Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Life History and Owner's Nature Shape a Dog's Personality

A dog's history and his owner's lifestyle help determine his personality.

dog dogs pet puppy personality owner lifestyle nature-nurture

It is now well established that a dog's genetic makeup has a strong influence on its personality (see for instance here). However, except for investigations on early socialization of dogs, less is known about how a dog's life history and his owner's nature and lifestyle influence the personality of a dog.

As I was going through my research files I came across an article which, at the time I first saw it, I thought was important. It was a study by Enikö Kubinyi, Borbála Turcsán and Ádám Miklósi of Eötvös University in Budapest, Hungary. It appeared in the journal Behavioural Processes, but it seems to have been ignored except for occasional mention in other scientific reports. The reason for this seems to be that the study used a complex analysis (regression trees) as well as extended discussions of complex interactions, all of which appears daunting and uninterpretable to people without statistical training. However I will plow through this to give you an idea of the important findings. There is a lot of information here, so individual findings will only be discussed briefly.

This is a massive study, involving 14,004 dogs owned by German speakers who participated by filling out questionnaires on the internet. The dogs represented 267 breeds, and 3920 mixed bred animals. Only dogs older than one year of age were considered, since personality characteristics are really not stable in very young dogs. The dog owners provided information about themselves and their interactions with their dogs, as well as the dog's age, sexual status and so forth. They also filled in a questionnaire which was originally designed for human personality testing, but which had been modified so that the owners could report on the personality characteristics of their dogs. The statistical analysis later determined scores on four personality traits for each dog, namely their calmness, trainability, sociability, and boldness.

Let us start with the results on calmness, which is a trait that reflects how reactive a dog is to events occurring around him. Dogs high on this trait are relatively unflappable, while dogs who are low on it are extremely excitable. Age is an important factor here, with older dogs being more calm. The least calm dogs are those below the age of 2.5 years, and the calmest are older than seven years. Dogs owned by men seem to be calmer than dogs owned by women, and dogs that live in a house with several other dogs are also calmer. Dogs which lived in a household since birth (e.g. were bred by the owner) or were acquired at an age of less than 12 weeks where the calmest. Formal training of a dog, as in obedience or agility etc., leads to calmer dogs. There was one unexpected finding which was that dogs that had not been neutered appeared to be calmer than dogs that had been surgically altered.

When we look at trainability as a personality characteristic of the dogs, we have the interesting finding that the more formal training a dog is given the more trainable the dog becomes. One finding that confirms a popular stereotype is the fact that older dogs appear to be less trainable. Dogs that are acquired after the age of one year are also less trainable. Playing with a dog on a regular basis seems to increase their trainability. Dogs owned by women are more trainable than those owned by men, and dogs that live in households with a large number of humans seem to be less trainable. Again sexual status is important but a little bit more complex, with neutered female dogs and intact male dogs being the most trainable.

Sociability, which is extremely important in describing how dogs interact with humans and other dogs in their life, is strongly affected by age. Younger dogs are much more sociable and sociability decreases as the dog grows older. However the sociability of the dog is also increased by the amount of time that the owner spends with the dog. The most sociable dogs are those whose owners spend at least three hours a day with, and those dogs which the owner actively plays with on a daily basis. It is interesting that the owner's education is also a factor. Owners with only primary school education report the least sociable dogs and those with a university education report the most sociable dogs.

Finally we can turn to the findings on personality characteristic of boldness. The opposite of a bold dog would be best described as a fearful dog. One unexpected finding was that it is the youngest dogs which appeared to be the most bold, and this personality characteristic decreases with age. Male dogs, as many might have predicted, are bolder than female dogs, and the least bold are female dogs that were acquired by their owners when they were older than one year of age. The sex of the owner is also important, with dogs owned by females being less bold then dogs owned by males. If an animal is the only dog in the household it appears to have higher boldness scores than dogs who live in households with two or more dogs. The authors speculate that this may be because dogs in a multiple pet household form dependency relationships with each other and therefore are less confident when they are out and about by themselves.

There is a lot more data in this study, but much of it is the form of complex interactions which are difficult to interpret. For example, one finding is that experienced owners, that is owners who have had dogs in the past, are more likely to have less bold dogs, however this holds only for male dogs, and female dogs are unaffected. There are numerous other interactions of this nature which may ultimately be understood when we have more data.

The most important finding of this study is that it shows that a dog's personality is not fully set in his genes but is also affected and shaped by his life history, living conditions, his owner's nature and characteristics, and the social and educational interactions that he has with his owner.

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

More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
More from Psychology Today
More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
More from Psychology Today