Mind & Body

Your Dog's Personality Can Change Over Time

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Do dogs have personalities? Obviously. If you've ever doubted it, just compare Snoopy of "Peanuts" fame, who has a dark side and a wild imagination, with Odie from "Garfield," who slobbers profusely and has had one thought in the entire comic's run. (It was "I'm hungry.") Each dog is unique — but do dog personalities hold constant, or evolve over time? Researchers at Michigan State investigated that question in a recent study.

What Counts As a Dog Personality?

To find out if dogs' personalities change, it's not enough to establish that they have personalities. Researchers needed to measure them. For the task, they turned to the Dog Personality Questionnaire (or DPQ), developed in 2008 by University of Texas Ph.D. candidate Amanda Claire Jones. The survey, which is designed to be completed by the owner, measures a dog's personality on five dimensions: fearfulness in new situations; aggression toward people; activity/excitability, a rough measure of playfulness and joie de vivre; responsiveness to training; and aggression toward other animals.

The DPQ has been around for a decade, but studies of dog personality thus far have been relatively small. So in this study, the authors sought breadth. In that spirit, they recruited as many dog-owning participants as possible on Amazon's Mechanical Turk — more than 1,600, all told. They asked each person to fill out the DPQ and a questionnaire about their own personalities, focusing on what psychologists call the Big Five traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (Humans have five-dimensional personalities, too!)

As the researchers sifted through the data from respondents with a wide variety of ages and breeds of dogs, they kept a few questions in mind. For one, did dogs' personalities appear to change over time? For another, did dogs' personalities correlate with their owners'?

Related Video: Do Dogs Dream?

Shifting Dog-Moods

The study's lead author, psychology professor William Chopik, was surprised by what he found. "We expected the dogs' personalities to be fairly stable because they don't have [the] wild lifestyle changes humans do," he said, "but they actually change a lot."

Age, or maturity, was one factor in this change. (As with humans — we're more likely to cry about wanting ice cream at age 4 than at age 40.) Owners rated younger dogs as more excitable/active, less aggressive towards people, and more aggressive towards other animals. Younger dogs were also less responsive to training; the sweet spot for responsiveness seemed like "middle age," or age 6–8. Fearfulness was the only trait that didn't vary with dogs' age.

Owners' personalities also played a role in dog personalities. Extroverted people rated their dogs as more excitable/active, whereas neurotic people rated their dogs as more fearful. This might sound like a fishy finding — what if owners just project their personalities onto their dogs? — but the researchers think there's more at play. In previous studies, people in a dog owner's circle tend to describe a dog's personality much the same way the owner does.

Researchers think this finding may be less about projection than about the situations owners put their dogs in. (Clearly, dogs' dispositions are shaped by environmental factors, or else obedience schools wouldn't be a thing.) Extroverted people likely put their dogs in more social situations, which trains the dogs to be sociable; neurotic people probably take their dogs to fewer new places, which makes the rare foreign situation feel more dangerous. In other words, owners could be constantly shaping their dogs' personalities, even when they're not consciously "training" them.

The exact mechanism isn't clear yet, but this theory fits with previous findings about the bond between dogs and humans. Dogs really are man's best friend — they can read and take on human moods, and they also look like us in a doglike sort of way. It's no surprise that we could shape their personalities, too.

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Learn more about what your dog is thinking in "How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain" by Gregory Berns. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice March 14, 2019

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