If you thought personality tests were just for people, think again. Our columnist takes a look at canine personality research.
PERSONALITY studies are everywhere: you may have come across one as part of a college, job or health interview. Such tests have been around for millennia. In ancient times, priests and astronomers studied the stars in order to create personal horoscopes that included both a personality profile and warned of significant events in a lifetime.
There were also systems that divided people into personality groups. In ancient Greece, doctors spoke of “humors”, body essences linked to personality stereotypes. People with lots of phlegm, for example, were said to be relaxed and thoughtful, hence the term phlegmatic. Similar ideas were popular in India and China, as were related practices of face feng shui and phrenology.
What’s interesting is that pets are now increasingly liable to be subject to tests, too.
Dog lovers have been trying to find a perfect puppy test that will predict adult dog temperament for a long time. Although we haven’t got one yet, an outcome of this search is the realisation that while we may discuss canine personality with ease, we don’t really have a definition for “personality” that is universally accepted. Undaunted, researchers make up their own definitions, and study Man’s Best Friend anyway.
In one massive meta-analysis, researchers Jones and Gosling in Texas identified 51 scientific studies published between 1934 and 2004 that focused on dog personality or temperament.
Although these experiments all varied in objective, size, design and approach, analysis showed that dog temperament in these studies are mostly described in seven dimensions: Stability, Fearfulness, Aggression–Agreeableness, Sociability, Responsiveness to Training, Dominance/Submission and Activity level.
Of course, not all the studies used all these, and descriptions of what each term actually means varied, too. In some studies, raised hackles were seen as aggressiveness while, in others, it was growling, and so on. However, these seven dimensions form a common basis for conversation.
What’s interesting is that many scientists are currently discussing human personality in terms of the Big Five traits: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience.
Each of these has six sub-traits, for example, Neuroticism is made up of Anxiety, Hostility, Depression, Self-Consciousness, Impulsiveness and Vulnerability to Stress.
If you’re a cynic (and what better way to approach science?), you’ll probably think that five big factors, each with six sub-factors, is a bit too neat and tidy. If so, you’re in good company because critics argue over these terms and add that the Big Five miss out on some important stuff, like honesty and sense of humour.
Another problem is that tests aren’t very robust: results can vary considerably if you take them twice, especially if you wait a bit between takes. This suggests that personality isn’t as stable as we thought. Also, personality and behaviour aren’t as closely linked as we used to think. Add to this, that we show different facets of our personalities in different situations (like your work persona compared to who you are with your family), and you can see why this field of investigation is so fascinating.
As you might expect, the field of human personality research is a vast catfight with supporters and critics all writing papers justifying their position. It’s the same in the field of animal personality research, but while there are many problems, some of the ideas that come from this type of study do provide food for thought (see sidebar).
What isn’t discussed very often is the mindset of some researchers. When I read the list of the seven canine personality traits, what struck me most is that it’s pretty clear that researchers were looking at dogs as objects of usefulness.
These traits suggest they are centred on questions like, “Is this a nervous dog?” (Stability) and “Will this dog guard my house or run for cover when burglars come?” (Fearfulness), and “Do I need to go for long walks every day?” (Activity level). These are all useful questions to ask if you’re looking for a dog to adopt but I’m curious if we can’t describe dogs just as well in human terms.
Experience tells me that pet personalities are just like humans’ in that they are multidimensional and show different facets depending on mood and circumstances.
Take Popo, the Silky Terrier who lives next door. He is a neurotic little dog – except when his mum and dad are there to back him up, in which case he becomes very brave. Then there’s my friend Girl who is an outgoing social type – but only if you’re human because she loathes other animals.
My cats, Target and Guido, are just as complex. Target is usually loving but he’s grumpy if he hasn’t had enough sleep. And Guido is the soul of generosity with his garden and toys, but stick your nose in his bowl of tuna and my big happy bear will whap you smartly on the nose.
Animals are just as hard to understand as people, and I have the feeling that canine personality researchers are going to be busy for a long time.
I also sometimes wonder what would happen if our pets got together and studied us. Would they rate us as we rate them? Or would they add in a few extra dimensions like Generosity At The Dinner Table and Skill At Decoding Barks? If only we could talk, what an interesting conversation that would be.
Ellen Whyte is ruled by cats but she sneaks in time with dog friends. She blogs at blog.lepak.com.