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Understanding Bird Dog Temperament

How you can play the odds to get the personality you like in a bird dog.

Understanding Bird Dog Temperament

Research well to increase your chances of getting the temperament you want and then hone it to the max. (Photo By: Kali Parmley)

When asked what I think is the most important thing to consider in a dog, I say without hesitation, “The dog’s temperament.” But like everyone else, for me the word has a specific meaning. It creates a certain picture of how the dog acts, reacts, assesses and handles, responds to, and copes with any given situation. But, describing a dog’s actions/reactions is more of an operational definition of the word temperament as it applies to dogs, not a succinct definition.

What I mean when I say temperament is bound to differ from what you or anyone else means. The word has various definitions depending on the discipline where it is used. Used in a human emotional context, it will be different from the more applied use of how a dog will interpret a situation. So, in dog vernacular, a reasonable synonym for temperament is ‘personality.’ A dog’s personality is an expression of his temperament.

The Temperament Curve

We often describe dogs as tough on one end of a continuum to sensitive on the other or, calm to highly excitable, aloof vs. friendly, tractable vs. out of control, low desire plodding as opposed to over-the-top go getter, fearful up to bold, highly independent to highly cooperative, and many other behavioral characteristic levels ranging in a normal curve from a low to a high. Every dog fits somewhere into each curve in an infinite combination of intensity of expressed characteristics to contribute to the individual personality/temperament of the individual dog.

gun dog trainer with gun dog
Ideally, a dog's temperament will fall somewhere in the center third of a particular character trait, such as biddability or independence. (Photo By: francesco de marco/

Fortunately, most dogs fall in the center third of any given behavioral distribution spread or we would have a lot more problems than we already seem to have. Generally, I believe that most dog people will say they prefer their dogs to be on the harder side of center of a distribution ranging from untrainable hard to jelly soft. The dog can better withstand chance mishaps and training mistakes. Fewer, I among them, prefer the dog on the sensitive side of center. I have found dogs on the soft side tend to be more cooperative and more prone to ask for help when they need it, more willing to learn, especially things to do with obedience. What any given person labels as good temperament or as bad temperament is purely personal and is dependent on the expected use of the dog.

Selective Breeding

Temperament also has different degrees of inclusiveness. We tend to assign a temperament profile to each breed and according to use of dogs within a breed. We talk of field-bred dogs or show-bred or field-trial-bred dogs. We look at Labrador retrievers as a stoic, highly tractable, relaxed breed. English Pointers are independent, less tractable, and less cooperative. The versatile group of dogs, the continental breeds, are considered to be more cooperative and tractable than the pointing specialists, having characteristics of both retrievers and pointers and are usually less-type cast. To confound things farther, there is individual variability which can be even wider than a given breed profile. There certainly are English pointers that are as tractable as the most easy-going Labrador, and versatile dogs more independent than a pointer.

german shorthaired pointer puppies
Temperament can vary by breed, but also by lines within that breed, and even by individuals within a litter. (Photo By: WilleeCole Photography/

So, how do we get the temperament we want in the individual of the breed we want? We have to selectively breed for it. That makes the dog you want more or less obtainable dependent on your desires and expectations. Field trial requirements tend to be narrower than field working dogs that are expected to hunt upland game, waterfowl, and track and retrieve wounded game as well as being an in-house pet. The more things you want from your dog, the wider the temperament requirements, and so the more careful and expansive your research must be to find the dog that will satisfy your wants and expectations. You need to look at whole bloodlines, not just the parents. Performance records of both closely and more distantly related dogs must be evaluated. This does not mean just how many first-place wins. It means how well did all the dogs in the line you are considering do in the things you want your dog to do. That is a lot of detective work, asking a lot of people a lot of questions and then reading between the lines. Finally, you make your best guess and hope.

Temperament is genetically determined, but as in all heritable behavior traits, temperament is not inherited full blown and etched in granite like coat color or spotting. Rather, what is inherited is the potential for any given trait with lower and upper limits for that potential. How well the potential is realized is dependent on training and general experiences, particularly during the dog’s first year. Everything after that is just buffing to make it shine brighter. The breeder hopefully did his or her part, but from the time you bring the pup home, the ball is in your court. You cannot exceed the potential, but you can maximize it by the training and the experiences you supply for your dog. Unfortunately, you can easily minimize and go well below potential by poor management practices.

English Pointer on leash
Most of your dog's temperament is written in their genetics, but you can optimize their potential to meet your expectations with proper training and exposure to the world, especially during their first year. (Photo By: Bridges Photography/

You need to capitalize on those good things you see that contribute to your desires and expectations by rewarding and cultivating them by very astute management and direction for the dog. He will get gradually better if he experiences good things while dealing with a given behavioral characteristic you want to develop. Simultaneously, you need to minimize the things you consider detrimental to attaining your goals for your dog by not rewarding them, so the dog has no reason to repeat them.

Remember too, that punishing the dog is a form of giving credence to an undesired behavior. For example: If your dog barks constantly every time he wants your attention and you yell at him, discipline him by putting him in his crate, spank him with a rolled-up newspaper, whatever, it is giving him attention which is exactly what he wanted so he is being rewarded for barking. But, if you simply turn your back and walk away, he is ignored, making his barking ineffectual, unrewarded, and it will stop. You can minimize the undesirable by not rewarding it and ramp up the desirable by rewarding it.

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