The Myth of Temperament

Recently there has been a video circulating on the internet about a “temperament test” that was performed on a pit bull in MI.

After the test, the pit bull was deemed un-adoptable and fated to be euthanized. There has been an uproar about the test and the results it yielded. Rightfully so; I agree that what I saw on the video would not have deemed the dog un-adoptable at the shelter I work with, nor at the Pit Bull Rescue I run. But the comments posted as a result of this video have been very negative towards assessments in general and that is where I would like to set the record straight and address some common misconceptions.

Aggression Assessment vs. Temperament Test

Before I go into any more detail, I want to clarify something: temperament tests and aggression assessments are two completely different animals! Temperament, by definition is something that can not be changed; it is more or less innate to the animal. Behavior, on the other hand, is influenced by environment, experience and genetics and can be influenced and modified by all of those factors. Aggression is a behavior, not a personality or temperament trait. Aggression can be influenced and changed depending upon circumstances and environment. There are, of course, some degrees of aggression exhibited in individuals which can be to difficult to manage and therefore make the animal un-adoptable, or at least unmanageable for the average owner.

Assessments can be–and have been–very useful in predicting the likeness of a dog aggressing once it’s in a home, but much depends upon the assessment that is used and how it is performed. To my knowledge there are only two aggression assessments that have any research and data to back up their usefulness and probability findings. The one I am most familiar with–and certified to perform–is the Safety Assessment For Evaluating Rehoming (SAFER) that was designed by Dr. Emily Weiss.

More often than not, though, people refer to aggression assessments as temperament tests. The flaw is that, again, temperament can’t be changed. Behavior–such as aggression–can be. Temperament tests usually have a pass/fail scoring with no in-between. For true aggression assessments, such as SAFER, there is no pass or fail. It is simply a tool to give the assessor information about that dog in that given time and environment. The assessment looks at the probability that dog has of aggressing under different stimuli. EVERY dog is capable of biting; we want to know–when given the choice through body language–if the dog will choose to “tell us” they are uncomfortable with something we’re doing, and how they will let us know.

A universal assessment language

The SAFER assessment was designed after many hours of work, research and data were complied to find out if certain things we do with dogs are more likely to yield aggressive behaviors. The dog is always given a choice and is never forced to do anything they don’t want to or like. Assessors should have a knowledge of dog behavior and body language before performing SAFER. In fact, it’s best if assessors are certified to perform SAFER first. By having a certification process, it’s ensured that the handler is consistent in their handling skills. It also gives consistency to the program by offering a universal language of behavior and information.

The information gathered during each assessment is purely objective. There is no subjective language, such as:

“the dog seemed relaxed or playful”

because everyone’s definition of “relaxed and playful” will be different. Compare that to the description,

“the dog’s body was loose, his mouth was open, eyes were soft.”


“the dog went into a play bow and did soft huffing and popping of body motion.”

These provide a clear image of what the dog was doing, leaving individual interpretation out of the data.

A consistent environment

There are guidelines that need to be met by the assessor, the room and items used for the assessment as well, so that everything stays consistent and gives the dog a fair shot at showing natural behaviors.
Because there is no pass/fail, each organization that incorporates a true aggression assessment into their programs can then take the information obtained from the assessment and determine what resources they have to aid that dog.

Some organizations will have greater resources for working with dogs exhibiting aggressive or potentially aggressive behaviors, others will require outside resources and, in some cases, dogs may be too aggressive to responsibly adopt out. Humanely euthanizing them is always the last resort.

One case at a time

Aggression assessments offer rescues and shelters a means to individually evaluate each dog that comes through their organization, and determine what resources are required to find the dog a home. Failure to assess dogs in shelter situations can mean missed behaviors and problematic adoptions.

Lastly, dogs are dogs, no assessor properly performing aggression assessments should say that a given behavior is expressed because the dog is a certain breed. Every dog is an individual case and fate should never rest on breed alone.

The German shepherd is a popular breed of dog, known for its loyalty, intelligence, and protective nature. Originally bred in Germany for herding sheep, the German shepherd is now one of the most popular breeds in the world. German shepherds are often used as working dogs in various fields, such as law enforcement, search and rescue, and assistance for the disabled. They are also popular pets and make excellent family dogs. German shepherds are large dogs, with males reaching up to 26 inches tall at the shoulder and females up to 24 inches. They have a strong, muscular build, and their coat can be either short or long-haired. German shepherds are intelligent and easy to train, but they need plenty of exercises and may not be suitable for homes with small children or other pets.

Last Note

In regards to the video posted above of the MI pit bull-type dog. Nothing is this video met the guidelines for the ASPCA’s SAFER assessment. My personal opinion is that this dog was not given a fair assessment at all and was extremely stressed during the “test”. Yet the dog chose to move away and act appropriately many times.

One Reply to “The Myth of Temperament”

  1. I certainly agree with your point that aggression is a behavior, not a trait. And I emphatically agree that when life or death decisions for a dog are being made, these things should be based on the best science available instead of idiotic, poorly controlled tests.

    But in correctly drawing attention to the distinction between behaviors and traits, I think that you have gone a bit far. Of course, you know much more about dogs than I do, and I may be mistaken in drawing an analogy from people to dogs, but I’m going to do that anyway.

    Let’s look at a relatively uncontroversial trait in humans: Propensity for addiction. Some people are more prone to addiction than others. There is an enormous amount of research and evidence for this, and even some baby steps in understanding some of the genetic components. Anecdotally we all know people who really struggled to give up smoking while others quit without to much difficulty.

    Propensity to addiction is a really complicated thing, but it clearly exists. It should go without saying that there are plenty of people with a high propensity for addiction who will never become addicted to anything. Likewise there are plenty of people with a low propensity do become addicts of one sort or another.

    Along the same lines, I would expect that there is a trait related to a tendency to develop agressive behaviors (both in humans and in dogs). Normal, healthy socialization helps people and dogs avoid developing those behaviors, but it strikes me as implausible that there isn’t some trait.

    Of course whether there is such a trait or not, your point holds. It’s agressive behavior that is an issue, and it is very unlikely that someone can develop a practical test to get at the trait anyway. And, of course, healthy socialization is the way to address aggression.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *