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A Fetching Personality: Psychologist's work may help dog lovers find their perfect match

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Scientists have finally caught on to what pet owners have known all along, a dog’s got personality. It seems only fitting that man’s best friend would.

“Pet owners will frequently tell you about the personalities of their dogs,” said Dr. Sam Gosling, an assistant professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. “The question is, should we trust that? Is this really telling us something about what the dog is like or is it some type of sentimental projection onto their adored animals?”

Sam Gosling
Dr. Sam Gosling
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology

Gosling, who directs the Human and Animal Personality Lab at the university, admits initially he assumed that animals did not have personalities, but he decided to put his assumption to the test. Drawing upon his background in human personality research, he applied the same methods and rigorous standards to test whether personality differences exist and can be judged in dogs. His findings showed that, indeed, dog personality traits could be identified with an impressive level of accuracy.

“Just as there are many personality tests on the pages of Cosmo and so forth for humans, there are also many tests for animals,” Gosling said. “However, the problem with those tests and the reason we are doing our research is that they have not been scientifically validated.”

Dog owners and their pets were recruited to participate in three studies. In the first study, owners provided personality judgments about their dogs as well as themselves. Owners also identified other people who were familiar with both them and their dogs and could provide judgments about both. This allowed for comparison between the consistency of dog and human personality judgments as well as consensus between owners and peers in judging either dog or human personality.

The second study was a behavior field test where strangers were asked to rate each dog’s level of energy, affection, emotional reactivity and intelligence. The dog was given tasks such as retrieving a biscuit placed under a cup to measure intelligence or going on a run with its owner to measure energy. Emotion was assessed by observing a dog’s reaction as its owner walked away with another dog and affection was measured by observing the dog as its owner encouraged affection. The owners’ judgments about their dogs were able to accurately predict behavioral ratings in the field. 

Just as there are many personality tests on the pages of Cosmo and so forth for humans, there are also many tests for animals. --Dr. Sam GoslingA third study was designed to address the fact that people may have been using stereotypes associated with particular dog breeds to make their judgments. For example, a study participant might rate a golden retriever as high in the affection category, while rating a pit bull low in the same area based not on his or her field observation but on his or her personal bias toward the breed. To test for this prejudice Gosling’s team recruited people who had never viewed the study dogs directly and asked them to rate the same personality characteristics as were observed in study two based solely on photographs of the dogs. These photo-based ratings allowed Gosling to examine the effects of breed and appearance characteristics, and control for that throughout the studies. The judges who made photo-based ratings agreed about the likely behavior of the dogs.

When taking the findings from the previous studies into account, the research team was able to determine that the owner judgments of personality and behavior ratings in the field session could not be attributed to shared beliefs on the basis of the dogs’ appearance.

“These findings further solidify the evidence for the accuracy of the owners’ judgments of their dogs’ personalities,” said Gosling.

An important factor in all of these studies was that regardless of whether a person actually owns a dog, almost everyone has some interaction or familiarity with dogs. As a result, there are many different applications for the research findings.

Gosling is particularly interested in the importance of a pet’s personality being compatible with that of its owner. One of the biggest reasons why animals get sent to shelters is because they don’t match behaviorally.

Matching pet owners with their pet has many parallels to human dating because a lot of people choose their dogs on the basis of what they look like. --Dr. Sam Gosling“We don’t know what those successful combinations are yet,” Gosling said. “There are probably some dog personalities that are better suited for all pet owners. As with humans, most people don’t want to be with someone who is completely neurotic, aggressive or critical. However, I believe finding the right combinations might even surpass a set of generally favorable traits.

“Matching pet owners with their pet has many parallels to human dating because a lot of people choose their dogs on the basis of what they look like,” he said. “They might want a dog like the one they saw in ‘101 Dalmatians.’ While there are known breed differences to consider there can be huge differences in personality even within the same breed.”

Gosling’s research could provide some guidance in dealing with the public health issue of dog bites, which can cause serious injuries and even death. A survey by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that nearly two percent of the U.S. population—more than 4.7 million people—is bitten by dogs each year. Bites to children represent more than 50 percent of the total number of cases and, according to the American Medical Association, dog bites are the second most common cause of childhood emergency room visits. Gosling would like to be able to identify dogs that are more likely to bite and make environmental modifications.

“Behavior is an interaction between personality and environment and both need to be taken into account,” Gosling said.

Personality testing also could be used to find dogs that are good at a specific job whether that’s being an explosive-detection, patrol or seeing-eye dog. Given the significant number of “working dogs,” improving the selection process could save time and money, especially considering that highly specialized training can be very expensive, particularly if the dog does not go on to fulfill its duty.

Just as we find some human personality traits make a person a good manager, accountant or doctor, some dog personalities are better suited for working than others, and for performing specific tasks. --Dr. Sam Gosling“Just as we find some human personality traits make a person a good manager, accountant or doctor,” Gosling said, “some dog personalities are better suited for working than others, and for performing specific tasks.”

There are also many theoretical applications to Gosling’s research.

“It’s the nature versus nurture debate. How much of personality is due to genetics? How does personality develop? What is the biological basis of personality? How is personality related to health?” Gosling asked. “All of these questions can be addressed using animal studies that could not be conducted with humans.

“For example, we know there are personality links between children and their mother,” he said. “The trouble is we don’t know whether that similarity is due to the fact that the child is carrying the mother’s genes or that the mother brings them up. To test that, mothers would have to swap babies with another mother to see if it is the biology or environment causing them to be similar. No human, quite understandably, wants to do this, but you can do it with animals.

“We can use clones or near clones to test the genetic contribution,” he said. “If these animals have different personalities then we know it’s not due to the genes alone because both animals have identical genes.”

Gosling will continue his research into animal personalities. For an ongoing study, he will work with Psychology graduate student Diane Mollaghan on a project at the Town Lake Animal Shelter. The basic goal of the study is to examine several major temperament tests in an animal shelter context. In another ongoing study, he will work with graduate student Amanda Jones to develop a comprehensive dog personality questionnaire for use in measuring personality and temperament in dogs. He and his research team have collected more than 5,000 questionnaires. Results of this study will have a broad application, from comparative personality theory and dog-human relationships to animal welfare. 

BY Michelle Bryant

PHOTO of Dr. Gosling: Marsha Miller

PHOTOS of dogs on banner graphic and within feature: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 19 December 2006
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