A Guide to Dog Personalities By Francis Metcalf

 rabbits2During your life as a dog lover you may encounter certain canine personalities that are different than the ones you have become used to. This may leave you thinking thoughts like “my last dog didn’t do this”  or “I don’t remember this being a problem.” You might find that your normal approach isn’t working or that you’re having trouble communicating. It’s not that you’re a complete novice, you’ve had lots of dogs but recently you’ve encountered issues you weren’t prepared for.  If this describes you then you might benefit from some coaching to help you navigate a different canine personality. That’s where someone like me comes in. My life’s path has put me in front of more dogs than most. That happened when an obsession for dogs turned into a career.

You have to observe lots of dogs, test them, train them, and compete with them to arrive at certain insights. One insight I arrived at was with the help of something I read in an obscure book many years ago. Since then I’ve lost the book, but the knowledge remains, expanded upon, and now I’m passing it on to you because I think it will help you better understand canine personalities.

The book I have in mind, by G. Straatman and  J. Jons, is about the Royal Dutch Police dogs or KNPV.  In it, 41vvstuymvl._sx334_bo12c2042c2032c200_the authors report on a system of evaluating litters by dividing them into 4 personality types. By using this system over many years I’ve gained a short hand method that allows me to adjust my training to get the best out of these canine personalities.  I can observe a dog from across the field and evaluate him instantly.  I know how to present myself so he likes me, and I know what he probably won’t like.

This system was originally intended for selecting working dog pups but I use it for reading adult dogs. I’m transmitting it to you so you can learn to decode dog personality yourself.  This will help you make the most out of the dogs you encounter throughout your life.

The 4 types: 

We can reduce the myriad of dog personalities to 4 types or categories:  Leader, Follower, Aloof, and Shy.

The system classifies pups in a litter on a spectrum of boldest to shyest. Once you’ve seen a few litters through this lens you’ll begin to have an understanding of the best and worst possibilities of each type. To do this you’ll need to follow the careers of the various dogs you evaluated as pups. This is where a working dog discipline is helpful, that way you will regularly see dogs trained and tested.  Of course it takes experience to be able to read a dog in seconds. But even without a working dog background, if you observe dogs, soon enough these personalities will show themselves.

Actually no type is perfect, it’s your job as a handler to even out the rough spots. You need to know how to tip the scales to make the dogs you work the best they can be.  I have an expression; “Show me a perfect dog and I’ll show you a liar.” That is to say the person  blinded to their dogs flaws often gets a comeuppance.

“Show me a perfect dog and I’ll show you a liar.”

The Leader: The top dog.  These are the stallions, often kept for breeding or placed with experienced trainers because their uninhibited nature requires a skilled hand to manage them. A handler who emphasizes control is a good placement. The Leader personality
timg_3422hrives with an authoritarian approach as long as you win them over first. Otherwise, you risk rebellion. The more sensitive the breed the more likely the Leader personality will balance out a delicate temperament.  Although you could end up with a sensitive dog that acts like a tough guy.

I used to prefer the Leader personality because I admired their strength and independence. But after owning some of these fabled hard dogs, my curiosity about them was satisfied and I went searching for more trainable animals. 

Did you ever hear someone say: ”That dog is testing you”? This statement is more judgment than helpful instruction and too many trainers use this tired trope for just about anything.  However, some dogs do test you. All dogs want to better their circumstances but Leader personalities push boundaries directly.

Follower:  Most successful competition dogs are Followers. Followers perform well in tests and generally are the best overall pups. They are known to be bold/ but biddable–img_3423an excellent combination. The trouble with the Follower enters when his valiant eagerness starts to annoy because he overdoes it.  These interactive dogs are often termed “affiliative. ” They love to nudge you and say “Do something with me.” Just as Leaders and Shy dogs are here on earth to be teachers,  Followers are eager students.  They want to believe in us.  When someone says this dog “wants to please,” it’s most likely a Follower.



Aloof: When I first read about this way of evaluating dog personalities, my young mind img_3426had little room for anything but Followers or Leaders.  I read that Aloof personalities were perfect for older trainers. Now that I’ve gotten older, I love this category just as Jons’ book predicted. 

The Aloof personality is less social and can get nervous and defensive if pushed. Because of this outlook you can confuse reserved for well mannered.  A quality I like about the Aloof is that they do not grovel for your attention, and they try to keep  their composure at all times. Aloof dogs make great demo dogs, because they will ignore the outside world and focus on the handler.


Shy:  Everyone knows not to pick the shy one, that is the the common advice at least, and img_3425I’m not going to dispute it.  It can be a burden to always buffer stressful experiences for your Shy dog 24/7, 365.  Shyness is an abundance of caution, if you throw caution to the wind you end up dead.  We need a little shyness to balance out boldness, but too much shyness can be a problem especially in an urban environment.  However I’m not here to judge a natural survival strategy.  All around us there is shyness and many dogs and handlers have learned to work with it.  Some have even turned it into an advantage by capitalizing on the Shy dogs natural responsiveness.  

Shy dogs are best with someone who desires to nurture.  You might be a hard ass but another thrives off nurturing. A by-product of training a Shy dog is enjoying a dog that is loyal and easy to control– in most circumstances.

The shy dog needs to be drawn out of its’ shell, whereas a leader dog needs to be pushed back in. Drawing a dog from its shell may be a joy to some and torture for others.  I do it for a living, and I can tell you, that’s where you show all the patience and skill you’ve spent years developing.

Creating Balance.  

When left in its own echo chamber, any dog personality can spiral into a self-reinforcing

Being shy works so being more shy offers more relief. Being aloof works so being an introverted crank works better. Being a leader works so being a bossy prick works better.  Being a follower works so being a bratty busy body works better.

You need to work with your dog in its strongest suit but provide the antidote to his img_4802excesses.  What I mean by this is while your leader dog may be the apple of your eye, after all he is so bold, but if you don’t provide checks to his leadership he may become a little tyrant.  Your Follower might be the “best boy in the world” but along with that comes being an attention seeking brat if you don’t work on his independence. Your Aloof personality dog might have you tricked into thinking he is very polite and obedient, but if you push him out of his comfort zone, he will become nervous and defensive. Your Shy dog is perfect off leash, but unless you have guided him through the times when the world floods him with panic you never know what could run him off.

Encourage a Shy dog to break the rules.  Encourage a Leader to follow you. Encourage a Follower to be independent. Encourage an Aloof personality to be gregarious. Bring the Leader down a notch. Set the Shy dog up to have emboldening experiences. The Follower can be patient, the Aloof should learn tolerance.  The best dogs are made by people who are aware of their dog’s deficits and work toward a balanced personality. 

Personality combos.  

The four personalities are reductions of complicated canine characters. These personalities are actually complex blends. Not only in a linear way from boldest to shyest but also non adjacent traits can be present in the same animal.  For instance a Leader most of the time but with a Shy component.

Dog’s aren’t fairytale heroes. Like us, they’re flawed. I have evaluated litters where the bravest pup (the Leader) in the nest becomes the shyest pup in a new place and the Follower pups become the new Leaders because they gain strength from each other.

When you have a dog that’s a combination, embolden the component of the personality you have more use for. For instance, my dog Schwartz is a Follower with a Shy streak.  Encourage him to be headstrong and he barely seems Shy; inhibit him and after a while the Shy shows through. Today, it’s hard to believe that Schwartz was ever Shy–but an experienced dog tester could unravel him in seconds.

Old shoe new shoe.

A new dog can be a shock. You forget how you trained the last one and feel friction img_5819“breaking in” the new one. That’s normal. But a new dog with a new personality type can leave you scratching your head. Question yourself about the differences between the personalities of your past and current dog. If your last dog was a Leader and your new a Follower, watch your bossiness. If your last dog was Aloof and now you have a Leader, learn assertiveness.


Here’s something I’ve encountered:  A breeder gets a call from an unknown party and sells them a dog on the Shy spectrum. The owners do a great job raising the dog, so next time around the breeder gives them the pick of the litter AKA the Leader.  This owner is now dealing with a whole new personality type, and can feel overwhelmed.  With a Shy pup you can do nothing but nurture and habituate.  A Leader pup needs boundaries otherwise he will soon be bullying you, in an innocent but pushy way.

How to adjust your training for each personality type.

:  Win them over by being a source of joy. Be their partner, then their guide. Do slow routines with an emphasis on control. You don’t want to fight against the Leader personality, you want them devoted to your cause, so make them think it was their idea.

Follower: Followers are interactive and forgiving; they want to work with you. Play games with them. Do fast, friendly routines together.  Keep a nice ratio between repetition and variation in your training. Too much of one or the other and the dog gets bored or confused. You determine “nice-ratio” case by case. As I tell my students, “Train the dog in front of you.”  Meaning: Not the dog you had a few minutes ago. Meaning: not the dog you wish you had, but the dog sitting before you now. When you train the dog in front of you with vision unclouded by hopes, you tend to make the right decisions.

Aloof: Let them come to you. Watch your gaze, your reach, and your stoop (i.e., bendingimg_9367 forward to interact with the dog).  If you must stoop down, bend at your knees. Not your waist. Lower yourself without going over the top of the dog.  I call this “staying in your tube.” An Aloof dog will not want to be physical with you immediately. If they sidle up to you with a hip, they’ve accepted you.

Shy:  Show no intention; just ignore and let the shy dog come to you.  Stay in your tube. Don’t show frontal eyes. Front facing eyes are the eyes of a predator. Look anywhere but directly at the dog and watch the dogs movements in your peripheral vision. Do not hold still; instead, gently shift your weight and your gaze in a friendly, casual way, as if you were whistling a tune.

A Shy dog may experience stress from either social or environmental sources.  For example, being stared at (a social stressor) may bother him more than a fluttering tarp (an environmental stressor) or vice versa. It’s important to parse out which source of stress your dog is dealing with and create a training plan that puts him at ease in these conditions.

You Should know:

Most people should select a dog in the middle; not the Leader and not the Shy dog. Most people can train a Follower, but you need more skill to deal with the ends of the spectrum.  All four of these personality types routinely end up in the shelter and they all can develop behavior problems.



Poison on a slow drip.

They say water is the universal solvent, It can carve a canyon through rock.  Similarly, your interaction with your dog on a day-to-day basis will slowly change him, for better or worse. Naturally, we want it to change him for the better, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  If your handling habits undermine the dog’s confidence and your dog has a deficit in this area, his confidence will drop.  If your handling habits reinforce confidence with an overconfident dog, there is potential to create aggressive behavior.


Still water runs deep.  

No talk about evaluating dog personality would be complete without reminding you not img_7699
to confuse physical activity with drive. Drive is an in born urge to perform a set of behaviors. Physical activity on the other hand can be undirected, the dog could be physically active but not committed to a set of objectives like we see when a dog is in drive. A lazy dog can have a high prey drive and a hyper dog can have low prey drive. A high energy dog can have low drive and a sleepyhead can wake up and find a river of drive when exposed to the right conditions.  As the saying goes, still water runs deep.


Curiosity is life.   
img_6596That yearning to know a little more about something, to me, is like a religious experience.  But when you reduce something to 4 variations, you can flatten it, compress all the dynamics out of it. You can begin to talk in judgmental and callous tones about the way other beings navigate this world.  Or, instead you can build on these observations and use them to cultivate more understanding of the whole dog.

When I was younger I didn’t intend to get experience with Aloof or Shy dogs because I was narrowly focused on dog sports and performance. But these dogs exist, and in the process of learning about all dogs, I learned about the personality types that differ from the beloved Follower, and that made me a better trainer. I hope you take this road map of dog personality types and familiarize yourself with these different ways of being, especially the lesser understood ones.  We all know that the only thing two trainers can agree on is what the third one is doing wrong, but no matter what your training philosophy is, I hope you will find this writing useful for the betterment of all dogs.

Thanks for reading,

~ Francis T. Metcalf

img_4866Photos are from the book Prince and other dogs II “A passport to tenderness” By Libby Hall.  This little book of old photographs is beautiful, you can order it here.  {Thanks to our rad Canine Circus School students, Rachel & Chong, for giving us this book.}

You can order the book An Introduction to the Royal Dutch Police Dog KNPV Training Program by J Jons, here

 Join us! in the ring for Circus class.

Check out our Class Schedule here. All personality types welcome.

If you’re having problems dealing with too much personality or want help with specific training needs and goals, please be in touch for a private lesson.