top of page

Breeding for Temperament - Digging into the Nuts and Bolts

I breed for temperament.

Okay, good. But what does that even mean?

My friend breeding Caucasian Shepherds is sure not breeding for the same temperament that my friend who breeds Poodles is breeding for.

Well. I breed for breed specific temperament.

Again, great. But that's ever so vague.

Ultimately I truly don't think any conscientious breeder is breeding without temperament in mind. However, I do feel that how we discuss temperament in the dog world is often severely lacking. Add onto that it seems many breeders and dog fanciers do not understand to extent to which genetics play a role and you end up with generic statements like: I breed for temperament.

Very successful former pro-handler, long time breeder, and now popular podcast host Laura Reeves has publicly told the story several times that while things like work ethic, handle focus, and nerve can sometimes be hard to pin down in a program, sometimes the oddest behaviors pop up generation after generation. Her example was "chair sitting" - dogs that like to sit in chairs. Should that be genetic? You wouldn't think so, yet why was it popping up in puppies who never even met their sire who did it?

I see it in my own litters too. There is a very specific hardheadedness that I've only seen in one line in my breed and I can trace basically any handler hard Azawakh I've ever met back to one specific dog (Gem and Ami's mother). That moment where you say: No and they stare you straight in the eye, shrug and continue what they're doing? Yeah, that's not an Azawakh trait, that's a trait that tends to pop up in that line

Similarly, Ami has a tendency to hold and carry things around. Again very much not typical of the breed, but sometimes I've seen in a whole lot of her puppies. She'll also take a chew and bring it to me to hold while she eats, something I've seen in many of her puppies.

When I come home from work, Tabiri will put my hand in his mouth ever so gently and just hold it. This is something that's popping up in his son Quixote.

Could the puppies have learned these traits from their parents? Potentially but in many cases, these are habits they never had the opportunity to witness as puppies.

My point being? There's so many genetic traits that we can't possibly account for them all and there are always going to be things that pop up that you don't expect.. However, it really does serve to illustrate how important genetics are when breeding for temperament.

While some of these traits are certainly silly, ultimately they still tell you things about the dogs. Ami has toy drive and a need to have something in her mouth - hence carrying around toys. This speaks to prey drive and toy drive and honestly it's something I like seeing in performance dogs, best toy drive makes things easier. She's thrown that drive in most of her puppies.

Chair sitting? That's a demonstration of targeting skills and to me, it's a desire to want a better vantage point, a better chance to understand the world.

How can you tell whether a trait is genetic or a product of their environment? I am always evaluating pervasiveness of a trait. Let's take something relatively simple like resource guarding. This is a reasonably common trait and pretty natural. That doesn't make it socially acceptable, but most breeds that have guarding instinct (and some that don't) are generally going to go through phases when young of- no this is mine and I'm telling you that you can't have it.

For me the genetic component comes up when you consider how well those preventative resource guarding lessons stick. Do you see it as a breeder in a puppy and then it never pops up again? Then I'm likely looking at a fleeting, normal developmental stage. And I'm seeing it pop up as a puppy and then again periodically throughout fear periods in the dog's adolescence? That's very likely genetic and the intensity and pervasiveness is can be modified through training but it's very possibly that trait will be passed on in my experience. If the dog can never seen to shake the resource guarding, it's a behavior the perpetually pops up most times the dog is stressed, even with solid training, that's a strong genetic component at play and I'd wash from my program, for my breed.

That's another component of considering temperament when breeding. What breed are you working with? A guardian breed with a propensity for resource guarding might be less of a deal breaker than a Golden Retriever with resource guarding. That being said, I also know some guardian breed breeders that I hugely respect who won't tolerate it in their breeding stock.

Why mention Golden Retrievers and resource guarding? That seems totally random. Would you believe me that by far the worst resource guarding cars I've ever seen have been Golden Retrievers and Vizslas? In this case, the resource guarding doesn't seem to derrive from guardian instincts but instead for the base need to have something in their mouth. They receive fulfillment by the sheer action of holding something. This can turn into an obsession, particularly when owners constantly take things from right out of their mouths. The dog becomes resentful and begins to warn people away from even approaching while they are holding something. This is absolutely something I would be expecting gun dog breeders to be aware of and watching for in their breeding dogs.

One other oddity that has fascinated me is that when I was at the training center we had probably a dozen "English Cream" (white or light) Golden Retrievers come through every single week. And I would say 90% of them had resource guarding and a notable percentage of those had bitten people or dogs over resources.

It got to the point where we'd see one on our calendar and go- oh, English Cream Golden Retriever must be resource guarding. And sure enough it always was when we checked the intake notes. We even started getting breeder names and doing some tracking of pedigrees. Was this an example of one or two dog widely passing on a huge temperament fault or was it perhaps a propensity that was found on the same chromosome that the white/cream coloration was found on so the traits were somehow comorbid? After a couple years of keeping track of breeders, we landed on it probably being an example of the latter.

I have been through the ringer from a health perspective in the lines I'm working with over the past year. And it's really taught me what I'd wash from my in program and what I wouldn't. I've been told that I don't care about health because I didn't wash a dog for a health condition that didn't even impact quality of life (dog or owner's), let alone decrease life expectancy. However, I learned very clearly when Ami was injured and it became clear a history of chronic spinal conditions in her lineage had been concealed from me that I would instantly wash a dog with a chronic, genetic spinal condition. At minimum with Ami I would have waited till she was 4 or 5 to breed her (past the typical onset age) and I never would have doubled up on the lineage. The situation truly made clear to me that when quality is life is an issue, I would wash a dog without hesitation.

Why is this relevant? Because this should be as equally as applicable as QOL health issues for breeders. Yet so often as a trainer who primarily works with purebred (often well bred) dogs. The scenario often goes as such-

Owner - I have a dog that is reactive

Me - How long is this ongoing? What age? Any family history?

Owner - He was a bit barky on leash since puppyhood but since he hit adolescence it's gotten really pronounced. He's 18 months, this started... Maybe 8 months ago? His breeder says his dad has this habit too.

Me- Did his breeder ever say how the reactivity resolved?

Owner- The breeder said they just manage him and don't walk him much. That it never really got better. But he was always fine at shows.

I literally cannot count the number of times I've had this conversation with people. Dozens of times for sure.

Leash reactivity that can't be resolved with a reasonable amount of training is a hard wash for me, in basically any breed. Maybe it seems minor to the breeder with the giant property and kennel runs. But it's absolutely life altering for owners and dogs that live in a busy area with only a small yard, so they really have to walk their dogs. Resource guarding, car sickness, general anxiety, separation anxiety. All of these are huge quality life issues for most owners. And to be frank, I'm not just talking about your general suburban home. I'm taking about performance and show homes too.

But Kayley, you've talked about how Tabiri had separation anxiety when you got him. How Amidi is dog selective. Yet you bred them, isn't that a double standard?

Valid question.

With Tabiri's separation anxiety, what proved to be the biggest issue was actually rooted in a physical medical issue. Not a temperament issue. Resolve that and the behavioral issue vanished too.

With Amidi, this is an excellent example of breed mattering. If I was breeding Labradors, dog selectivity would be a pretty hard line no for me. In a breed that is supposed to be suspicious or strange dogs, it follows that some dogs are going to be less tolerant of strange dogs' antics than other. This is a case where I certainly would prefer that she didn't turns to tell rude dogs off loudly. However, this is also something where I ask more of her than most other households ever are. I ask her to tolerate boarding dogs, training clients, she has done demo and neutral dog work for me. I have a big CGC evaluation day next month and she'll be my neutral dog. She isn't reactive, she won't ever start a fight, just finish one. All of those examples helped me determine that while in this regard she doesn't meet my ideal, she's also performing at a far higher level than many expect of their dogs.

However, I also was aware that those traits might be passed on genetically. Which meant I purposefully paired them with partners who were strong in the areas they lacked. Ami has always settled calmly and quietly when at home or when we travel. In that way she complements Tabiri nicely. Anubi and Tabiri are both extremely dog savvy and while Tabiri can be grumpy with other dogs, he has a long fuse and is extremely tolerant. These are traits where Amidi is weaker and from what I have seen, all of Ami 's puppies have gotten their dads' dog savviness. (This is also worth noting some is Ami's insecurities with rude dogs definitely come from some socialization mishaps as a puppy, but socialization is post for a different day).

It's not just the potential behavioral issues that I look at when I'm breeding. I'm also targeting specific temperament traits that I want to perpetuate (or don't). Anubi will quit when he's uncertain about something. If he doesn't understand, he'll just stop working. He has good work ethic, phenomenal stamina but a pretty low frustration tolerance. Ami, Gem, and Alu are all dogs who are much more game to jump in and see how it goes. They're not afraid to try and fail. This is something that balances thatow frustration tolerance.

Now, it's not as simple as just taking the traits you want and leaving the rest. I'm sure every conscientious breeder in existence wishes that's how it works. Unfortunately you can get offspring that are exactly like one parent or the other. Offspring that only got the worst behavioral issues while others only got the best. That's just how genetics work.

Just like in structural traits, with temperament you will generally see more consistency and more traits breeding "true". An outcross is going to bring more unpredictability whether that be for good or ill. You also have to consider the concept of throw backs. Sometimes a nervy stud (presumably that dog must have some trying incredible virtues to be with breeding) paired with a solid bitch might only produce confident, solid puppies. However if you aren't careful to continue taking those puppies to temperamentally sound partners you very easily could see temperaments like the grandsire popping up. Truthfully, you might get throwbacks even if you are careful with your pairings.

In my breed, this is one of the reasons why I'm pretty firm that before I use a stud I need to have met the stud or have someone whose ability for assessing dogs I trust implicitly vouch for the stud. On multiple occasions I've had people suggest studs that I have turned down flat for temperament faults that I will not introduce to my program.

I know I've harped on it endlessly, but poor temperament is one of her biggest struggles that pet owners face. It can absolutely ruin people and dogs' lives and be as deadly as a physical condition.

Temperament needs to be discussed in more depth than- I breed for good temperament.

In the same way that I candescribe my structural goals for my program- looking for a dog that has correct body proportions and angulation with flat, ground skimming movement (and a pretty head piece is a bonus).

In temperament we should be able to just the same type of specific goals. In my program I am looking for enough drive to run game and enough guardian instinct to stand their ground. I want a discerning dog that can recognize the novel but safe from the threatening. They should have a willingness to work with their handler day in and out and be fulfilled in the work and the nerve to accept pressure, while acknowledging they will likely always be wary of it.

Beyond over arching goals, with each pairing we should be looking at what are our structural goals. But also what are our temperament goals. With Anubi x Amalu I was looking for even tempered, dog savvy, discerning, neutral puppies who have both phenomenal work ethic as well as a very ingrained off switch. This is a case where I really was not being specifically to improve, I instead was doubling up on the strengths of both parents to solidify those traits in the puppies. As an added bonus, Epiphany got her mother's tolerance for being shifted without having to leap to her feet in indignity like her father.

At the end of the day, we as breeders should be able to elaborate on the personality strengths and weaknesses in our dogs and be able to target improvements in our pairings.

Temperament is a place where I won't compromise. I am only going to breed dogs that can be neutral to other dogs (even reactive ones) in public. I'll breed that dog that can calmly be confined, that travels without going off their food or anxiety panting. I'm breeding for pack dogs and if a dog can't coexist in a stable pack without conflict, they're a wash. I will breed dogs that want to learn and want to understand their world. I'm extremely picky about the temperaments I work with. It's behind the scenes, but I've passed on a lot of dogs I've been offered (to own or to breed to) over the years because of temperament.

I'm forever thankful for my dogs that live comfortably in a mixed sexes (intact) pack, who hike, and play sports, who travel, and cuddle, and work, and play.

293 views1 comment


Outstanding article. As an equine reproductive veterinarian, and now practicing in a companion animal practice, I so wish this approach would be more widely utilized, if not required. Thanks for sharing!

bottom of page