My Dog’s Got Plenty Of Personality! But Yours? Not So Much

Animal psychologists and behaviorists have been interested in the personality of dogs for many years, with the first studies appearing in the early 1900s.  In the last 15 years or so interest in personality or temperament in dogs has exploded with dozens of studies appearing in the scientific literature. 

This is due in part to increased interest in the role consistent patterns of behavior or “survival strategies” play in the evolution of behavior.  Scientists have discovered behavioral consistencies across many different species of animals including dogs. 

There is also renewed interest in the cognitive abilities of dogs and the complexity of interactions between dogs and people.  Consistencies in behavior within dogs and differences between dogs are thought to be involved in these complex abilities.

So how do we define “personality” or “temperament” in dogs?  These terms are often used very imprecisely.  As our title suggests, some people think personality is something that dogs possess in either greater or lesser quantities.   Having a lot of “personality” implies the dog is intriguing and fun to be around, while not having much implies a dog is boring and without much energy.  But this use of the term isn’t what we see in scientific studies.

Even among scientists there are differences of opinion about what these terms mean.  In a broad review of temperament and personality research on dogs, Jones and Gosling (2005) conclude that the terms are synonymous. Our definition (modified from theirs) is that temperament/personality refers to those characteristics that describe consistencies in behavior within individuals across time and different situations, and that vary between individuals.

In other words, dog behavior can be described by a number of temperament traits or factors, and individual dogs will vary in their status on each of the factors.  One such temperament factor identified in a number of studies of dogs (and in other species as well) is fearfulness. Some dogs seem to be easily startled and show fearful responses when exposed to new things or sudden changes in the environment while others are not.

The Jones and Gosling review shows that despite a significant amount of research on dog temperament it is difficult to reach any broad conclusions about temperament factors.  Differences in research methodologies (having dogs complete a standardized set of behavioral tests versus surveying owners about their dogs’ behavior); which populations of dogs were studied (thousands of dogs of both sexes and dozens of breeds versus a very small sample of only a few breeds); and the purpose of the research (attempting to predict success in a population of guide dogs compared to evaluating dogs in an animal shelter) all contribute to different results. 

Despite these difficulties and sources of variation, Jones and Gosling conclude that the diverse temperament factors described in the studies can be classified into seven different categories.  These are:

Fearfulness –  (avoiding and threatening unfamiliar individuals)
Reactivity –  (barking, increasing activity in the face of novel stimuli)
Sociability – (friendly behavior)
Responsiveness to training – (willingness to learn new things)
Dominance – Submission – (refusing to move out of a person’s path)
Aggression – (growling, biting people or other animals), and
Activity – (frequent movement in different situations)

It is clear that some of these traits overlap – fearfulness / aggression and dominance / aggression for example, and that other aspects of dog behavior don’t seem to be described at all.    Behaviors that reflect joyfulness, inquisitiveness and interest in food and sex don’t fit neatly into the categories listed.

Remember that these temperament factors are simply descriptions of patterns of behavior, they are not explanations.  Identifying these factors may ultimately help us understand what causes these consistencies in behavior, but the descriptions themselves are not the “whys”.  In other words, dogs are not fearful because they have a high level of the fearfulness temperament factor.  With additional research,  hopefully we’ll be able to identify these “whys”.    

We discussed misinformation about temperament traits as motivations for behavior in our recent webinar series “Myths and Misconceptions about Motivation and ‘Drive’” for Pro members of our Behavior Education Network.  We’ve also made more detailed summaries and analyses of the important dog personality studies available to Pro Behavior Education Network members.

 Jones, A.C. & Gosling, S.D. 2005.  Temperament and personality in dogs (Canis familiaris): A review and analysis of past research. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95, 1- 53.

Behavior Education Network members will find  links to this article as well as other articles on canine personality and temperament on the Scientific Articles Page.

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