What Dogs Can Teach You About Your Own Personality
New research on personality traits in dogs yields key insights into human aging.
Posted Jan 05, 2021
The idea that dogs age similarly to humans, except at faster rates, is one that has a well-established scientific base. Indeed as reported by New York Times columnist James Gorman, dogs “may be what scientists call a 'model' for human aging, a species that we can study to learn more about how we age and perhaps how to age better." If this is true, by studying your own dog, or the dog of a friend, you could gain a greater understanding of yourself and your own aging.
Gorman bases his claims about the equivalency of dog and human aging in part on the findings of a recent study by Borbála Turcsán and colleagues (2020). Turcsán, a scientist at the Clever Dog Lab of the University of Vienna, began this study with the premise that personality change in humans over the course of adulthood is not only possible but is highly probable.
In particular, the Viennese researchers summarize a large body of research in human personality as follows: “the trait scores of individuals change with age in a near-universal pattern, commonly referred to as personality maturation: older people become more conscientious, agreeable, emotionally stable, and dominant” (p. 1).
As accurate as this generalization may be from an overall perspective, the authors note that it overlooks what can be important individual differences reflecting "biological (genetic, hormonal) and external factors (environment, life experiences) [which can] contribute to the direction, timing, and magnitude of personality change over time” (p. 1).
Evidence reported by the authors about human personality suggests that individuals with more “mature” personalities when young are better able to cope with life transitions and, as a result, may show less change over adulthood than do people who are more excitable and impulsive. This less “mature” group of people would have a rockier road ahead as they attempt to navigate their adult years in terms of work, relationships, and general adaptation.
Dogs become a good model for teasing apart these factors, in part because their accelerated aging makes it possible to observe aging over a shorter time span. Additionally, the external influences on the personality of dogs can be tied to the treatment they receive from their owners. Specifically, younger dogs are more likely to be trained than older dogs, who owners regard as less rambunctious.
Moreover, older dogs don't experience the same variety of life events as older humans in that they don't choose romantic partners, spend years in the workplace, or have awareness of historical and social events. However, dogs can be subjected to the influence of such factors as changes in the family structure of their owners, moving, and potentially the loss of their owner to illness or death.
This background provides a compelling reason for studying dog personality changes over time. However, it’s probably occurred to you already that the key sticking point involves the way in which researchers actually manage to measure personality traits that in humans are so easily tested through questionnaires. Turcsán and her colleagues devised an ingenious solution to this problem. Their test battery, called the “VIDOPET Vienna Dog Personality Test, placed the 220 Border Collie participants in their study into a series of 15 situations designed to elicit responses that could then be rated by the research team.
These 15 experimentally-created situations lasted for approximately an hour (with a 5-10 minute break) and consisted of such tasks as allowing the dog to explore a room (in the presence of the owner), separating the dog from the owner, and following the owner's instructions. Several tasks involved play (such as retrieving a ball) and others involved food in which the dog either had to pull food out of a cage or wait for one minute before getting to eat a sausage placed in front of the dog. All procedures followed ethical guidelines for the treatment of nonhuman animals. If you'd like to learn more about these tests, supplemental materials in the online study describe them in detail.
The dogs ranged in age from 6 months to 15 years, and 4 years after the initial test, 37 of them were brought back into the lab to allow for tracking of personality changes over time. From the video recordings of the tests, the research team developed 70 behavior-based variables to rate. Subsequent statistical analysis condensed these 70 variables down to the following 5 personality traits:
- Sociability-obedience: Manner of greeting the experimenter, playfulness with a ball, time taken to obey a command.
- Activity-independence: Moving around the room, responding to separation from the owner, and responding when the owner ignored the dog and looked at pictures on the wall of the room.
- Novelty seeking: Showing interest in the ball while playing, sniffing, and looking at a novel object placed in the room.
- Problem orientation: Success at getting the food out of the cage or down from a bin hooked onto a wall.
- Frustration tolerance: Remaining calm during the problem-solving tasks, and managing frustration while watching the sausage before being allowed to eat it.
Turning now to the findings, the authors reported that for the traits of activity-independence and problem orientation, they observed a pattern consistent with the “cumulative” model of personality aging. These traits increased most rapidly early in life and then, building on that change, showed slower subsequent growth into middle and later adulthood. Novelty seeking, in contrast, started to show a decline only later in adulthood, and of all traits tested, showed the strongest relationship to age.
In explaining these findings regarding activity and novelty-seeking, the authors note that dogs may become desensitized and less reactive to new stimuli as they get older. Additionally, they may become better at inhibiting their immediate responses to distracting objects or activities around them.
By contrast, the trait of frustration tolerance showed a very slight relationship to age and this was due primarily to the extreme changes in a few of the dogs. Sociability-obedience also showed essentially no relationship to age, with only five animals changing significantly over time. This trait, the authors maintain, may very well be less influenced by changes associated with aging, either at the biological or environmental level.
Overall, the findings suggested, in the words of the authors, that “changes in personality occur unevenly during the dogs’ life course and individuals differ significantly in personality development” (p. 10). Whatever overall trends the research team observed, then, were outweighed by the presence of individual differences in patterns and growth of change.
As a caution, though, the authors also noted that they only studied Border Collies and, due to ethical limitations, could not study fearfulness and aggression. The researchers also eliminated dogs who were overly shy. Given the behavioral nature of the tasks, then, it was not possible for the Viennese researchers to explore all elements of personality change that could be studied by questionnaires in humans.
The key takeaway from this study, given these caveats, is that individual differences seemed to be more important than age as an influence on personality across the adult years. As stated by the authors, “These results raise caution against the over-generalisation of global age trends in dogs” (p. 1).
These same cautions seem worthwhile to keep in mind when it comes to humans and personality change. Rather than viewing personality in adulthood as following distinct patterns or stages, it would seem more accurate to keep individual differences in mind when you’re making statements about yourself, your friends, or your family. Furthermore, given that dogs have even fewer environmental influences on their development than humans, you cannot underestimate the role of external events in directing the degree and amount of personality change.
To sum up, dogs can provide you with insights about your own aging, if for no reason other than to caution you against attributing people’s personality changes to age alone. As with the aging of dogs, people can continue to change throughout life, reflecting their individuality and unique life experiences.
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Turcsán, B., Wallis, L., Berczik, J. et al. Individual and group level personality change across the lifespan in dogs. Sci Rep 10, 17276 (2020). doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-74310-7