Whole Dog Journal's Blog September 30, 2014

Puppy Personalities: How Much Is Inborn?

Posted at 08:51AM - Comments: (13)


Before I became a mother, when I met difficult children, I imagined their unpleasant behavior was a result of how they had been parented. In other words, I usually blamed the parents – and credited parents with doing a great job when I met kids I liked. Then I became a parent, and through close observation of my son and his closest friends, gradually realized that actually, kids are largely “who they are” when they are born. Sure, you can mold them to a certain extent, and teach them good manners (or bad). But many aspects of their personalities transcend basic behavior modification.

For example, even as a toddler, my son was careful – he had a highly developed self-preservation instinct – and even though today he’s a world-class athlete, and no stranger to physically demanding (and sometimes pain-inducing) feats of athleticism, he’s still danger-averse. I think he’s always has been and always will be a careful person; I’ve never worried about his driving recklessly or diving into shallow rivers or drinking too much alcohol. And I had nothing to do with encouraging or discouraging this trait.

I’ve spent almost four weeks with a fostered litter of six puppies, and the experience has confirmed what I’ve long suspected: that the same phenomenon is true of dogs, too. These pups all have different personalities – a controversial word in animal behavior circles, but the only word that seems apt to describe the individual quirks and traits that the pups display.

I can now tell my puppies apart, but when I first got them, I ordered a set of Velcro-fastened color-coded collars, so I could keep the pups straight. The collars were also a useful tool for the shelter vet tech, so she could keep of the individual puppies’ weights and medication (they have been receiving antibiotics for a respiratory infection). This is what I know about the puppies now:

"I'm falling asleep, but if I do, don't leave me."

Red-collared puppy: Highly confident and curious. Pays more attention to what humans are doing than to what his brothers are doing, and if he has to choose, will follow the human. Always wants to be in your lap, or on your shoe, or touching you somehow, and he’ll kick up a fuss for the longest when all the puppies are locked in their pen. (By the way, this is the puppy who I accidentally kicked a week ago, and thank goodness, after three days of holding up his right back leg, he started putting more and more weight on it, and now he seems perfectly fine again.) I think this puppy is going to do best if he’s placed with people who want a close relationship with their dog.

The blue-collared puppy is bold and confident, but more affiliative than the teal-collared pup.

Blue: Another very confident dog, but less curious about humans than Red. He dives into any game of tug-of-war, grabs for any toy that any other puppy has. He isn’t one to dive into your lap, but if you pick him up, he cuddles and seems to really enjoy attention and petting. He quickly accepts his situation, whatever it is: confinement in the puppy pen, immersion in a bath, the end of a meal. He seems like he’s going to thrive in any type of home.

Classic, leap-before-you-look Teal.

Teal: The most independent puppy, and perhaps the smartest – but not necessarily in a way that is likely to result in being “well-trained.” He was the first to figure out that if he followed humans or the other puppies to the puppy pen, he was going to get locked up, so he stopped following anyone to the pen. When I call all the puppies, he never just runs to me like the others do; he watches to see why I’m calling. He totally gets the concept of the potential for not-fun consequences. He’s also the bravest, though, and perhaps the toughest. He is super mouthy, and if I feel a puppy latched onto my shoe or pants leg – a puppy who won’t let go – I don’t even have to look to know it’s him. I think he’d make a heck of a military or law enforcement dog.

This puppy notices and investigates everything out of the ordinary.

Purple: This puppy is into absolutely everything. If he hears a novel noise, he drops what’s he’s doing to immediately seek out the source of the noise. If he hears a squabble between the other puppies, he runs to jump into the fray. If he sees another puppy with an interesting-looking item, he grabs it to investigate it with his mouth. Usually, his brothers seem to be more interesting to him than humans are, but he’s not averse to being picked up and held and cuddled, for a minute or two, anyway. Then he’s off to the next adventure. He’d thrive in an environment that was active and stimulating; his owners are going to need to be interesting if they hope to capture and hold his attention.

The green-collared pup is forever making sweet, slightly worried eye contact. Teal is not the slightest bit worried about anything.

Green: Absolutely the most affectionate, human-centered puppy. He actively seeks out eye contact with people, and wags his tail with happiness when a human’s gaze falls on him. He watches humans constantly and will always choose human attention over a game with his brothers. He’s just so, so sweet with humans. If I watch him out the window, however, I see that he plays nicely with the other pups, unlike the next puppy, and the one that most resembles him: Pink.

The purple-collared puppy wants to play, play, play. Pink can't get away fast enough; he'd rather play by himself.

Pink: This puppy is almost always off doing his own thing. Like Teal, he’s independent, but not in a bold, brave way, more in a “Leave me alone, I’m happy by myself” way. He’s shorter and fatter than the other pups, and not as physically rough-and-tumble. He will play tug or wrestle with another puppy, unless the other gets too intense; at the first bit of pain or discomfort, he abruptly quits and waddles off to find something else to do. He neither seeks out nor avoids human cuddling and petting; he’s sort of indifferent about us, except at meal times. I wouldn’t worry about this puppy developing separation anxiety if his people worked long hours; I think he’s a content kind of guy who can find things to fill his time.

Maybe this is all hopeless anthropomorphizing – but I don’t think so. And I think that good breeders are highly aware of the differences in their puppies’ personalities, and take pains to match puppies to families or individuals where the pups’ traits will be appreciated and perhaps even well-utilized, as opposed to resented or punished; they don’t send just any puppy to any person with a check for the purchase amount. Although I’m not a dog breeder, I hope to do the same! Although each of these pups will be officially adopted from my local shelter, I hope to find adopters first, without having to actually send the pups to the shelter kennels. If you know someone in Northern California who is looking for some sort of hound/perhaps Beagle-mix, let me know! I’ll do my best to match them with a puppy that would best suit them.


Comments (13)

Sandycakes: I have done just what you suggested - found a professional trainer who is going to work with us. I now recognize that I listened to bad advice when my dog was a pup and started on the wrong foot with him. At the time I had doubts about the advice and now realize I should have followed my instincts. Hopefully we can turn things around - "Teal" is worth it. Thanks from Kathie

Posted by: Kathie | October 3, 2014 12:16 AM    Report this comment

@kathie: Enlist the assistance of a certified pet trainer in your area that utilizes positive reinforcement. If your guy's food or toy motivated, that can cut through his stubbornness. :)

Posted by: Sandycakes | October 1, 2014 3:10 PM    Report this comment

What a delightful article. I am not sure when my little Shipoo fits in - she plays with most animals and loves humans and thrives on affection! I believe that each dog has their own distinct personality and feelings - they are wonderful!

Posted by: Karimay | October 1, 2014 12:18 PM    Report this comment

Wonderful article...I have been doing this with all of my doggies and has helped me to understand and train them individually..Ruaga

Posted by: Ruaga | October 1, 2014 10:32 AM    Report this comment

Really a great article. It helps not only parents, but also owners of dogs.

Posted by: Ramya | October 1, 2014 7:09 AM    Report this comment

Ahh! Hmmm.

I'd give 'Pink' a miss. I kept a puppy like this -- and he was a very unrewarding dog. He was non-aggressive but remained a loner all his life :-( I also later 'took on' a pup like this. She was a difficult dog (to put it politely.)

I'd warn people also about 'Red'. My current Sillee Sallee was like this -- clingy, as I believer her father was also. An absolute delight by she is incredibly shy and 'needy'. If you don't want a *close* companion they are not the dogs for you.

Blue sound (almost) ideal. Sallee's brother, Ironbark, was like this as a pup. Close enough to be easily trained and companionable, but independent enough to be confident when alone.

Sorry too, 'Teal' and 'Purple' sound like dogs that will need training to avoid problems.

By the way, no girls?? What a shame :-(

Posted by: Jenny H | September 30, 2014 7:33 PM    Report this comment

Excellent article, I enjoyed everything you said about individual puppies. You obviously can read puppies very well. Wish all people had your abilities. I too can read dogs. My furry kid Hailey is with me 24/7 except for occasional dinners out. Animals do talk to us in their way. Your abilities would be a huge asset to the shelter system and teaching police officers dog talk.

Posted by: Mary Jo | September 30, 2014 5:29 PM    Report this comment

Very good observations and true of our children too I believe. My grown kids r still who they were as youmg children. Nine yrs ago I chose a male puppy for my 3 yr old female. I wanted a confidant but affectionate playful puppy. There were 3 males to choose from. Two of them were high energy and all over you. Teddy was larger and off dragging a pair of jeans around but when you asked him to come he calmly came to you and enjoyed being petted. He was a great choose and perfect fit for my dominate female. She treated him like her own puppy and now at 11 and 9 they are inseparable. Two dominate dogs thriving in the same house. Teddy loves guarding the front yard. Katie wants to be near us and when they are in the house together Teddy submits to Katie as the leader. They sleep side by side cudled up. Hooray for breeders picking the right pup for the right owner. Less animals will be abused or end up at the shelter to be killed.

Posted by: Katiebugcan | September 30, 2014 3:44 PM    Report this comment

This is also a great lesson for us veterinarians - as we handle our pateints...knowing what makes them tick and what makes them crazy before a procedure allows the vet's assistant and the vet to handle the dog in a specific way to decrease the stress on the dog.

Posted by: AnimalsFirstVet | September 30, 2014 2:30 PM    Report this comment

I got a "teal" puppy and he grew into a "teal" personality adult. He is stubborn, difficult to train, intelligent, occassionally affectionate, not to be trusted around young children and often "difficult". I am almost out of patience with him. He is now 4 and not improving. Any suggestions?

Posted by: Kathie | September 30, 2014 1:32 PM    Report this comment

I found this very true and thank you for the overview of each puppy. I am a breeder and this is how I match my puppies to their new owners. Successful for the puppy parents and the puppy!

Posted by: VeronicaM | September 30, 2014 11:43 AM    Report this comment

You are absolutely right on! I have been breeding (and training) dogs for 35 years and have found this to be true. It's my favorite part of being a breeder--watching the little brains and personalities develop.

Posted by: loloploz | September 30, 2014 11:08 AM    Report this comment

Great article! I'm just a 4 dog pet owner who's raised an accidental batch of puppies, so I'm no pro, but I agree with you wholeheartedly and found your descriptions of the puppies great!!

Posted by: Lhasa&LabLover | September 30, 2014 9:46 AM    Report this comment

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