Study: Your dog’s personality changes over time (just like yours)

If you own a dog, you already knew they have their own moods. But you may not have realized that dogs’ personality traits change significantly over time as they age – just like humans often do.

That’s according to new research from Michigan State University, published in the Journal of Research in PersonalityIt’s one of the first – and is the largest – studies of its kind to look at changes in dogs personalities. Researchers surveyed owners of more than 1,600 dogs, from a few weeks to 15 years old.

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

As part of the study, owners evaluated assessed their dogs’ personalities in a comprehensive survey and answered questions about their pet’s behavioral history. Owners also filled out a survey about their own personalities. Fun fact: Owners and dogs had a lot in common, personality-wise.

“We found correlations in three main areas: age and personality, in human-to-dog personality similarities and in the influence a dog’s personality has on the quality of the relationship with its owner,” Chopik said.

How dogs’ personalities change over time

There are several changes over the course of a dog’s life that could result in a personality change. One is the process of aging and all that comes with it. Another is being exposed to new environments, like a new home, or a transfer from a home to a shelter, for example. The way an animal relates to this change is called “state-behavior feedback” and it often results in a change of personality – however, the less disruptive, the less change. Obedience training is also a change in personality.

Young dogs are more active/excitable, and while they’re less aggressive towards people, they’re more aggressive towards other animals. They’re not particularly receptive to training, unlike dogs in middle age (6-8 years) or older.

Older dogs tend to be less aggressive with animals and humans because they’re not as active and may be suffering from poorer health.

One personality trait in dogs that rarely changes with age was fear and anxiety (if that happens to be part of their personality.) Less fearful, however, were purebred dogs, “fixed” dogs, and dogs that had taken obedience classes.

How alike are owners and their dogs?

It seems that their owners think they’re very alike. In the questionnaire, owners that were extroverts rated their dogs as more excitable and active. Owners that were more agreeable, conscientious, or open-minded rated their dogs as less fearful, more excitable and active, and less aggressive towards others. Neurotic or negative owners rated their dogs as more fearful, more active/excitable, and less receptive to training.

Still, researchers say, it is unlikely that these similarities “result entirely from owners foisting their personalities onto targets like their dogs.” They suggest instead that people choose dogs compatible with their lifestyle, and that their lifestyle “jointly shapes human and dog personality over time” – a possible avenue of further research.

Do an owner’s and dog’s personality affect the quality of their relationship?

It partly depends on your personality – “owner agreeableness” was associated with a higher-quality relationship with Spot. Other owners reported a better relationship if their dogs reported traits of being more active/excitable or were receptive to training. Female owners and owners of older dogs said they had close relationships.

For his next move, Chopik wants to explore how a dog’s home life affects its personality.

“Say you adopt a dog from a shelter,” Chopik said. “Some traits are likely tied to biology and resistant to change, but you then put it in a new environment where it’s loved, walked, and entertained often. The dog might become a little more relaxed and sociable.

“Now that we know dogs’ personalities can change, next we want to make a strong connection to understand why dogs act – and change – the way they do.”

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