Posted Date: June 23, 2014
Do a dog's personality traits stay consistent over time? A look at a Department of Psychology, University of Texas, study by Samuel D. Gosling, Jamie Fratkin, David Sinn, and Erika Patall. By Claudia Bensimoun
Recent studies demonstrate that predictability of canine personality cannot be taken for granted, and many canine experts today believe that "puppy tests" measuring a dog's behavior during the first year of life, may not be quite as accurate as previously thought. In this scientific review, "consistency" means predictability of behavior. In this meta-analysis, Dr. Sam Gosling, Dr. Jamie Fratkin, Dr. David Sinn, and Dr. Erika Patall from the University of Texas discuss why predictability in dogs cannot be assumed.
From previous studies of canine personality, it appears that, to have a full understanding of canine personality, researchers need to use meta-analytic methods to quantitatively summarize the overall basis of what makes up canine personality and all the factors that influence it. Researchers expected that their meta-analysis would reveal that canine personality would be moderately consistent over time, but they found that the absolute level of consistency would vary depending on the personality dimension being assessed. They also presumed that personality in dogs would be more stable as dogs matured, thus the importance of testing during a dog's adult years, when working dogs were used for these tests and when aggregate measures were used, when shorter test intervals were used, and, finally, when the same test was administered in all personality testing. Jones and Gosling had questioned the wisdom of separating the fearfulness and reactivity dimensions, so researchers combined both traits.
Will this playful puppy's personality remain consistent through adulthood? Photo courtesy of Brenna Fender
Age at First Measurement
The association between the age of the dog during the first test and the personality consistency estimate was made by categorizing estimates as to whether dogs were puppies (under 12 months) or adults (12 months old or older) during the first test. It was found that, for both age categories, consistency estimates were very much different from each other. To test the effectiveness of puppy testing even further, the researchers also examined whether consistency estimates were different between puppies first tested as puppies and then tested again as puppies with the average interval between tests being 7.84 weeks. This was compared to the testing results of puppies first tested as puppies and then later on tested again as adults, with an average interval of 47.54 weeks. It was concluded that, for both categories, testing estimates were significantly different from zero, yet were not very much more different from one another in test results.
Personality Testing in Puppies and Adult Dogs
The results demonstrated that responsiveness to training and fearfulness were very much less consistent than aggression and submissiveness but not activity, which was also very much less consistent than submissiveness, and less consistent than aggression.
Working Versus Non-Working Dogs
This result appears to demonstrate that the differences in consistency between both working dogs and non-working dogs was minimal. There was no difference in the consistency of dog personality between the two groups.
Association Between the Test Interval and the Age of the Dog
The researchers separated the test intervals and the age of the dog during the first test. They then divided the test intervals into three categories:
Short: 10-week periods
Medium: 10-24 week periods
Long: 24 weeks and more
They then used the previous designations:
Puppies: 12 months or less
Adults: 12 months plus
This resulted in the puppies showing no difference between length-of-interval category. The adult dogs demonstrated that there was a marginal statistical difference between interval categories. The shorter intervals tended to result in higher consistency estimates than longer intervals.
Canine researchers have always recognized the existence of personality in dogs, yet there has always been little understanding as to the nature and strength of personality consistency and the usefulness of "puppy tests" in predicting adult behavior.
Research indicates that it is evident that dog personality is moderately consistent. Nonetheless, the one factor that did affect personality consistency in dogs was age. The researchers concluded that the average personality consistency or predictability might be observed with age.
It is also suggested that strong personality consistency is to be expected when a dog performs at high levels, and when they have positive feedback from their environment. Although most dogs do not choose the environment in which they live, the dynamic social interactions that they have with humans does in fact reinforce behaviors deemed necessary and appropriate by owners and other handlers. Thus, in theory, aging and a positive environment would allow for dogs to be affected in a positive manner, more so in adults than in puppies.
In puppies, aggression and submissiveness were the most consistent factors, and were found to be similar to the results in adult dogs. Responsiveness to training and fearfulness were the least consistent factors, which is unfortunate considering the importance of these factors to the public and to competitive dog trainers as well. It was concluded that a puppy's ability to respond to training or obedience training may not be an accurate assessment of his ability to be trained at a later stage.
Do "Puppy Tests" Work?
One of the core questions facing many working dog organizations, competitive dog trainers, and breeders is whether puppy tests are predictive of later adult behavior. The researchers concluded that puppy personality is moderately consistent, and will remain so, throughout the juvenile and adult life. This applies particularly to aggressive and submissive types of dogs. In principle, it appears that one must take into account all the factors and life experiences that a dog will experience throughout his life and litter size, body mass, and early growth. Similar to humans, puppy personality can be molded depending on the personality dimension of interest.
Working and Non-Working Dogs
There was no difference in personality consistency in working versus non-working dog groups. The researchers examined the possibility that the stability of the rearing environment may change the consistency of personality, but did not find evidence to support this view. Many studies have reported that some dog breeds may have more consistent personalities than other breeds.
Shelter staff often give behavioral assessments to rescue dogs when they are at the shelters, but sometimes follow up tests are not possible and a questionnaire is used instead by the adoptive owner. When these methods are used and the same behavior is measured in two different ways, a dog's personality may appear to be less consistent than it actually is. The researchers suggest that, for more accurate testing results, it would be worthwhile to create tests that are as conceptually similar as possible. When tests differ between the first and second assessment, so does the testing context.
There are also not enough studies being done that examine the factors that influence personality consistency. They found that many important questions could not be answered due to the small number of samples that were available for analysis. For example, many dog personality studies focus on how well an earlier behavioral test can predict "later success" or certification in a training program, yet success is usually not well-defined. There were also not enough studies done to examine training differences based on the different types of programs, shelters, or even by country.
Many studies also did not indicate the breeds or individual breed results. There are personality differences between breeds and breed clusters, so it's possible that there are breed differences in personality consistency as well. The researchers also indicated that potentially important early environment factors often went unreported.
They concluded that personality consistency was definitely consistent in dogs, and that their meta-analysis is a first step towards quantitatively synthesizing the existing information on personality consistency in dogs. Important factors that tended to influence consistency estimated in dogs include age, personality dimension, testing intervals, and the conceptual similarity between testing situations. With puppies, the predictive validity of puppy tests is most likely to be detected only when measuring aggression and submissiveness. It is less valid when testing other personality dimensions in puppies.
The other personality dimensions like responsiveness to training, fearfulness, activity, and sociability were found to be more amendable for analysis by asking how, why, and when personality changes in puppies. In adult dogs, personality consistency was stronger than in puppies, and equally predictable across all dimensions examined. Their results demonstrated that future studies could be useful in identifying the specific periods of life during which different personality dimensions tended to stabilize. They also recommended improved reporting methods needed to help researchers, working-dog organizations, animal shelters, dog breeders, and dog owners with the necessary tools required to identify the factors that were most likely to be responsible for personality predictability and change.
Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.