As breeders, many buyers are looking to us to help them figure out what dog will be the best fit for them. Which puppy will fit their needs? They want the Goldilocks puppy, the one who isn’t too much, nor not enough, the one that is just right…but how do we start sorting that out? How do you know which puppy is the best fit for them? What do you look for?
There seem to be two camps out there, there are the breeders that “just know” and there are those who rely heavily on temperament testing, even going so far as to hire someone to officially temperament test the pups. These tests usually come with scoring rubrics.
At the base of all these temperament tests the idea is that we are comparing the puppies to one another and then again to other litters and other dogs in our breed, and then further against other dogs in other breeds.
To zoom out a little, we live in a world of polarity, polarity being black and white, opposites, yin and yang if you will. Why does this matter? Well we really only understand things based on their relationship to other things, we only understand light, by also understanding darkness. It is the contrast of the two that gives us full understanding. If you only have one teacher in mathematics, you will never really know if they’re good or bad, but when you have a bad teacher it helps you appreciate your good teachers. Much the same it is hard to appreciate a good relationship without a few bad experiences. Maybe this is why so many people carry long trauma from their relationship with their parents, most people only have one, so they have a hard time comparing what was good or bad, at least not until later. A parental relationship is so all-consuming when you’re little, such a big part of our worlds.
Using temperament & drive to find the right home for your dog
Temperament and drive, much like polarity are all about comparison and ranking. The big thing that we need to first understand is that most of the time, you couldn’t say this dog has a bad temperament or a good temperament, implying one is better than the other, but more so, that temperament will be good or bad when compared with the home that it’s going to.
This is easier to understand when thinking about drive, so let’s start there. Drive is inclination a dog has to do the thing it was bred to do. For a bird dog that’s hunting birds, for a livestock guardian, that’s protecting livestock, and a guard dog that’s guarding. Think of drive like a slider bar, on the left the dog has no desire to do the thing it was originally bred to do, and on the right, he has so much drive to do that thing that he has very little ability to think about anything else. A dog with little drive will be hard to motivate to do that thing, while the dog with super high drive will be difficult to have focus on anything else. Take the bird dogs with super high drive. If you want to play fetch with them and birds are around, they may get distracted, lose the ball, and they’re off hunting the birds, conveniently not hearing you call their name to bring them back.
The key to success with a buyer and a dog is finding the right drive for the lifestyle of the buyer. If the buyer never hunts, then a bird dog with high drive may be difficult to take anywhere where there are birds and expect the dog to relax. Can it be done? Yes, of course, but will it be easy? No, not as much as if the dog had a lower drive to begin with.
Now, we can also assess this with temperament. It might be fair to say that drive is a dimension of temperament. You could say that personality is also a dimension of temperament. It would be an interesting discussion to have for sure. I like to break them up a bit, on temperament, I often apply the term more with personality of the dog, but we have to acknowledge that drive plays into things.
For example, a dog that seems pretty neurotic, very crazy with anxiety, may simply be a dog that doesn’t have his drives met and so that drive is leaking out in anxiety. However, there are dogs who are just more neurotic. Sometimes that’s more of a breed thing and sometimes that’s more of a temperament thing with that particular dog. What I can tell you, is that it’s very genetic.
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Considering temperament in breeding
Let’s take my cattle dog Cinch, you may recall him in the conversation I had with Beth Berkobien of Rehab Your Rescue. Cinch is pretty neurotic and while some of that is his breed, remember cattle dogs were bred to work tightly with their handler, so the dog will be constantly looking to check in with the owner and see what the owner wants. If the dog isn’t getting clear direction from the owner, well, we are going to see that confusion in the dog and what’s expected of him.
However, I have another cattle dog, Dally, sure, she’s a bit older than Cinch, she’s getting on 11 years and I’ve had her since she was about one, got her at a shelter, so I don’t know her story, but it’s pretty clear she’s all heeler. Regardless, Dally is not neurotic, she is very co-dependent with me, constantly wanting to be where I am, including when I go to the bathroom, but she isn’t neurotic, she doesn’t have any issues as our life changes from day-to-day. If I’m home all day, she’ll hang out with me. If I’m gone all day, she chills at the house and does her own thing. She handles the ebb and flow of a chaotic schedule much better than Cinch. He has a lot less tolerance. With Cinch, if I’m gone for the weekend, he’s a spaz for a few days when I return, like he doesn’t know what to do, he’s very lost, and he can be reactive in these situations, where he wants to be alone or he really needs to be with us. When he wants to be alone, he’s quick to growl and let us know he needs that space if we approach him.
Before Beth helped us, there were times when Cinch would try and bite us, seemingly unprovoked, it was super scary, and in fairness, I don’t know that he would’ve been a great long-term stud despite being a gorgeous, well-put-together dog. His temperament, because of the neuroticism, makes him a bit unpredictable. Since Beth’s help we are much better, Cinch and I. Truly, he had the most issues with me, and I was doing everything wrong.
For the sake of discussion, let’s look at him as a potential breeding mate. We can see that he has the structure, the health, the drive, but he is a bit neurotic. If we wanted to breed him because we needed his structure, then we would need to be careful to breed him to a mate that balanced this out. Honestly, Dally, my female shelter dog would be a great balancing personality. With her calmness and ability to self-regulate her emotions, she’s a gem of a dog.
If I were to breed the two together, it would be worth assessing the litter to see if the right fit came out, see if I got a dog who was not so neurotic to keep to replace Cinch. Additionally, it would be important to assess the puppies to see if some had his neurotic tendencies. If they did, it would be important to place them in homes that have better structure and routine, probably empty-nesters, or someone who works from home and keeps routine or someone who could take him to work and it was a casual environment.
His temperament struggles with chaos and lack of structure, so it would be a lot to ask to place him in a family with three little kids under eight years of age. It wouldn’t be fair to ask them to create and maintain a structured schedule that would accommodate his needs. It wouldn’t be fair to ask them to place his needs above the needs of the children. I don’t care how structured and together you want things to be with your kids, kids have a way of creating their own routine around their needs, well, that’s been my experience at least. I think it’s important for us to work with the schedule the kids need, while it may be inconvenient for me, my availability to my kids is life-changing for them, they know they have the support and love they need, when they need it, not when it’s convenient for me. It took me a long time to figure that out, but it does make a difference.
It’s another bonus of the dog breeding schedule, the flexibility to be there for your family when they need you. Regardless, knowing this, it makes it that much more important that I wouldn’t send a dog with Cinch’s temperament home with a family that’s young and busy.
Think about if the only cattle dog I ever met was Cinch, I would think they were all neurotic. What if the only cattle dog I ever met was Dally? I would think they were all perfect gems with sound temperaments. Having the two of them, seeing their personalities in and out, how they handle themselves when life gets chaotic, how they are when things are going well and there’s structure. It gives me so much insight into how they are different.
As a breeder you have this advantage, too. You get to see your dogs in all stages, you get to see their strengths and weaknesses, where they struggle and where they succeed. There’s also a pretty good chance you have more than one dog in the breed, giving you the upper hand in assessing their differences.
Assessing temperaments in your dogs
If you aren’t sure where to start with assessing temperaments, start here. Start with your dogs—your adult dogs. See how they are different.
Remember the Sunday comics? My favorite was always the six differences cartoon. It was two pictures side-by-side. There were six differences between the two pictures and you had to find them. That simple cartoon had me looking for differences at a young age, questioning what was different. I encourage you to play six differences with your dogs. Look at their differences in their temperaments and see what you find.
Things you’ll want to notice is the types of environments they do the best in, do they seek out the chaos in the home, needing to be in the center of the action? Do they need the quiet and run off to a bedroom if you have guests over? Do they get over aroused when there is too much interaction?
It can be difficult to differentiate what is socialization and training, and what is temperament and more genetic in nature. This is where having multiple dogs really helps, you can compare. Your dogs live in the same household with you, they probably get generally the same care. You can assess their differences. You might notice that to get the same casual level of walking your one dog took two days exposure to other dogs on the walk, while one is still struggling after months, there is a big difference there. Sometimes you’ll see this from the age of exposure, as in, when pups are exposed early in life, they seem to adjust a little better, while an older dog may struggle a bit, since it’s unfamiliar with what he’s used to. However, you’ll begin to see trends, so if you do nothing else, notice those differences and subconsciously you’ll start to build the tools to evaluate.
In my experience what you see as so obvious in an older dog will show itself at a younger age, but it won’t be as pronounced, it’s more subtle. As you hone your skills you’ll see the differences more and more and at younger and younger ages. Pair the tendencies you see in the parents with the puppies. Notice how different the litters are when you use a different stud with your girl.
Once you have a good handle on the differences, take it a step further and look at where these differences will come into play for ideal lifestyle. What type of life and schedule—or lack of schedule—can the dog live in, thrive in? Does the dog need other dogs or does the dog need more space and alone time? Will the dog get his needs met through the lifestyle of the owner or will the owner need to make adjustments to make it all work?
I made a cheat sheet of questions you can ask yourself about your dogs to help you pinpoint how they are different, as well as some different situations to notice with breeds, you can grab it below.
Aligning the right dog with the right buyer
Once you understand the type of life where the dog will best fit, work to align that with your buyers who have the most similar lifestyle. There are no good or bad dogs, just a good or bad fit with certain buyers and their lifestyles. Our job as breeders is to help align the best fit of puppy to buyer. The less planning for the dog the owner has to do outside his normal scheduling, the better chances the dog will get what he needs on a consistent basis.
If this sounds daunting, know that it gets easier and isn’t as scary as it sounds. First off, the breed of dog will already attract and repel a large portion of buyers, narrowing the market that is interested in your breed, and therefore your dogs. The next part of that is your marketing, knowing your dogs and who they do well with, who your ideal puppy buyer is, the better your marketing can speak to these specific people, attracting them to your kennel and making your life a whole lot easier.
Is it complicated? A little. There are a lot of moving pieces. However, as always, I’ve been thinking about you. If this podcast episode has you intrigued, you’d love our Ideal Puppy Buyer MasterClass and our Make-Your-Own-Chili Social Media Planning MasterClass available inside the Dog Breeder Society.
You might be wondering where Chili comes into play, well, I had this amazing recipe book I got for my wedding, it had a Make-Your-Own-Chili recipe where it gave categories like, protein, beans, spices, and liquid, and then gave you a list of options, this way, with whatever you had in your pantry, you could make a good chili that went well together. I took that concept and built a system of marketing for social media based on categories that you should be addressing, the type of visuals to use with it, and how to put it all together in a schedule.
I know breeding is complicated, very dynamic, and at times messy, okay, well they’re puppies and dogs, it’s messy a lot. My hope is that you can use me as a tool, let me help you take some focused action on your kennel, making your breeding program that much more solid, take away some stress, and give you back family time with a little more money in the bank.
Learn more about the Dog Breeder Society and don’t forget to get your copy of the Temperament & Drive Testing Cheat Sheet below!