Do dogs have stable personality traits?

Personality is more consistent in adult dogs than in puppies, study shows.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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We often talk about people having particular personality types, such as extroversion/introversion. Is it true that dogs have particular personalities too, and are they fixed or do they change over time? A new study by Jamie Fratkin (University of Texas at Austin) and colleagues takes a look at this.

The question is useful to many people. Trainers of guide dogs, police dogs and other service dogs would really like to be able to spot suitable candidates at a young age, so as not to waste time training an animal that isn’t going to make it into their program. Rescues and shelters would like to know that the tests they use to determine whether a dog is adoptable will predict its behaviour in a new home.

The study is what’s called a meta-analysis. This is where researchers take a large number of studies that have previously been conducted and pool the results statistically, to see if conclusions can be drawn from the field as a whole. In order to do this, the studies have to be selected carefully – if they are measuring different things, it’s not possible to combine them.

This cockapoo in the snow has a bouncy personality. Dogs have moderately consistent personality traits.
Photo: Caleb Foster/Shutterstock
There is a widely-known test called C-BARQ (Canine Behavioural Assessment and Research Questionnaire) that has eleven dimensions for pet dogs, and eight for guide dogs. However, it’s not the only test used in this kind of research. So for the purposes of their analysis, Fratkin et al used a set of eight personality traits that was identified in earlier work (Jones and Gosling 2005), and which are thought to apply to all dogs.

The traits are: submissiveness, reactivity, fearfulness, responsiveness to training, activity, sociability, aggressiveness and 'other'. Reactivity was incuded with fearfulness, and 'other' wasn't included since it tended to mean non-personality factors, leaving six dimensions in total.

There are some fancy statistics involved in this kind of analysis, and they had to write to the authors of some papers to get more details on the numbers. They found thirty-one studies to include, relevant to the question and with enough information for the analysis. Sometimes they had to map personality traits onto the Jones and Gosling framework in order to be able to compare them. 

They found that personality in dogs is moderately consistent. There were several factors which influenced the results. Personality results were most consistent when the same test was used at different time intervals, rather than different tests, and when the time interval between tests was shorter. Also, they found that personality is more consistent in adult dogs than in puppies. There was no difference between working dogs and pet dogs, however.

For puppies, aggressiveness and submission were the most consistent personality traits. Interestingly, fearfulness, activity, sociability, and responsiveness to training were the least consistent in puppies. For adult dogs, most of the traits were consistent. The exception was submissiveness (for which not enough studies were available). The authors suggest that hormonal changes in puppies may be responsible for some changes as they mature into dogs. This is something that future research could investigate.

One thing to take from this study is that if you think you have a ‘naughty’ puppy that doesn’t respond to training, keep trying, because it doesn’t mean the puppy will be the same as an adult dog. There isn’t enough information to show how this trait develops, but it would be interesting to see how different training regimens cultivate responsiveness to training. And it would be fascinating to know more about how personality develops.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

How would you describe your dog’s personality?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Fratkin, J. L., Sinn, D. L., Patall, E. A., & Gosling, S. D. (2013). Personality consistency in dogs: a meta-analysis. PloS one, 8(1), e54907.
Jones, A. C., & Gosling, S. D. (2005). Temperament and personality in dogs (Canis familiaris): A review and evaluation of past research. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95(1-2), 1-53.

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