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My Dog Is Quite a Character

Reflections on canine behavior and psychological theory.

Key points

  • Some of the 24 character traits described by positive psychologists may apply to dogs as well as to humans.
  • Bravery, persistence, leadership, love, social intelligence, self-regulation, gratitude, and sense of humor seem to vary among dogs.
  • Dogs who observed their owner interacting with another dog demonstrate behavioral signs of jealousy.

A recent article published in the journal Psychological Science reported that dogs display the human-like emotion of jealousy.[i] In this experiment, dogs who observed their owner interacting with another dog showed behavioral signs of jealousy but did not do so when their owner interacted with a fake dog. While this finding is no surprise to dog owners, the importance of the study has less to do with a particular canine trait or behavior and more to do with establishing that dogs, like humans, form mental abstractions of social interactions. It also raises interesting questions about how to best conceptualize behavior, whether in dogs or other species, including humans.

As an undergraduate psychology major, I was captivated by the work of the pioneering animal learning theorists, particularly B.F. Skinner. Skinner had just published his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, wherein he argued against attributing behavior to internal states in animals or humans.[ii]

The gist of his argument was that using unobservable internal constructs like motivation or cognition to predict and control behavior was unnecessary. Instead, he admonished psychologists to focus on observable behaviors, their antecedents, and their consequences. Using internal states to explain behavior was circular, Skinner argued. A dog does not eat because he is hungry, an attribution to an internal motivational state. Eating behavior is best predicted by the number of hours of food deprivation. This avoids the circularity of attributing behavior to an internal state. (The dogs eats because it is hungry. How do we know it is hungry? Because it eats!)

Inspired by Skinner, I went on to complete my doctorate in experimental psychology, focusing on animal learning. As I learned more about the field, my strict adherence to Skinnerian principles began to wane. Radical behaviorism was giving way to the cognitive revolution. New theoretical perspectives, research methods, and technologies paved the way for the scientific study of internal states such as memory, emotion, attention, and the like. Emerging brain imaging technologies allowed researchers to study healthy brains in humans and animals. Psychology was expanding its reach, and it was also a lot more fun than the staid constraints of Skinnerian behaviorism.

No longer a behaviorist, for the past 20 years I have conducted research on character in humans. Much of my research is guided by and based upon Peterson and Seligman’s classification of 24 character strengths into one of six overarching moral virtues (knowledge and wisdom, courage, justice, humanity, temperance, and transcendence).[iii] Stable character strengths like grit are useful in predicting success in a wide variety of contexts. These traits can be measured and cultivated to improve affect and are a foundation of effective leadership. Learning to cultivate and express these positive character traits is essential to living a productive and meaningful life.

The latent behaviorist in me resists extending the concept of character strengths to animals. Still, research like that mentioned above provides empirical evidence that dogs are capable of human-like emotions.[*] And if they are capable of human-like emotions, is it plausible to attribute positive character traits to dogs (and other species) without giving in to gross anthropomorphizing?

Anyone who spends time with dogs will readily agree that they display tremendous individual differences in affect, motivation, social attachment, and “personality.” Some of the 24 character traits described by Peterson and Seligman may apply to dogs as well as humans. Anecdotal observations suggest that love of learning, bravery, persistence, leadership, love, social intelligence, self-regulation, gratitude, and sense of humor seem to vary among dogs. Of course, not all the 24 traits are relevant to dogs and dogs no doubt express character traits in ways different from their human counterparts. In my lifetime I have “owned” over a dozen dogs.[**] It would not be hard to rank order each of them on these traits. One was over the top in persistence whereas another would quickly lose interest in things. Another loved to learn new things, but others were content to take life as it is. Some were acutely attuned to social cues provided by their humans, others not so much.

 Michael D. Matthews
Source: Michael D. Matthews

Evolutionary theory suggests that traits and capabilities that promote the propagation of the species are passed on to subsequent generations. This can occur through natural selection but also through selective breeding. Domesticated dogs are closely related to wolves, their feral counterparts. The American Kennel Club currently recognizes 197 distinct breeds of dogs. Although they are of the same species, the range in physical and behavioral traits is astounding. Contrast the size and temperament of a chihuahua with that of a Saint Bernard. It is difficult to recognize them as members of the same species.

Like size and body shape, selective breeding has yielded substantial differences in temperament and behavior in different breeds. Dogs vary in sociability, friendliness, bravery, persistence, and other attributes that in humans would be called character. Even within a given breed, dogs vary on “character” traits. A hunter does not pick her bird dog at random from a litter of puppies. Puppies show distinct individual differences, just as human infants do.

The question, then, is not whether dogs possess behavioral attributes that can be thought of as character. The important question is how psychologists should go about understanding these differences. For Skinner and the behaviorists, the answer was to focus on behavior and its antecedents, and not to resort to unobservable intervening variables for an explanation. Contemporary approaches may be more open to postulating internal mediators, including character, to better understand canine behavior. This may not be a revelation for dog trainers and owners, but developing systematic, empirically sound theories of behavior (in canine and other species) is essential to advancing psychological science.

I am not going to shift my research agenda from human character to that of dogs. But it is fun to think about the notion of canine character. What is the best conceptual model? How can it be measured? Can certain character traits be trained and developed, or are they etched in genetic stone? Character certainly matters a great deal in human adjustment and achievement. Is it outlandish to think that it may matter as well in dogs?

I have other thoughts on the matter, but for the last half hour my chihuahua has been asking me to go for a walk. He is very persistent, much more so than my poodle mix. He is not the kind of dog that takes no for an answer.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

[*] There is a growing and impressive scientific literature on a variety of canine cognitive and emotional capabilities. Interested readers may find a plethora of books and journal articles on this topic.

[**] I do not like the term “owning” a dog, but use it for simplicity’s sake. Dogs and humans enjoy mutually rewarding and dynamic relationships. To be sure, from the dog's perspective, perhaps they “own” their human!

References

[i] Bastos, A.P.M., Neilands, P. D., Hassall, R. S., Lim, B. C., & Taylor, A. H. Dogs mentally represent jealousy-inducing social interaction. Psychological Science, 32(5), 646–654. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0956797620979149

[ii] Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Knopf.

[iii] Peterson, C., and Seligman, M. E. P. (2004), Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford University Press).

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