Understanding Dog Temperament

The term dog temperament is simply a way of describing a dog's basic personality.

Your Cocker Spaniel's temperament will give you an idea of the kind of behaviour you can expect from your dog. This is especially helpful if you're adopting an adult dog.

Read on to learn more about the basic types of dog temperament and how you can positively influence your dog's temperament.

Types of Dog Temperament

Generally, Cockers are biddable and friendly dogs. They are loyal, companionable, gentle and affectionate.

The basic English Cocker Spaniel temperament is mostly heredity and good breeding practices; however, dog temperament can be influenced by other factors, as we will see later.

As a Cocker Spaniel owner, you're probably already familiar with their general temperament. You will also understand that each dog is different and has varying traits.

There are three basic dog temperaments; assertive, neutral (or passive), and submissive.

Two cocker spaniel puppies, one is golden and the other black. The black puppy is sitting in a terracotta plant pot.Here's one I grew earlier! Photo: Caroline Becker

Dog Temperament: Assertive/Aggressive

Assertive dogs are confident and will fearlessly challenge another dog in the park. They won't be the first dog to blink!

To assert their dominance, they are likely to try to mount anything that moves (and they're not too fussy about the sex of the other dog!).

An assertive dog may try to steal another dog's toys in the park and may become aggressive around food as they're not likely to share.

They often come across as bullies.

They see themselves as born leaders and like to be in control. They can be territorial and protective of their owner and family. If you don't know how to handle this behaviour, it can cause problems.

Dog temperament is another way of describing your dog's personality.This Cocker Spaniel is assertive

Dogs with an assertive canine temperament are often aggressive and like to play rough.

Playing games with this type of dog temperament, such as catching a ball or a frisbee, will help to use up some of his energy. However, I would never recommend playing tug-of-war games with an assertive dog.

They may also have a high prey drive.

Assertive Cockers can be challenging to train, especially if you don't have experience with this type of dog temperament. I would only recommend bringing a dog with this temperament into your home if you have owned a dog before.

In short, these dogs look for trouble and need firm, consistent handling.

Dogs with an assertive temperament are also known as Alpha dogs.

Learn how to influence and manage a dog with an assertive temperament.

Dog Temperament: Neutral

A dog with a neutral temperament is likely to be relaxed, confident and happy and will enjoy playing with other dogs, children and adults.

He will be content to share his food and toys and won't be aggressive.

His prey drive will be low, although he may occasionally enjoy chasing next door's cat!

A dog with a neutral temperament can easily entertain himself and is rarely bored; it's unlikely that your dog will be destructive around the home. Result!

Thankfully, a Cocker Spaniel with a neutral or passive temperament isn't likely to become bored because he can easily entertain himself.

He will happily play with his toys and chew bones for hours, which is good because it means he won't feel lonely if left alone for a couple of hours.

Bored dogs often become destructive.

If I were to go looking for another dog, I would definitely base my research on finding a breeder that bred puppies simply on temperament.

A Cocker with a neutral dog temperament would be my first choice.

Learn how to influence and manage a dog with a neutral temperament.

Dog Temperament: Submissive

The following traits are present in a dog with submissive tendencies.

  • A Cocker with a submissive temperament will be nervous around dogs and strangers and regularly shy away from both. They are genuine 'scaredy-cats,' and as such, they are usually unhappy dogs.

    They would rather cower with you than join the fun with other dogs in the park.
This is Rita, she's a submissive Cocker Spaniel.This Cocker has a submissive dog temperament
  • They have low levels of prey drive and will allow other dogs to steal their toys and food.
  • A submissive Cocker Spaniel may have problems with involuntary peeing and may pee with excitement (or fear) when another dog or human comes anywhere near him.
  • The dog may also roll onto his back, showing his belly with legs akimbo; this is another classic sign of a submissive dog temperament.
  • Submissive Cockers will avoid confrontation with other dogs at all costs and won't return a stare.

Submissive traits can vary in intensity.

Where the dog is particularly submissive, he may also suffer from fear aggression.

Learn how to influence and manage a dog with a submissive temperament.

Dog Temperament and Fear Aggression

Fear aggression is when a nervous or frightened dog feels so threatened that its first response is aggression. They may snap, bite or launch a full-on attack on whatever or whoever has frightened them or made them feel nervous or anxious.

Incidents of fear aggression can have grave consequences.

You must always be vigilant if you have a dog with fear aggression.

Your dog will need lots of socialization, training, and praise to increase his confidence. This will go a long way to reducing your dog's fear, which in turn, will reduce his aggression.

You Can Influence Your Dog's Temperament

You may be unable to change your dog's basic temperament too much because temperament is largely genetic. However, some factors can help to influence your dog's personality and balance his disposition.

For example, early socialization, good training, and kind, gentle handling can positively affect a dog's temperament.

Even the dogs 'parents' can have an impact on puppy temperament!

Conversely, the opposite applies where the above are missing, or the dog is poorly treated.

This is Sadie, a beautiful golden Cocker Spaniel. She has a wonderful neutral temperament.Sadie has a wonderful neutral temperament

It's unfortunate, but some owners mistreat their pets. They don't treat them kindly, or they discipline them with a heavy hand.

This type of mistreatment often results in a negative change in dog temperament. A mistreated dog may become nervous, withdrawn, suspicious of humans, and scared of its own shadow.

Alternatively, he may swing the other way, and his fear may make him aggressive.

Either way, this does not make for a happy Cocker Spaniel.

How To Influence and Manage An Assertive Dog Temperament

If your Cocker Spaniel has an assertive temperament, you will have your work cut out for you, especially if you're an inexperienced dog owner.

An assertive dog will need firm but fair (not rough!) handling.

The dog must also be well-trained and given lots of guidance and boundaries.

Any rules you set for an assertive Cocker Spaniel must be followed closely and consistently because your dog will try to push against them repeatedly.

Help your dog stick to the rules you set for him. Being consistent and keeping up with his training will reduce his assertive/aggressive behaviour and help keep him in check.

Training, boundaries, lots of exercise, and lots of love will help to keep this assertive dog temperament relaxed and calm.

How To Influence and Manage A Neutral Dog Temperament

If your Cocker Spaniel has a neutral temperament, you're onto a winner!

You've almost got the perfect dog!

That's not to say that you shouldn't give him as much training as you can, especially puppy obedience, keep reinforcing that training every day.

I also recommend lots of socialization to help him develop into the best adult dog he can be.

Your dog will be more relaxed and happier when exposed to many different objects, sounds and experiences (socialization) and where clear boundaries are set for him.

How To Influence and Manage A Submissive Dog Temperament

Socialization can have a significant impact on all dog temperaments, but in particular, a submissive temperament.

Submissive dogs are usually scared of their own shadow.

This beautiful Spaniel has a loving temperament.Hello Mum!

Socialization will help the dog become more familiar with many different objects, noises, and experiences. It will help remove the fear these experiences may cause later in life.

Socialization should be given as early as possible, preferably between 6 and 12 weeks, as puppies are more receptive during these few weeks.

It should be continued until the puppy is one year old to ensure he gets the full benefit.

You can also help a submissive dog by playing puppy games with him.

Help him understand what you need and reward him enthusiastically when he gets it right.

Giving your puppy lots of encouragement and enthusiastic praise will raise his confidence, which will help a submissive puppy come out of his shell.

Dog Temperament: Summary

Dog temperament is all about your dog's nature, his disposition. In short, his personality.

Your dog's temperament, whether assertive, neutral, or submissive, will influence your pet's behaviour. It will affect how the dog reacts towards humans and other dogs.

There will also be variants within these groups based on their different experiences, training, environment and how well they've been socialized.

Once you understand which group your Cocker belongs to, you will be better equipped to manage your dog.

You will also be able to apply the recommendations given in this article to help improve your dog's temperament.

Now that's got to be good for both dog and owner, hasn't it?

Visitor Questions About Dog Temperament

Here are a few questions posted on this site by our visitors and a couple of responses.
They are a classic example of how an environment (or a change in environment) can alter your dog's behaviour.

Hopefully, this change won't be permanent and will be resolved with love, patience, and understanding.

Temperamental Cocker Spaniel

This is a beautiful black Cocker Spaniel sitting in the autumnal woods.I'm just taking a breather Mum!

By: Shaye
From: Australia

Hello All,

I have a question related to my dogs temperament. I have a female golden cocker spaniel, who is 3-years-old this year. She is a very timid girl and was spoilt as a puppy.

She lived with my parents for the past 12 months because we were in a unit and couldn't have her with us.

We have bought a house and brought her back to live with us; however, since coming to live with us, she seems unable to relax.

I get the impression that she feels it's her job to protect us as she constantly runs from door to door and window to window when inside, looking out for strangers or other dogs. When my dog sees them, she barks!

She doesn't like to be outside for very long by herself.

We have also brought a new puppy home, a Maltese cross, hoping that this calms our cocker spaniel, Holly, down a bit and that she might start to relax and play.

She doesn't bite or growl at visitors once they are inside, but she won't let them pass her until she is ready for them to pass.

If anyone can offer me advice on why my dog is behaving this way or how I can calm her down, I would be very grateful to hear it.

Shaye, a concerned owner.

Comments: Dog Temperament

Temperamental Cocker Spaniel
By: Anonymous

Well, I'm new to the whole dog thing, but my sister has four of them, and they are all different.

However, your Spaniel could be a bit homesick.

She was taken from what she perceived as home and brought to a new place, and then another dog was added to the mix.

Did you take her around the yard and house when you moved in?

Did you introduce her to the neighbours and their pets?

Does she have a place to be alone and have some quiet time just for her?

She may feel threatened by a bunch of new people coming into what is essentially her new den. Some things may not even smell like her yet. Imagine that! No familiar sights, sounds or smells.

Change is a big thing for a dog, and so many changes at once might just have her overwhelmed.

Spend some time letting her get to know the new place. She will also need to get to know you again since she hasn't lived with you for 12 months.

Be patient; eventually, she will get comfy and calm down.

What Can Affect Dog Temperament?


I have just visited your website and wanted to say how good it is.

There's lots of really helpful information and practical tips for raising a puppy. I have shared your site with many of my friends with new puppies, and they have had great results!

I have a couple of questions on cocker spaniel temperament problems that I hope to have answered.

I had a wonderful Cocker Spaniel with a beautifully sweet canine temperament when I was a child. Because of this, I would like to get a cocker for my two young children.
Unfortunately, I know of a cocker spaniel with an aggressive nature.

Are cocker spaniels usually friendly, or was my childhood cocker the exception to the rule?

Can I be assured of getting a gentle temperament from a good breeder?

Can bloodlines affect a puppy's temperament? Or is it more important to concentrate on how the puppy is raised?

Comments: What Can Affect Dog Temperament

Answer by: Pauline
Website Owner


Generally, Cocker Spaniels are very gentle and loving in nature; their temperament is very appealing. Unfortunately, some Cocker Spaniels have aggressive dog temperaments; this also applies to other breeds.

Several things can affect the temperament of a Cocker Spaniel.

  • Genetics is one of them. The puppy may have been bred from parents of a poor lineage or health.
  • The dogs may have been kept in poor sanitary conditions and stressful environments.
  • The puppies may not have had close human contact before being released to families.

The list is almost endless.

If you want to protect yourself from the risk of getting one of these puppies, avoid pet shops, ads in the paper, and puppy mills.

Always buy from a breeder, one who breeds for temperament alone.

Make sure you see the puppy's parents, or at least the mother, with her puppies.

Watch the puppies playing and interacting with siblings and humans to help you make a judgement on their temperament.

The next important thing is knowing how much socializing the breeder has done. If the puppies have spent most of their time in a crate, I wouldn't be too confident about finding a puppy with a good temperament.

The puppies should spend at least 50% of their time out of the crates, playing with their brothers and sisters, interacting with humans and getting used to being handled.

Ideally, they should be taken out for a ride in the car, have experienced some household noises, such as a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine, and most importantly, have been handled by many different people, including children.

Lastly, when you get your puppy home, ease him in gently.

Keep the house quiet, and introduce him to his new family and environment. Give him some food and water and show him his crate and bed. Let him settle down and sleep if he wants to.

If he prefers to wander around, let him explore but keep an eye on him.

Don't leave the puppy for extended periods; if you leave your puppy alone for too long, he will pine for you, and you will have an unhappy puppy. He will also pee and poop because he won't be able to hold it, and you weren't there to let him out.

He may even become destructive to 'while away the hours'.

A lack of socialization, proper routine care, training, etc., will only mean your puppy will run-riot over you and your home. You will have an unruly puppy who is doing just what he wants to do.

As he gets older, he will continue behaving unruly, which will only worsen.

Work out a puppy schedule and follow it carefully.

Mould your puppy's good temperament into a better temperament while you still have the opportunity.

You don't say how old your children are, but I caution against getting a puppy (no matter what breed) if your children are very young or under five years old.

Children must understand the rules on behaving around a puppy and should be supervised at all times when with them.

I hope this helps, and good luck with your search for a puppy!

Related Articles:

You can find information about Cocker Spaniels and their characteristics by following the links. 

Read more about the Cocker Spaniel temperament here.

Source Reference: Stanley Coren, Ph.D., FRSC., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Photo credits for Dog Temperament:
1. Visitor photo courtesy of Caroline Becker.
2. Visitor photo courtesy of Winston's Mum.
3. Visitor photo courtesy of Rita's Mum.
4. Visitor photo courtesy of Sadie's Mum.
5. Rachel Beresford at https://flickr.com/photos/beresfordphoto/15773846519
6. https://farm9.staticflickr.com/8502/8326946878_900044e69d_m.jpg