Pet dogs’ personality traits change across the lifespan
A new study from a team of scientists at the Senior Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest Hungary set out to examine three important questions in dog personality research using a questionnaire: 1) What personality traits change across different age periods, 2) At what age do changes in personality traits most prominently occur, and 3) How do dog demographic, health, and environmental factors influence personality traits.
Humanised dog bios make popular memes but ask any dog owner and they will tell you immediately that dogs have their own personalities, and what’s more scientists can measure specific personality traits using owner questionnaires.
Owners filled in the Dog Personality Questionnaire and a demographic questionnaire for 1,207 dogs living in Hungary. Results revealed that activity/excitability, responsiveness to training, and aggression towards animals changed over the life course, and the greatest period of change was between late senior and geriatric ages. Similarly to humans, dogs that had previously experienced trauma scored higher in fearfulness and aggression, and a higher level of training was linked to some desirable traits (lower fearfulness and aggression, and higher activity/excitability and responsiveness to training). The results were published in the open access journal, Frontiers.
What’s your dog’s human age?
If your dog were a human, how old would he be? Dogs and cats age much more rapidly than humans do. However, they go through similar stages of development including puppyhood, adolescence, adulthood, the senior years, and a geriatric phase. For example, a medium sized breed like the Border collie reaches early adulthood at >1–3 years, middle age >3–6 years, late adulthood >6–8 years, senior >8–10 years, late senior >10–12 years, and geriatric >12 years. However, life expectancy varies depending on breed and size, as well as factors like nutrition, lifestyle, and genetics.
What personality traits change across different age periods?
Results revealed that younger dogs have higher activity/excitability levels than older dogs, a fact I think we can all relate to! Although the authors previously wrote about how older dogs can still learn new tricks, in the current study older dogs had lower responsiveness to training, but stay tuned for a twist in the tale. Aggressiveness toward animals and dominance over other dogs peaked between 6–10 years, and aggression towards dogs was highest in dogs aged over six. Non-social fear increased with age; dogs aged over 12 years showed the highest levels, perhaps due to declining eyesight/hearing and fewer environmental stimulation opportunities.
At what age does changes in personality traits most prominently occur?
The greatest age-related change in personality occurred between the late senior and geriatric age groups in the activity/excitability and responsiveness to training traits, which was most likely caused by compensatory changes to biological aging. But also, could be influenced by the owner’s attitude to their aging dog, since geriatric dogs received less activity/interaction/training with the owner than other age groups, which could lead to changes in the dogs’ behaviour. Previous studies have shown that cognitive changes generally occur after middle age in parallel with a decline in sensory and motor systems. In the current study, 65% of geriatric dogs had sensory issues, in comparison to only 23% of late seniors, so sensory issues were likely responsible for the drop in activity/excitability and responsiveness to training traits.
In humans, the greatest changes in personality occur during early adulthood and then the rate of change slows down. So, what about dogs? Perhaps we would also find great changes from early puppyhood to early adulthood. Unfortunately, dogs aged under 1 year were excluded from the sample, due to the very fact that their personalities undergo such changes during this period.
How does dog demographic, health, and environmental factors influence personality traits?
The most important factors that influenced personality traits were age, weight, breed (pure breed or mixed breed), sex, off-leash activity, diet, previous trauma, age of the dog when it first arrived in the household, number of dog obedience tasks the dog could perform, time spent in play/interacting with owner, number of known commands, and current dog training activities. Here are a few highlights:
· Larger, heavier dogs scored lower in fearfulness than smaller lighter dogs, and mixed breeds were higher in fearfulness than pure breeds.
· Smaller dogs had lower scores in responsiveness to training than larger dogs.
· Owners rated male dogs as higher in aggression than females. Female dogs were rated higher in fearfulness and responsiveness to training.
· Dogs with sensory problems had lower activity/excitability than dogs with no sensory problems.
· Dogs that engaged in more than 1 h of off-leash activity had greater responsiveness to training scores, than dogs that received <30min.
· Dogs fed home cooked food/raw meat, or a mixture of foods (cooked food, raw, as well as dry and/or canned food), had higher owner reported aggressiveness toward animals than dogs fed a diet of only dry food, or tinned food, or tinned and dry food mixed.
· Dogs that were previously exposed to traumatic experiences (such as spending time at a shelter, changing owner, suffered traumatic injury/prolonged disease/surgery, were lost for a time, or who experienced a change in family structure), showed higher fearfulness and aggression toward people and animals, than dogs without such negative experiences.
· A greater number of dog obedience tasks known by the dog corresponded to lower fearfulness and aggressiveness toward animals and people, and higher activity/excitability and responsiveness to training, than dogs that could perform maximum one task.
The twist in the tale
Dog age had a direct effect on responsiveness to training, but when the other demographic factors were added, age was no longer significant. Previously the researchers discovered that dog age has a strong influence on the amount of time the owner spends in activities with their dog, therefore it comes as no surprise that owner play partially mediated the relationship between age and responsiveness to training. Author Lisa Wallis stated “This result is particularly important, as it implies that in older dogs, interventions to increase play and training motivation may alleviate the negative effects of aging on dogs’ trainability”.
The fact that the dogs’ level of training (or education) was found to have a stronger influence on owner perceived dog personality than breed, sex or reproductive status provides evidence that educational experiences have the power to shape dogs’ personality development. Dog obedience training throughout the lifespan may help to increase resilience in dogs, and thus increase their ability to cope with potentially stressful situations, reducing fear and aggressiveness, increasing responsiveness to training and sociability, and potentially increasing activity and excitability, which may be particularly beneficial to aged dogs, and the human dog bond.
Want to test out a version of the Dog Personality questionnaire on your own dog? Click here.
Wallis, L. J., Szabó, D., & Kubinyi, E. (2020). Cross-Sectional Age Differences in Canine Personality Traits; Influence of Breed, Sex, Previous Trauma, and Dog Obedience Tasks. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 6, 493.
Published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science – https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2019.00493/full