Good dog? Bad dog? Their personalities can change

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When dog parents spend more time scratching their dogs’ bellies, taking their dogs out for long walks and fetching, or even feeling constant frustration with their dogs’ bad chewing habits, they gradually shape the personality of their dogs. Dogs, like humans, have moods and personality traits that shape their reaction to certain situations. New findings from Michigan State University have gone where few researchers have gone before to reveal that, just like humans, dogs’ personalities likely change over time.

“When humans go through big life changes, their personality traits can change. We’ve found this happens with dogs, too – and to a surprisingly large extent,” said William Chopik, psychology professor and lead author . “We expected the dogs’ personalities to be quite stable because they don’t have wild lifestyle changes, but they actually change a lot. We found similarities with their owners, the optimal time for the training and even a time in their life that they may become more aggressive towards other animals.”

Additionally, Chopik found that dog personality can predict many important life outcomes. For example, the personality of dogs will influence their closeness to their owners, their biting behavior and even chronic diseases.

The research, published in Personality Research Journal, is one of the first — and largest — studies of its kind to examine personality changes in dogs. Chopik surveyed owners of more than 1,600 dogs, including 50 different breeds. The dogs ranged from a few weeks old to 15 years old and were tightly split between males and females. The in-depth survey allowed owners to assess their dog’s personality and answer questions about the dog’s behavioral history. The owners also completed a survey about their own personality.

“We found correlations in three main areas: age and personality, personality similarities between humans and dogs, and the influence of a dog’s personality on the quality of its relationship with its owner” , said Chopik. “Older dogs are much more difficult to train; we have found that the ‘sweet spot’ for teaching a dog obedience is around age six, when they are past their excitable puppy stage, but before he gets too set in his ways.”

A trait that rarely changes with age in dogs, Chopik said, was fear and anxiety.

Building on the saying, “dogs look like their owners,” Chopik’s research has shown that dogs and owners share specific personality traits. Extroverted humans rated their dogs as more excitable and active, while owners high in negative emotions rated their dogs as more fearful, active, and less responsive to training. Owners who rated themselves as agreeable rated their dogs as less fearful and less aggressive toward people and animals.

Owners who felt happiest in their relationships with their dogs reported dogs that were active and excitable, as well as dogs that responded the most to training. Aggression and anxiety didn’t matter as much to having a happy relationship, Chopik said.

“There are a lot of things we can do with dogs — like obedience classes and training — that we can’t do with people,” he said. “Exposure to obedience training has been associated with more positive personality traits throughout the dog’s life. This gives us exciting opportunities to examine why personality changes in all kinds of animals.”

Chopik’s findings prove just how powerful humans are in influencing a dog’s personality. He explained that many of the reasons a dog’s personality changes are a result of the “nature versus nurture” theory associated with human personality.

Next, Chopik’s research will examine how owners of the environment providing their dogs might change dog behavior.

“Let’s say you adopt a dog from a shelter. Some traits are probably related to biology and resistant to change, but then you put him in a new environment where he is loved, walked and entertained often. The dog could then become a little more relaxed and sociable,” Chopik said. “Now that we know that dogs’ personalities can change, next we want to make a strong connection to understanding why dogs act — and change — the way they do.”

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