The majority of dogs spend their lives in a home with their owner and his or her family. To be a successful family member the dog must have characteristics which fit well with the people in the home. We already know that people tend to choose dogs which look similar to themselves, at least for some global characteristics (for example see here). Back in 1996 I conducted a study of over 6000 people in which I was able to show that a person’s personality predicted the breed of dog that they would be happiest to live with. The data from that study formed the basis of my book Why We Love the Dogs We Do. However the focus of that work was not a comparison of the personality traits of the dog and its owner but rather on how the personality of the human affected his attitude toward certain types of dogs. There have only been a few specific studies which have looked at the similarity of a particular personality trait in a dog and its owner. One which caused a bit of stir was an experiment which found that individuals who owned breeds of dogs with a high risk for aggression may themselves have personality characteristics or life histories associated with aggressive tendencies (for example see here). What we have been lacking, however, is a study that looks at the relationship of a broad range of personality characteristics in people and their dogs.
A recent report by Borbála Turcsána, Friederike Range, Zsófia Virányi, Ádám Miklósi and Enikö Kubinyia, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, has attempted to do this by looking at the similarity between the personalities of owners and their dogs using the most commonly accepted personality dimensions. This was a large elaborate study, involving a collaboration between Eötvös University in Budapest, Hungary, and the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Vienna. It tested 389 dog owners and 518 dogs. Because of the complexity of the study we can only touch on the highlights here.
To begin with the owners completed a personality questionnaire which measured the "Big Five" personality traits. The big five are the most frequently measured personality traits and the ones that seem to predict behaviors best. They are:
Neuroticism – whether a person is sensitive and nervous vs. secure and confident. It is often referred to as a measure of "emotional stability".
Extraversion – this looks at whether the individual is outgoing, sociable and energetic vs. solitary and reserved.
Agreeableness – measuring whether a person is friendly and compassionate vs. cold and unkind.
Conscientiousness – assessing whether the individual is hard-working, efficient and organized vs. easy-going, lazy or careless.
Openness – at one level this dimension looks at whether the person is inventive and curious vs. consistent and cautious. However this dimension is also highly correlated with intelligence and some researchers have gone so far as to relabel it as "intellect."
Next the owners were asked to rate the personality of their dogs using a version of the same test which was developed specifically to measure a dog's personality by Samuel Gosling and his associates at the University of Texas in Austin.
The main results of this study are easy to describe. The dog owners rated their dogs as having similar personalities to themselves in all five of the personality traits measured. The strongest association was between the owner's degree of neuroticism and that of their dog, followed by extraversion.
Now if we stopped at this finding it would be interesting but certainly not conclusive piece of research. Remember we are having the dog owners rate the personalities of their pets. Psychologists recognize that there is a mechanism called projection which tends to cause individuals to believe that other people (particularly those who they live with or socialize with), also have the same beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and even the same personality characteristics as themselves. So it could be that the owners are simply projecting their own personality traits and seeing them in their dogs in a similar manner. To make sure that this was not the case the researchers cleverly chose to have a subset of family members rate the personality of the dog as well and that rating was then compared to the personality of the owners. The results showed that in four out of the five personality characteristics these family members saw the same traits in the dog as in the dog's owner. This suggests that for a least those four characteristics the owner's ratings were objective and accurate rather than psychological projections. The one trait that did not work out was openness. Apparently dog owners project their own intellectual abilities onto their dogs rather than coming to the conclusion that their dog has a significantly lower (or perhaps higher) intellect than they do themselves.
Why do dogs and owners have similar personalities? One possibility is that the owner's lifestyle and interactions with the dog change the dog's personality, a fact which has been suggested by other data (see for instance here). It is easy to imagine how an anxious, neurotic owner could raise the neuroticism level of his dog by acting inconsistently, showing exaggerated emotions toward and around their pet, or being overprotective. If living with an owner with a particular personality shapes the dog's personality then the dog should appear to be more similar to the owner the longer the human and canine live together. This does not appear to be the case in this data set. That suggests that owners are making a relatively conscious choice and deciding to get dogs, or dog breeds, that reflect their own personality. Thus an active extroverted owner might make the choice when he is first acquiring a dog to pick out an active sociable canine companion like himself.
Now I warned you that the results of this study were rich and complicated. Having just established that the data suggest that people select dogs with personality traits that are similar to their own, we must add the restriction that this only holds for households in which there is only one dog. If the household has more than one dog, then the similarities between begin to become weaker and more inconsistent. It is as if when we have more than one dog in our home we want our pets to have a bit of variety in their psychological characteristics rather than all being a simple reflection our own personality. This is certainly something that I can understand since my most recent constellation of dogs includes a clever active retriever, a couch potato lap dog, and a hound who wanders through his world with his own personal agenda. It is an interesting mix of personalities which keeps me entertained.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted, reposted without permission