What Is Temperament?

When most of us think of temperament in dogs, we think of how dogs respond to life situations. We use the word temperament as a catchall term for behavior. When breeders talk about temperament, they are referring to drives, thresholds, traits, and instincts that are inherited and innate to the dog. A dog’s core temperament never changes. Its behavior can be modified, but its temperament will remain unchanged. EX: A high-energy dog cannot learn to be a laid-back, low-energy dog. The dog can, however, be taught to control its energy.

When searching for a German Shepherd Dog, proof of a passing temperament test is a requirement for all breeding dogs and puppies in reputable breeding programs and there is any number of tests that can be administered to help predict a dog or puppy’s level of mental stability. Remember also that the desired temperament defined by a German Shepherd breeder might not match your idea of a good temperament, so clear communication about expectations is crucial.

German Shepherd owners should also know that there are some people who can never feel comfortable in the presence of a large dog no matter how polite or well-trained it might appear. Unfavorable past experiences or a lack of knowledge about dogs, in general, can cause some to always be cautious or uncomfortable around German Shepherds. We must always keep this in mind when our dogs are around other people—be it in our homes, at the vet, or at other locations.

As we dig deeper into the concept of behavior, we find that temperament is actually just one element of the behavior equation. There are two additional factors that play a huge role in your German Shepherd’s demeanor. These factors include character and personality. The terms temperament, character, and personality are often used interchangeably, but there are differences. Let’s take a closer look and see how these conditions, when combined, create the German Shepherd mindset.

TEMPERAMENT: Your German Shepherd’s genetic makeup

Temperament is defined as the part of your German Shepherd’s behavior that is present at birth. It is biological and instinctive and a function of genetics. It is not developed. Since temperament is present at birth, it is the aspect of behavior that is seen first in developing puppies. Breeders of working dogs—like German Shepherds—breed for dogs with working temperaments. Those born with an innate willingness and natural ability to work. This is why early temperament testing of German Shepherd puppies at or before 8 weeks of age is so important and why reputable breeders temperament test all of their puppies BEFORE they leave for their new homes.

Temperament is the part of your German Shepherd's behavior that is genetic (i.e., prey drive).

Because temperament is genetic, it can be very difficult to modify, manipulate or change. Even with expert training and behavioral modification, these genetic tendencies will always be present. In many cases, temperament can be managed, but adjustments more often are made “around” the dog as opposed to “to” the dog. A good analogy would be to think of your dog’s temperament as an iceberg. What you see on the surface is only a tiny fraction of what lies hidden underneath. When working with—or living with—a dog with a temperament issue, you must always be mindful of what lies below the surface and know when, and how, to prevent the unwanted behavior from surfacing. EX: If a dog does not like children, do not have them around children. Place the dog in a home that sets it up for success. These types of temperament issues can be better controlled by adjusting the dog’s environment instead of attempting to change the dog’s temperament. Another example of a temperament trait is prey drive. If your German Shepherd does not show interest in chasing a ball, no amount of training is going to teach the dog to enjoy chasing a ball.

CHARACTER: Your German Shepherd’s temperament + environmental influences and life experiences

Character is the second component of behavior that includes temperament (inherited traits) plus behaviors and habits that your German Shepherd learns. Character is both nature and nurture. Because it is not innate, character is not as stable as temperament and it can be changed and modified—especially during the early stages of development. EX: If a puppy falls into a bucket of water, it can become fearful of water. This fear is a learned behavior based on environment or life experience and can often be changed or modified. Character is unique to each German Shepherd because their environments and life experiences are unique. A dog can have an individual character trait (i.e., love of water)—whereas a line of German Shepherds can have the same temperament trait (i.e., high prey drive). Character can influence temperament (strengthen or weaken it) if experiences are powerful enough, but the dog’s core temperament will remain intact.

Character is a unique part of your German Shepherd's behavior that is learned and what makes them different from other German Shepherds (i.e., love of water).

PERSONALITY: Your German Shepherd’s temperament + character + social response

Personality is a subtle blend of temperament, character (learned habits), and social responsibility. In other words, personality is how your German Shepherd responds to its genetic makeup, learned habits, and life experiences. Personality is a combination of thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and habits—all of which are unique to your dog. German Shepherds can be extroverts (love to be outside and enjoy the company of others) and they can be introverts (stay primarily indoors and prefer the company of just one person). An example of a personality trait might be how your German Shepherd responds to riding in a car—the excitement and joy it expresses. It is a direct reaction to something in the dog’s environment. A dog’s personality usually remains stable over time—regardless of the situation.

Personality is the part of your German Shepherd's behavior that is a response its genetics, learned habits and life experiences. It's their unique way of thinking, feeling and acting (i.e., joy at riding in a car).

Since behavior can be influenced by a dog’s environment and life experiences, most breeders cannot guarantee behavioral development. However, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of getting a puppy with a faulty temperament. Don’t look at temperament as solely a product of genetics. Look at how a dog or puppy has been raised, its environment, and life experiences.

Since behavior can be influenced by environment and life experiences, most German Shepherd breeders cannot guarantee behavioral development.

Six Tips for Avoiding Temperament Issues

There are things you can do to reduce your risk of getting a German Shepherd with a temperament issue. First, if purchasing a puppy, look for a reputable breeder—someone experienced who has references and good reviews—and ask them about their policy on tempera­ment. Make sure their policies are in writing. Second, know and understand the type of puppy you are looking for—a high-drive working dog or family companion. Third, don’t purchase a puppy that has not been formally temperament tested by the age of 8 weeks. If your breeder does not perform temperament tests, does not supply you with written results of these tests, and does not thoroughly explain to you how to interpret the results—find a different breeder. Fourth, do your homework and find a good training facility for you and your new puppy. German Shepherd puppies must be socialized and trained early if they are to grow into well-adjusted, family companions and/or working dogs. Fifth, if possible, ask to meet the sire and the dam or at least speak to others who have met the parents and ask for opinions on their temperament. And finally, DO NOT think that you can “fix” a problem that you see or one that is brought to your attention. Many puppy buyers fall into the trap of thinking they are experienced enough to change the behavior of a dog. This almost NEVER happens. If the puppy you want shows signs of a temperament issue at 8 weeks, most likely, the problem will be there at 8 years.

Litter Evaluation (LE). At 8 weeks of age, or just before puppies are selected and transferred to their new owners, reputable breeders perform a Litter Evaluation or LE. The degree and level of evaluation vary among breeders, but the minimum required testing consists of ten basic exercises that are designed to help identify desirable and undesirable traits in puppies.

Temperament testing. There are several accepted, readily available temperaments tests to choose from when evaluating a German Shepherd for temperament. While the level of testing varies between these tests, their purpose is the same­—to evaluate a dog’s ability to deal with people, stress, and the unknown. They are also used to determine which dogs are more suitable working dogs or companion animals. To learn more about temperament tests, see related articles in Reebok’s blog.