Animal psychologyPersonality

Dog personality changes as dogs age, but in predictable ways

dog personality changes

A new study finds that dog personality changes as a dog ages. These changes occur unevenly over the dog’s life, but each personality trait follows a predictable trajectory.

The study, authored by researchers from Hungary’s ELTE Eötvös Loránd University and Austria’s University of Veterinary Medicine, appeared on October 14 in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

Personality is both stable and malleable

Human personality is at once stable and malleable. When we compare ourselves to our peers, it is stable, as our personality rankings relative to others remain consistent over time. But it is malleable on the individual level. For example, as people age, they tend to become more conscientious, more emotionally stable (less neurotic), and more agreeable.

But scientists know less about these personality changes in dogs. To address this gap, the authors measured the personality of 217 Border Collies, aged from 6 months to 15 years. They then re-tested 37 of the dogs four years later.

The “Big 5” of dog personality traits

The researchers used a comprehensive test battery known as the Vienna Dog Personality Test (VIDOPET). This test includes five main personality traits, much in the way that researchers measure human personality using the so-called Big Five traits.

In this particular test battery, those five dog traits are as follows: sociability-obedience (the degree to which a dog is friendly towards strangers, obedient and playful), activity-independence (how much the dog moves independently from the owner and explores its environment), problem orientation (the dog’s focus and independent problem-solving ability), novelty seeking (how interested the dog is in novel objects and distracting stimuli), and frustration tolerance (how easily the dog gets frustrated by seemingly unsolvable situations).

Some traits remain unchanged, like activity level

The researchers found that dog personality, like human personality, is in many ways stable. The dogs’ rankings on all five personality traits remained fairly consistent over time. The most active dogs in the sample, for example, remained the most active four years later.

And though some personality traits change more than others, those changes are relatively consistent and predictable. For example, the “problem orientation” trait, which describes the dogs’ attentiveness and ability to solve problems, mostly changes during early life. It increases greatly until about six years of age, after which further changes became negligible.

Novelty-seeking and independence drop over time

On the other hand, the “novelty seeking” trait does not change much during the early years, but decreases starting at about age three. After that, dogs’ curiosity about novel objects and situations drops, and this continues al the way to old age.

Another trait that decreases continuously over the dog’s life course is activity-independence. This trait showed the strongest decrease as the dog moved from puppyhood to adolescence (1-2 years of age).

Traits that tended to change very little over time included sociability-obedience and frustration tolerance.

A lack of dog personality research

Long-term studies of dog personality are very rare in the dog literature, said co-author Friederike Range. That is even more so when it comes to studies that use the same methodology at both measurement times.

“Following up the same dogs across four years allowed us to address not only the question of personality stability,” she said, “but also if there are individual differences in personality development. That is, if dogs with certain personality profiles change more than others,”

Dog personality as a model for human personality change

By knowing more about dogs’ typical patterns of personality development throughout different life stages, it becomes easier to identify older dogs with potential age-related impairments.

“Dogs are already recognized as a natural model for human cognitive ageing,” said co-author Eniko Kubinyi, “and our results suggest that similar rules govern the age-related changes in both human and dog personality.”

Future directions: more breeds

Of course, not all dogs are Border Collies. “Investigating only one breed (Border Collie) strongly limits the generalisability of our results,” the researchers write towards the end of their paper, “… as studies have found a large (almost two-fold) divergence in the longevity between different breeds, which could reflect different ageing dynamics.” They suggest that future studies on this topic should “explore a more diverse sample of pet dogs.”

Study: Individual and group level personality change across the lifespan in dogs
Authors: B. Turcsán, L. Wallis, J. Berczik, F. Range, E. Kubinyi, Z. Virányi . 
Published in: Scientific Reports
Publication date: October 14, 2020
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-74310-7 
Photo: by Judi Neumeyer via Unsplash