Doberman Temperament – A Brief Introduction

by Pat Murphy Cornelius      
©copyright September 2003

Dobermans have been described as “the dog with the human brain.” And there is no doubt that temperament plays an extremely important role in the make up of this breed of dog whose intended function is that of protector and companion. In today´s society, we expect such a dog to be able to assess situations, think on its feet, and be a watchful defender, all the while blending into the life and lifestyle of its family.

Yet too often we hear stories of Dobermans accused of having acted inappropriately; of aggression directed at owners and handlers; of dogs whose lives are terminated because they are perceived as having gone through a Jekyll-Hyde transformation from reliable family pet to berserk attacker, overnight. Some of these dogs are mere puppies, barely past shedding their baby teeth.

What is the ideal Doberman temperament? How do you know it when you see it? How does the breeder achieve it? Is it all “hard-wired” genetics? Is environment a significant factor? Does training or conditioning play any part at all?

In describing the “ideal” Doberman temperament, our standard says the Doberman should be “energetic, watchful, determined, alert, fearless, loyal and obedient.” But how much energy? How alert (and thus reactive) should he be? How actively should he watch? Where does watchfulness end and fear begin? When does energy defeat obedience? When does determination trump loyalty, (as in the dog determinedly chasing the squirrel over the next hill, heedless of its owners cries and irresponsibly failing to fulfill the Doberman´s ultimate mission in life – that of sticking around to protect his person). And how do you recognize when energy is not balanced by judgment and responsibility; when watchfulness is in reality fundamentally unsound shyness; when obedience has become slavery, and determination is in fact stubbornness?

Temperament is as critical to type in the Doberman as is structure. And given that most Dobermans born are neither show dogs nor breeding stock nor competitors in sports such as agility, obedience, or schutzhund, it is not unreasonable to say that in assessing the “big three” – structure, health and temperament – that temperament is of greater importance than structure and of equal importance with health, especially in the eyes and mind of the little girl who wants a loving and loyal protector that will live forever. Given the option of choosing Phideaux, the champion dog with a lousy disposition and “Fido”, a dog of less eye catching structure but who is a joy to live with, most folks would choose the plebian Fido over the fancy Phideaux, simply because Fido would be a far easier and more pleasant dog to live with over the long haul.

But saying that we would choose Fido still begs the question – how do we interpret the standard so as to determine that Fido´s temperament is better than Phideaux´s? And how do we measure the proximity of each individual dog´s behavioral characteristics to this ideal? Therein lies the dilemma that has lead to varying forms of temperament testing, countless theories of dog behavior and the formation of various sporting organizations whose primary goal – at least as to working dogs – is to attempt to quantify these intangible qualities; qualities that are – on a metaphysical level as much a measure of the dog´s soul as of the dog´s mind.

One thing should be clear. Temperament does not necessarily equal behavior, nor does disposition equal character. However behavior, disposition and character – along with instinct – are all components of temperament.

In the book “Adam´s Task”, dog trainer-philosopher Vicki Hearne describes a pointer puppy whose temperament is so pure and instincts so strong that she devotes her entire being to hunting birds. While describing the purity of that puppy´s temperament, she also expresses a profound reality about Doberman temperament that many Doberman owners either fail to realize, or too readily forget. She describes Salty the pointer puppy as a dog who “has it in her … to hunt wholeheartedly where lesser dogs lose spirit …. Unfortunately [Salty´s] wonderful qualities may look to the uninitiated remarkably like wildness and uncontrollability. …  She´s a year old, and she hasn´t even had any puppy conditioning; the only part of the noble rhetoric she has gotten down is the part about going hard and tirelessly. This she does everywhere, as indifferent to obstacles like the kitchen table or the bedside lamp as her forebears were to nearly unleapable gullies and impenetrable thickets … She thought she was doing a fine thing when she went through the picture window to point some meadowlarks in the backyard, and the cries of “You bad dog, how could you do this to us, you´re supposed to be our precious baby, look at my potted Chinese palm, all ruined!” deterred her no more than the gashes on her neck and shoulders. But she was tolerant of the fussing, even if she was unresponsive to it. Proof of her tolerance is in her not having bitten anyone. A German Shepherd or a Doberman, or any of the breeds for whom the forms of companionship can be as deeply visionary as the forms of hunting are for Salty, might very well have responded to this particular incoherence with some hostility.”

What is so significant about this passage is its recognition of the fact that to a Doberman, companionship with his person is the essence of his life. And also the essence of Doberman temperament, for Dobermans were intentionally designed to be companion and protector. Unfortunately for too many Dobermans, however, while Doberman people apparently recognize the part about companionship, we think of that companionship in our terms and without recognizing the fact that the Doberman is still a dog, not a human in a sleek black and rust suit. We also then fail to recognize how our attempts at communication – and at understanding the Doberman´s responses and communications back – are as incoherent to him as Salty´s owners remonstrations were to her. And so, tragically, for the lack of the ability to assess and communicate, potential remains unfulfilled, breeding decisions are made without the means to predict that potential (both positive and negative), and sometimes – tragically for all – lives are cut short.

The goal of this seminar is to provide participants with a rudimentary appreciation for the complex subject of temperament, and also to give you tools to enable you to seek more knowledge in this area.

We hope that this presentation will inspire you to become seekers on the path of knowledge along with your panelists – for the one certainty that we can clearly share is that the dogs are always our best teachers, and there is always more to learn.

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