough dog to live with and it can't be controlled by the average family.

Since Wisconsin law and the laws of several other states say that biting a domestic animal carries the same legal consequences as biting a human, an animal aggressive dog also carries some liability baggage. So I've taken another look at what we consider to be adoptable when it comes to dogs with animal aggression problems.

Dogs that can't get along with other dogs in the same household, even if they're absolutely super with people and kids, are another rescue problem. Many of these dogs can be fixed with training because their incompatibilities are actually caused by the people in their families. However, there are some dogs that can't get along with _any_ other dog for any length of time no matter what you do with them.

The need to be an only dog limits their placement potential a great deal because most people want to have the option of adding a second dog someday or are looking to adopt a companion for the dog they already have.


Dominance and dominance aggression

Now we come to what I consider the most common and most interesting temperament issue of all - dominance problems. Chows along with many of the northern, oriental and terrier breeds are naturally domineering creatures. Without firm leadership from their people, they can quickly take over and tyranize a whole household. They can be pretty subtle about it, too -- you might not realize you have a problem until the dog is several years old. Dominance issues aren't limited to these breeds, though, you'll find them in every one right down to the toys. In fact, toys can be as bad as the big dogs.

The majority of dominance problems occur because people don't understand the canine social structure. Dog society is not a democracy, it's a dictatorship. There's one leader who makes all the rules and everyone else follows them. Nobody argues. We call the leader "alpha", a word that the dictionary defines as "first".

Just as there are natural born leaders in the human world, there are natural leaders among dogs. It's an inherited tendency. You can tell the alphas easily both as puppies and adults. They're the first ones out of the whelping box. They rule the food dish, they're the first ones out the door, they're not afraid of much and they argue the most when you make them do something they don't want to.

An alpha dog isn't necessarily a bad thing. Alpha dogs are highly confident, self assured and they make the best show dogs because they have the most ring attitude. Show breeders deliberately select for alpha qualities whether they realize it or not. Alpha dogs can make very good pets because they're often exceptionally friendly and good with children. They take everything in stride and aren't easily rattled. As long as their owners have stronger personalities than they do, everything is fine. An alpha dog may challenge your leadership once in a while but he'll obey you if you always keep the upper hand.

Trouble starts

The trouble starts when an alpha dog is allowed to become dominant over his family. The dictionary defines "dominate" as: "to rule by superior power". Although the terms are often used interchangeably, I consider alpha and dominant to be two somewhat different things. An alpha dog wants to be first in his "pack". A dominant dog _is_ first. This can be a big difference!

The dominant dog knows he has the upper hand, whether you know it or not! Dominant dogs are made, not born. Lack of training and discipline and/or the owner's failure to recognize and deal with an alpha dog's challenges are what creates dominant dogs. It can be hard to recognize a truly dominant dog. They're often very well-behaved, loving and easy to live with - until you push them or threaten their leadership position.

Most dominant dogs aren't outwardly aggressive but they'll react with greater violence than other dogs. You see....Alpha dogs challenge - but dominant dogs _defend_.  Alpha dogs challenge when they feel their leader can be defeated. A dominant dog defends his position against challenges and he'll use whatever force he feels is necessary. A dominant dog considers you to be subordinate to him so he won't tolerate your corrections or discipline. He might humor you for a while, sometimes for years, until the day comes when he's had enough of your nonsense. Dominant dogs will also punish you for crimes they think you've committed. They _will_ bite you if they think you have it coming.

How does an alpha dog become dominant? It's easy, actually and starts innocently enough. A lot of pet owners buy alpha dogs without realizing it. How many times have you heard someone say very proudly: "I didn't pick that puppy...he picked -me-!"   Well, that's not exactly what happened.... What happened is that the most alpha puppy in the litter, true to his highly confident and fearless nature, strode boldly up the visitors, looked them in the eye and said "Hey, look at me! I'm the leader of this bunch! Who are you?" Completely misinterpreting this big red flag the puppy's waving, the buyer falls instantly in love and takes home more than he's prepared to handle.

As I said earlier, most people don't understand the canine social structure. Instead of providing firm, consistent leadership from day one, they treat the puppy as if it's a little kid in a furry suit and give it all the privileges of being a person. Except for teaching it to sit for treats and walk on a leash, they don't do any real training. Before long, the puppy's figured out that no one's really in control here. Since he's hardwired by nature to either lead or be led, he decides he'd better assume the position since no one else has.

Lest you think that only the natural alpha's have this potential, many lower ranking puppies will undergo an interesting personality change when they're removed from their litters. With no mom or siblings to beat up on them and no adequate human leadership, these once meek and mild puppies can also grow up to be little tyrants.

Many of the young Chows we get in rescue are alpha's on the edge of achieving dominance. They're usually spoiled brats who were never taught anything. We find this in dogs that have spent their whole lives chained up outdoors, too. They weren't spoiled but no one has ever taught them that they weren't king of their little worlds.

Once they're in our program, they find out pretty quickly that things are different here and they're expected to do what they're told. As long as their temperaments were fundamentally sound, we've had good luck with these dogs once they get their attitudes adjusted. They do require adopters, though, that are strong willed and understand what the dog's position in the family is supposed to be.

A dog who's enjoyed a dominant position for some time, though, is another story. This dog isn't going to give up his spot easily, if at all. He likes being in charge and he has every intention of staying there. It's sometimes possible to turn these dogs around in rescue but they don't always stay turned around.


Evaluating temperament

Evaluating temperament is a lot like judging dogs at a show. If you have a standard in your mind -- a standard for good temperament -- you compare the dog to it and see how close he comes. If he has faults in some areas, you need to decide whether those faults interfere with his ability to be an appropriate pet and how much.

Unlike conformation which is right out there for you to see, temperament qualities aren't always easily visible. It can take time to find out what a dog is like. In my opinion, many rescue groups don't keep their foster dogs long enough to really know what they have. It's been my experience that most new dogs are on their best behavior for the first 2 to 3 weeks while they settle in to their new environment.  When they first arrive, they don't know your rules, they don't know how far they can push you, they don't know what they can get away with. Once they've figured that all out, then you start to see the _real_ dog, for good or bad.

Initial temperament evaluation - shelters

In rescue, the first contact we have with most dogs is at the animal shelter. This is, really, a poor place to evaluate them because of all the various stresses they're under. You also have to make a quick judgement -- either the dog might have potential for your program or it doesn't. The finer points of evaluation are going to have to wait until the dog is actually home with you.

Body Language

At shelters, I like to take the dog outside and spend most of my time just observing him, watching his body language and his posture, how he deals with his sorroundings. An alpha dog is confident and fearless. He stands tall -- his head, ears and tail are carried high and forward even when he's in strange territory or meeting new people. Just _how_ alpha he is will have to be determined later. A more submissive dog is a little apprehensive -- when he greets you or is taken into a strange place, his head is slightly lowered and his ears are back or off to the sides. A fearful dog isn't necessarily a write-off, his degree of fear will determine that. It could be considered normal for a fearful dog to slink through the shelter's waiting room, but if he's in a panic, wrapping himself around your legs or trying to bolt and run, he could have some serious problems with shyness.



A dog's eyes will tell you a great deal regardless of breed. Some people can do this automatically, for others it takes practice. You can and should read a dog's eyes without making direct eye contact. I want to see what I call a "soft" eye, frightened maybe but it has a look to it that tells you the dog won't hurt you unless it absolutely must. It has a warm, hopeful expression. A freaky dog has a panicked look. This kind of dog might bite without much provocation even if it's not a "mean" dog. A really smart dog will have a sparkle to the eye even if it's frightened. You can see that it's thinking about what's going on and what it's going to do next. Then there are the hard, cold eyes of a truly nasty creature although it may not act nasty. My husband calls these "empty" eyes. Fortunately, you won't see many of those and I shouldn't have to tell you not to mess with them.



Once I've given the dog time to run around a little and enjoy himself, I start to handle him. My first test is a bit of a risky one and you shouldn't try it if you feel uncomfortable or don't have good reflexes. But I think it's very important and if the dog flunks, it saves me the rest of the evaluation. It's the "startle" test.

With the dog facing away from me, concentrating on something else, I walk up behind him and lightly brush my fingers down his back. If the dog doesn't react, he gets an A. If he startles and turns around in surprise, he gets a B. If he gives me a highly annoyed look, he passes for now but he'll need more evaluation later. If he growls or snaps at me, he flunks and gets sent back to the shelter with a recommendation that he not be put up for adoption.

This test might seem a little unfair. After all, we're taught not to do this to dogs and we get really mad at show judges that come up on our dogs from behind. But -- this is a common occurrence in pet homes especially homes with children. Kids run up on dogs from behind all the time, they fall on them when they're sleeping, they drop things on them, they trip over them, they hug them. A family dog _has_ to be able to handle this and if the dog can't, I don't want it in my adoption program.


Ears, Teeth, Feet, etc.

Once the dog passes the startle test, we do more handling. This is done with me in a standing position and in a friendly but matter of fact way. Don't get down on your knees or coochy-coo to a dog you don't know -- if he's an alpha dog, he might try to dominate you and and if he's a dominant dog, he might actually attack you. You should always maintain an alpha posture and attitude without being intimidating. Avoid direct eye contact.

I look in the ears, look at the teeth, pick up feet, run my hands over his body. I tug gently on his ears and tail, I bump into him with my knee. I grade the reactions similar to the startle test -- no reaction is excellent, scared is okay (for now) and slightly annoyed isn't necessarily an F. But growling, snapping or that look in the eye that says "Lady, don't push me!" is grounds for failure.

This is about all the temperament evaluation I feel I can do accurately in a shelter environment.  It is not meant to be a definitive judgement -- it simply gives me a basic idea as to the dog's adoptabilty and whether I want it in my rescue program.

Cat Testing

If the shelter allows, and most of them will, I take the opportunity to do a little cat testing. I don't have cats but a lot of our adopters do. Most shelters have cats hanging around the waiting room or in a cat kennel area. All I want to see is the dog's basic reaction to them -- does he ignore them, show some curiousity or is he lunging and barking trying to get to them? I don't use this test to determine adoptability, I just try to get an idea of potential for compatibility in a home with small pets.


Once they're home

We normally don't put new dogs on our adoption listing for at least 30 days. During this time, they're critically observed, handled every day, groomed, taken to the vet, put under stress and experience corrections. We pet them while they're eating, we introduce them to other dogs, we teach them some basic manners (not to bolt out of doors, for example). We push them, especially the alpha dogs. What do they do when they're corrected or yelled at?

The standard by which we evaluate behavior is - how do they handle the kinds of things they will be exposed to every day in the average adoptive home? Are they safe for the average family? Imagine the kinds of things the dog will encounter - kids that hug and pull on tails, the mailman, the vet, the neighbors, a walk on the street, toys and food dishes - and test him with them. Does he react predictably and in a non-aggressive manner? Be especially critical after the first two weeks have gone by because now the dog is more comfortable with you and will let his real personality show.


Biting dogs

One of the biggest concerns for rescues and dog clubs in today's society is liability. It isn't a problem for breeders yet but I think someday it will be. Many clubs are terrified of getting into rescue for fear of being sued over something a rescued dog does after it's been adopted. And I'll be honest -- it's a legitimate concern.

The subject of liability is so big that it's a program in itself. So all I'm going to talk about today is the probably the biggest liability issue and the one that's also the easiest to avoid. That has to do with dogs that bite or have a strong potential for biting.

The laws of most states are pretty strict -- the owner or caretaker of a dog is liable for any damages or injuries the dog causes. In addition, the many states declare a dog to be "dangerous" or even "vicious" after its first bite (whether it bites person or animal), putting special restrictions on the ownership of such a dog or even ordering it destroyed. Here in Wisconsin, if a dog with one bite already on record bites again, the injured party is allowed to sue for _double_ damages. That $20,000 plastic surgery bill just jumped to $40,000 and that doesn't include money for pain and suffering, scarring and punitive damages if the court determined your negligence caused the incident in the first place.

Most of us have homeowners insurance that covers these things if they happen on our property. But as some of you might already know, the insurance company will only cover the first incident. After that, they'll cancel your policy.

There are insurance policies now for clubs that do rescue but they only cover injuries that occur while the dog is still in the rescue's care -- they won't cover something that happens once the dog has been placed.  And this, of course, is where there is the most risk -- after the dog has been placed. We can't control what the dog does or what the adopter does with it. But if it can be determined that we were negligent in some way -- either in the evaluation or placement of that dog, we could still be held liable for a bite that happens after the dog is in its new home.


Biting dogs - protecting against liability

The most important step that you can take to protect yourself is to _never_ place a dog that has bitten someone. I can't stress this enough. No matter how minor the bite or the circumstances. The law doesn't make a distinction between a big bite and a little one. If you want to be safe, neither should you. In many states, the law also doesn't take into account mitigating circumstances. Whether or not the dog was provoked may not make a difference in the final judgement.

It's not fair, that's for sure. Dogs have teeth and anyone with a lick of common sense knows that they might see fit to use them once in a while. But the bottom line today is that our society, our legislators and our insurance companies no longer understand canine behavior and they no longer tolerate dogs that bite. Period. If you place a dog with a bite history or one that displays a high potential for biting, you're taking a huge risk that you can't afford.

Bite issues come up often in rescue and they can be heartbreakers. Perfectly good dog bit a child and for just cause. Can you safely place him even in a home without kids?   No. Can _you_ keep him?  No, not if you want to keep your insurance. There's no option for that poor dog except euthanasia. Not if you want to make sure you always get to keep your house and your rescue or club keeps its assets.


Bite potential

The issue of bite potential comes up with every dog you rescue and needs to be determined in your temperament evaluation. Obviously, if the dog has teeth, he might find the opportunity to use them someday so when it comes down to it, every dog has bite potential. But some have more potential than others and that can usually be assessed in your evaluation.

This is why I consider the "startle" test critically important as well as the dog's ability to accept authority and corrections. These are areas where bites are likely to occur in an adoptive home.

It's essential that you be objective in your evaluation and not make excuses for the dog's behavior. "Gee, he must've been scared once by a man with a beard" or "he'll be okay as long as kids don't run up behind him". We hear excuses at dog shows, too: "he doesn't like male judges", "that judge shouldn't have touched him like that!"

These excuses won't hold up in court. If a dog threatens or appears likely to bite under the circumstances he can expect to meet in his day to day life - he's not a candidate for adoption and he's not fit for a breeding program either.

Trust Your Instincts

In your evaluations, I also think it's critically important to trust your instincts as well as your judgement. There are going to be times when a dog passes all your tests but for some reason, he still makes you uncomfortable. You don't quite trust him. Well, most of the time, our instincts are right. There's something wrong with that dog even you can't explain what it is. You should listen to those instincts and not place the dog.

The cases are especially tough because you want to second guess yourself and if you do, you really won't know which way to go with it. You can't rationally explain why you think the dog shouldn't be placed and you worry that people will think you're crazy.

I had two situations where I felt like this and didn't listen to my instincts. The first one involved a dog at a shelter that some friends of mine looked at for me. They have longer experience in the breed than I and they thought the dog was great.  As soon as I saw him, I didn't like him. I didn't know why, he was a friendly dog and passed all my shelter tests. But I still didn't like him and my insides said to leave him there. I took him home anyway and things were fine for awhile until I had to correct him for something. All I did was scold him and he tried to attack me. Needless to say, he wasn't put up for adoption.

The second case didn't end so well and it will always bother me. This was a young alpha dog with a lot of potential but he didn't like _me_ and I didn't like _him_.  He and I had some difficulties at the beginning but we came to an understanding and after that, we got along fine. But I still didn't quite trust him. Because of that, we tested that dog extensively and he passed with flying colors. Everyone who met him really liked him, even my husband who's  as critical as I am. I began to wonder if I was just prejudiced against the dog and whether I was even capable of making accurate evaluations anymore. I didn't feel the dog was safe but nobody else agreed. So we placed him and everything went well for the first few weeks. Until he seriously injured a relative of his adopters.

So, trust your evaluations and your tests but also trust your instincts. If you have to make a mistake, make it on the side of safety. Don't make excuses and don't take chances. No dog's life is worth a child's face or a million dollar lawsuit.



There are so many variations of canine temperament and behavior that it's impossible to go into the "what if's" of adoptability here today. Things like "what if he's perfect with almost everything but he growls if you take his food"? Likewise, there's no time today to go into dealing with all these behavior variations. The main point I want to make is that you will have the most success in your rescue program and your breeding program if you concentrate your resources on dogs that can easily fit into the _average_ family because that's who you're going to be dealing with most.

It's as easy to become kennel blind in rescue as it is in breeding. You need to be objective and judge the dogs with your mind, not your heart. It's especially tough in rescue to put your emotions aside because our hearts are what got us into this in the first place. But if you invest a lot of time, space and money into dogs that have to fit into special niches in order to live as pets, a lot of good family dogs will die because you won't have the resources to get them out of the shelters.

The thing people want most in a pet dog is a good temperament. They'll compromise on just about everything else except that. Today's society demands a dog that's friendly, reliable, trainable and above all, safe to handle and live with. If we're going to be successful and be allowed to stay in business, that's what we have to give them.

Origninally presented at a 1998 meeting of the Badger Kennel Club,
this article is copyrighted by author, Vicki DeGruy, and appears here with permission.
For permission to reprint, contact us..



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