Dogs' Personality Traits Vary With Age (and Dogs Tend to Be Like Their Owners)

Dogs are most trainable during middle age, and there are some fascinating links between the personality of dogs and their owners, research shows.

Dog's personality traits vary with age, and there are links between the personality of dogs and of their owners..
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By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Do you ever think much about the different personalities of dogs? New research looks at the personality profiles of dogs (and their owners) and finds that dog personality seems to change with age.

As well, the owner’s personality is linked to the dog’s personality. The study, by Dr. William Chopik and Dr. Jonathan Weaver (both Michigan State University) is published in Journal of Research and Personality.

The results show that some personality traits are more pronounced in dogs in middle age (6-8 years).

This was the case for responsiveness to training, which peaked at age 7.44. Younger dogs were rated as less responsive to training, and older dogs were not much different from middle-aged ones. As well, dogs scored higher on this trait if they were trained by their owners.

Aggression towards people was lower in young dogs, but peaked between 6 and 7 years (age 6.69) and then remained steady. Aggression towards people was lower in female dogs, dogs that had been spayed/neutered, and purebred dogs.

Older dogs are less aggressive towards other animals. Aggression towards other animals peaked between 7 and 8 years (age 7.74) and then began to decline with increasing age. This trait was lowest amongst dogs that had been spayed/neutered and that are purebred.

As you might expect, young dogs tended to be more active and excitable. Dogs who had been to obedience class and/or were trained by their owner were more likely to be active and excitable.

There was no effect of age on fearfulness, which could affect dogs of any age. Dogs that had been to obedience class, were spayed/neutered, and were purebred, were less likely to be fearful.

Not surprisingly, when the researchers looked at whether or not the dogs had bitten a person, this was more likely in dogs that were rated as aggressive towards people. It was more likely in dogs that had been trained by the owner, which may be surprising but perhaps means the owner tried to train the dog following the bite (this is not clear from the data). Older dogs and male dogs were also more likely to have bitten someone.

The results for aggression are interesting because earlier research has shown that aggression towards people and aggression towards animals are distinct. In other words, a dog that is aggressive towards other dogs is not necessarily aggressive towards people and vice versa. The new study did not distinguish between aggression towards family members and aggression towards strangers.

As well, the finding that some personality traits vary with age is in line with a previous study that suggests there is a developmental onset to some behaviour problems in dogs, at least in Guide dogs.

The new study also compared the personality traits of owners with the personality traits of the dogs. Of course the Big 5 personality traits for people do not exactly correspond with the five personality traits for dogs. However, there were some similarities.

The scientists write,
“Some of the most intriguing results found were instances of personality “compatibility” between owners and their dogs. For example, extraverts rated their dogs as more active/excitable; conscientious owners rated their dogs as more responsive to training; agreeable owners rated their dogs as less aggressive; neurotic owners rated their dogs as more fearful.”

Earlier research has also found a link between the personality of dogs and of their owners. One study published last year had broadly similar results for personality; it also found that choice of dog training methods does not mediate the link between dog and owner personality, but that there is a link between depression in men and the likelihood of using aversive methods.

Finally, the scientists found that reports of a better quality relationship were linked to people who scored highly on agreeableness, and also higher for women than for men. Canine characteristics associated with a better relationship quality were being more responsive to training, more active and excitable, and also if the dog was older.

As with other such research, this new study is just a snapshot in time and so it does not tell us whether people are choosing dogs with personalities similar to theirs, or if, by sharing their lives together, dogs become more like their people.

1,681 people completed a questionnaire that included the Big 5 personality questionnaire for themselves as well as ratings of their dog’s personality. As well, they were asked about the dog’s health, whether the dog had ever bitten someone, and their relationship with the dog.

Dogs aged 1.5 weeks to 16 years were included in the study, and about half of them were purebred.

The results of this study are fascinating, and it would be nice to see some longitudinal research to follow this up.

The scientists write that in future, they would be interested to look at how different training experiences affect canine personality traits.

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

What kind of personality does your dog have?

Chopik, W. J., & Weaver, J. R. (2019). Old dog, new tricks: Age differences in dog personality traits, associations with human personality traits, and links to important outcomes. Journal of Research in Personality, 79:94-108. 

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