2016-10-06 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

The word “temperament” was bantered about at the Hofstra debate last week. Actually, canine connoisseurs consider “temperament” to be a “dog” term. It’s also questionable whether the candidate bragging he had a better temperament to be president would be able to pass a canine temperament test. So what does the word “temperament” mean when applied to people and to pets?

When describing people, we tend to use words like “disposition,” “demeanor,” “character” and “personality” to explain how they usually react to situations. To some, “temperament” is associated with how an animal behaves. (My connotations for the word may be influenced by immersion in the animal rescue world.)

Back before participating providers , there was an ancient Greek physician named Hippocrates (c. 460-370 B.C.) who believed certain human moods, emotions and behaviors were caused by an excess or lack of body fluids (called “humors”): blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. The interaction of the four humors created four temperament types: sanguine (optimistic and social), choleric (short-tempered or irritable), melancholic (analytical and quiet) and phlegmatic (relaxed and peaceful). Imagine life where each person fit into one of these categories.


A shelter dog being tested for food aggression A shelter dog being tested for food aggression Another ongoing debate concerns how much of our personality is innate and how much is formed by environment. Medicine and psychology have evolved quite a bit since Hippocrates. However, some still feel we are born with our personalities already formed.

On the same topic, I heard an animal behaviorist insist “food aggression” was not influenced by deprivation. This means a dog showing food aggression (not allowing a person or animal near his dish) would growl or lunge, showing the dangerous trait even if he always lived in a home where meals were plentiful, whereas a starved dog without food aggression would allow you to take food out of his bowl.

This seems to be true about Edgar who came from a hoarder house with 67 Afghan Hounds where food was scarce. He lets Charlotte his Toy Spaniel sister steal food from his dish and biscuit bits from his mouth. His early experience with hunger and fending for himself did not make him possessive of food. I would love to know how many Afghan survivors in his household were similar. They came from different lines.

Dog temperament is the inborn and acquired traits of an animal which regulate and control its response to the environment. Trainers and breeders are looking for dogs of “sound temperament.” Basically, a dog of sound temperament is able to adapt easily to stimulus in their surroundings without being overly aggressive or shy. However, there is a lot of breed variation and a “sound” German Shepherd, bred to herd and guard, will most likely be more reactive than a “sound” Labrador Retriever. A combination of genetics combined with early life experiences (especially the first 16 weeks) shape the overall behavior patterns of the dog.

Breeds have been refined over years so dogs would excel at specific tasks. Golden Retrievers have been carefully bred for a bright and friendly attitude so as to be able to work better with hunters in close quarters. Being a retrieving type breed, they needed to have a soft-carrying mouth to hold birds without puncturing. These traits contribute to their family dog appeal. Contrast this with Terriers who have been designed over many generations to be adept at killing rodents close to the ground. This leads to exaggerated behavior in the form of shaking things, alert attitude and sensitivity to movement and sound. Hence, the scrappy temperament even includes the tiny Yorkshire Terrier who may be more yappy and difficult for a dog novice to control than a Golden Retriever.

When breeders choose individuals with ideal temperaments as breeding stock over many generations, the overall breed type develops and becomes more uniform. This includes conformation and temperament. The Guide Dog Foundation and Canine Companions for Independence breed their own dogs. Dogs that excel during training often become breeding stock rather than actual service dogs in hopes of producing more shining stars to help the disabled.

Temperament tests: Town shelters are filled to the gills with stray dogs with unknown histories, and owner surrenders where histories are spotty or not completely truthful. Many shelters use temperament tests as an assessment tool to avoid putting a dangerous dog up for adoption, and to know more about each dog to make appropriate placements and to determine which volunteers can safely handle the dog.

But temperament tests are only a snapshot in time; not a guarantee of future behavior in a home. The tests can also be flawed by the bias of the tester toward a particular dog. Temperament tests should not be conducted on new entrants because of stress. It takes several days for cortisol levels in the brain to subside.

SAFER, developed by Dr. Emily Weiss of the ASPCA, is one of the most widely used behavioral tests. It’s a seven-item aggression assessment that identifies the dog’s comfort level with restraint and touch, reaction to new experiences including movement and sound stimuli, bite inhibition, behavior around food and toys and arousal levels towards other dogs. The evaluators work as a team, and choose from a “graded” list of reactions to each test. There’s a petting and a pinch test. Some shelters have modified SAFER or use a combination of tests to suit their needs.

One evaluator dresses in a long coat or mask and uses a cane for the stranger/danger test. A doll simulates a child. (Many dogs are not fooled.) The rubber Assess-a-Hand® on a stick (patented by Sue Sternberg) is used when testing for food aggression. The push-out and taking of the bowl is done with the fake hand for safety’s sake.

If a dog shows food aggression or resource guarding, the staff and volunteers need to know, and training exercises must be introduced to try to modify the behavior. Years ago I was at a conference in California and shared a cab with Dr. Weiss. We were talking about a difficult LI shelter dog. She said food aggression was one of the easier problems to rectify. Sure wish we could fly her in whenever we needed her to show us how.

For Adoption at Babylon Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Hunter” 16-520 is yet another Beagle abandoned on the Edgewood property. He is incredibly friendly. Pretty “Abbie” 6-234 is waiting to go home after nursing her litter of six kittens.

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