Dog Temperament

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

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 courtesy of Caroline Becker

His temperament will give you an idea of the kind of behaviour you can expect from the dog, which is especially helpful if you're adopting an adult dog.

The basic English Cocker Spaniel temperament is mostly heredity.

Generally, Cockers are biddable and friendly dogs. In addition, they are loyal, companionable, gentle and affectionate.

As a Cocker Spaniel owner, you will already be familiar with their general temperament and, you will also understand that each dog is different and will have additional varying traits.

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

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

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.

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

Playing games with this type of temperament, such as catch with 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 a challenge to train, especially if you've no experience with this type of dog temperament. I would never recommend bringing a dog with this sort of temperament into your home if you haven't owned a dog before.

In short, these dogs go looking for trouble and will need firm, consistent handling.

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

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!

Thankfully, a Cocker 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 he is left alone for a couple of hours.

Bored dogs often become destructive, but because a dog with a neutral temperament can easily entertain himself and is rarely bored, it also means it's unlikely that your dog will be destructive around the home.


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.

Dog Temperament: Submissive

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.

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.

He may also roll onto his back, showing his belly, legs akimbo - another classic sign of submission.

Submissive Cockers will avoid confrontation with other dogs at all costs and won't return a stare.

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

Submissive traits can vary in intensity. Where the dog is particularly submissive, the animal may also suffer from fear-aggression.

Fear Aggression

Fear-aggression is where 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.

If you have a dog with fear-aggression, you will need to be vigilant at all times.

He 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 not be able to change your dog's basic temperament too much as it's largely genetic, but there are some factors that can help to influence your dog's personality, and balance his temperament.

For example, early socialization, good training, and kind, gently handling, can all have a positive effect on 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 where the dog is poorly treated.

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 dog that is mistreated may become nervous and withdrawn, suspicious of humans, and scared of its own shadow.

Alternatively, he may swing the other way, and his fear may lead him to become 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. He will also need to be well-trained and given lots of guidance and boundaries.

Any rules you set for him will need to be followed closely and consistently because your dog will try to push against them, time and time again.

By helping your dog stick to the rules you set for him, being consistent, and training him well, you will be able to reduce his assertive/aggressive behaviour and 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 and 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 he's exposed to many different objects, sounds and experiences (socialization), and where there are clear boundaries 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, submissive temperaments.

Submissive dogs are usually scared of their own shadow, and socialisation will help the dog become more familiar with lots of different objects, noises, and experiences so that he's not frightened of them when he comes across them later on 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 to understand what you need from him and reward him enthusiastically when he gets it right.

By giving your puppy lots of encouragement and enthusiastic praise, you will be raising 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, no matter whether it is 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 couple of questions posted on this site by our visitors, together with 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

Headshot of a golden cocker spaniel, with a gentle expression on his face.Sadie, a beautiful golden cocker spaniel

By: Shaye
From: Australia

Hello All, I have a question related to dog 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 has lived with my parents for the past 12 months because we were in a unit, and we couldn't have her with us. We have now bought a house and have brought her back to live with us.

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, and when my dog sees them, she barks!

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

We have just also brought a new puppy home, a Maltese cross, in the hope 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're inside, but she won't let them pass her until she is ready for them to pass.

If anyone can offer me advice as to 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 myself, but my sister has four of them, and they are all different.

However, I think it sounds like your Spaniel could be a bit homesick, perhaps?

She has been taken from what she perceived as home and brought to a new place, then another dog is 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 Affects Dog Temperament?


I have just visited your website, and I 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 about cocker spaniel temperament that I'm hoping to have answered.

When I was a child, I had a wonderful Cocker Spaniel with a beautifully sweet canine temperament, and 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 Affects Dog Temperament

Answer by: Pauline
Website Owner


Generally, Cocker Spaniels are very gentle and loving in nature; their temperament is very appealing. Unfortunately, there are some Cocker Spaniels out there with aggressive dog temperaments.

Several things can affect the temperament of a Cocker Spaniel, and 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, stressful environments. The puppies may not have had any close human contact before being released to families.

The list is 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 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 to know how much socializing has the breeder already 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 lots of different people, including children.

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

Keep the house quiet, 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 long periods, and work out a puppy schedule and follow it carefully.

If you leave your puppy on his own 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 that 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, and it will only get worse.

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, but especially a Cocker Spaniel, if your children are young or at least under five years old.

Children must understand the rules on how to behave 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. 

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