The cutting chill of winter is slowly, grudgingly giving it up for spring which is lurking somewhere just beyond the weatherperson’s pointer. It is now a game of temperature numbers; today it is 520, tomorrow it will be 570, and the next day a tantalizing 600. Of course, Colorado may still have a blizzard somewhere near Rabbit Ears Pass. Who knows? The temperature is happily climbing. As I look out onto the street from my postage-stamp terrace and then glance back at my forlorn bike, leaning against the wall, I cannot wait to get out there, riding around Greenwich Village. Of course, spring will have committed itself by the opening game of the baseball season, which is better than green buds on trees. But even more significantly, it is the number of dogs walking their owners everywhere I look that tells me we have crossed the Rubicon. It always amazes me how many dogs live in this city. I have been told it is about a million, but I really do not know the number. It’s a lot and on some days, it looks like they are all on my narrow street.
There is a lot more barking at this time of the year and the streets are teeming with three-, four- and five-month old puppies, fresh from new spring litters. I hear yapping and barking, whimpering and whining. Did I mention yelping? What is going on is the display of canine temperament and first-year dog owners who do not seem to understand much about it.
Temperamental is a word that is often confused with temperament when it comes to dogs. It is one of those words we think we understand until we are asked to define it. What exactly is a temperamental dog, and does this have the same connotation as the behavior of a temperamental human being? When the soprano stalks off the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House because the tenor just ate garlic or just stepped in front of her as she hit her final, high note, she is considered temperamental, or a diva. When a dog bites the letter carrier, everything in his pouch becomes Express Mail. Such dogs are inaccurately called temperamental. Students of canine behavior consider this a matter of temperament. There’s a huge difference between the two performances. The Prima Donna is probably off on a willful, conscious tantrum. The dog is probably doing what his genes, breeding and upbringing have conditioned him to do.
It is more accurate to refer to the various temperaments of dogs rather than to dogs that are temperamental, because, by modern standards, there are three elements that determine a dog’s temperament: genetics, breed characteristic and environmental influences.
The genetic factor is probably the most powerful determinant. When a dog’s parents are of a given mental and emotional quality, chances are quite likely that many of the puppies will be of similar temperament.
As for breed characteristics, if a dog is a true representative of its breed, it will possess some of that breed’s temperamental qualities. For example, German Shepherd dogs are highly territorial, while most Terriers are determined, unrelenting hunters and quite stubborn about most things. English Setters are calm and laid-back.
Environmental influences over temperament have to do with socialization during the critical period of a puppy’s first weeks of life and how it is introduced to human handling, especially in the early stages of its youth.
For the purpose of functionality, some professional handlers and trainers categorize temperaments into six separate and distinct groupings that are recognizable by just about anyone who lives with a dog. They are nervous, shy, stubborn, sedate, aggressive and outgoing. Although these groupings are not exact science, they are fairly accurate anyway.
The Nervous Dog. This is one of the most troublesome for new pet owners. The problems of nervous dogs usually involve inbred fear and anxiety in various degrees that seem to have no apparent cause. A nervous dog cannot relax except when asleep. He will overreact to the slightest stimulus. He is afraid of many things. Naturally, any physical or emotional abuse can destroy a perfectly normal dog and create a nervous wreck of a dog. Living with such a dog is a true test of one’s patience and love. A gentle approach to obedience training helps a lot.
The Shy Dog. This is a variation of the nervous dog. If the problem is not an inherited one, it could be the result of having been the runt of the litter or being bullied by the other puppies. This type of dog runs when the doorbell rings and hides under the bed when a stranger enters the house. Noises, visitors, scolding, sudden movements, traffic or anything unexpected all ruffle the shy dog. Although a shy puppy can be quite endearing, a shy adult dog is not. Shyness in dogs often leads to aggressiveness. Dogs that are shy require a tremendous amount of patience and a great deal of tender loving care.
The Stubborn Dog. This temperament usually involves passive resistance, obstinacy and dug-in stubbornness. Some actually throw temper tantrums. They must be trained with firmness. Rather than have a battle of wills, the human involved must be assertive and act like the top dog.
The Sedate Dog. Most often, this temperament is the result of breed characteristics. Dogs of this temperament are mostly the larger breeds such as the Great Dane, Great Pyrenees, Newfoundland, Saint Bernard, and English Setter. There are others. Although very lovable, these are somewhat sensitive dogs that do not respond well to harsh tones of voice or fast-paced demands. Sedate dogs are slow to the point of lethargy. They are very lovable but not as demonstrative as other breeds or types. They sleep much of the time. They require very gentle, patient training.
The Aggressive Dog. These range in degree from pushy to dangerous. Aggressive dogs bully people and other animals to get what they want or to protect what they have with growls, barks, lunges, chases and, sadly, bites. Aggressiveness can be the distortion of a breed characteristic such as territoriality. This simply means an exaggerated sense of protectiveness as encouraged by guard and attack training or instincts gone unchecked. Aggressive behavior can be very dangerous and requires training from a professional who is experienced with this form of canine behavior.
The Outgoing Dog. This probably best describes the majority of domestic dogs. These are the ones that are the easiest to train, the most willing to please, easygoing, patient and forbearing. They are often called even-tempered. These qualities cut across all breeds (including mongrels), sizes, colors and shapes. It is, I believe, the true and natural disposition of our friend, the dog, and what makes them the wonderful companion animals they are.
And so, spring beneath my terrace is an endearing parade of young dogs sniffing the street for the first time. They are bright, shiny, and delightful. When was the last time you experienced the world as a new place to be enjoyed as an adventure? Older dogs who know the ropes and every age in-between are happy to get out of the house without a sweater, but the springtime pups energetically hip and hop because they are seeing it all for the first time and just can’t believe how great it is to be alive.
Mordecai Siegal’s most recent books are “”The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year (Simon & Schuster) and the 10th anniversary revised edition of “”I Just Got A Puppy: What Do I Do?”” He writes a regular column in the new American Kennel Club magazine, The Family Dog. He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America, a member of P.E.N. and the Cat Writers Association.