Dog is on it's back and appears to be smiling

Animal personalities

Pet owners would probably argue that their animals have their own particular personalities, above and beyond that of their breeds. That could just reflect wishful thinking on the part of the owner, but there is some evidence that an animal like a dog does have individual personality traits

Animal psychology used to be a well-studied area, but received relatively little attention in the second half of the 20th century. There are signs, however, that interest is picking up. Partly this is because of interest in animal models of human behaviour (see ‘Animal models’), but it also reflects an interest in the behaviour of different animals, the genetic or physiologic basis for this behaviour, and variation in behaviour between individual animals. Of particular interest are cognitive skills and the extent to which human abilities (eg tool use, problem solving) are seen in animals.

Usually, though, research looks at groups of animals, to enable statistically valid conclusions to be drawn. There is less interest in individuals, except for companion animals such as dogs.

Different breeds of dog are good models to work with, as they are common and well-differentiated. Anecdotally, different breeds show different behaviour traits and scientifically this has also been reasonably well established. As for personality, one approach has been to see whether reliable personality traits can be developed for animals such as dogs, as they have for humans.

Although much less work has been done, it does seem that a set of criteria very similar to human personality traits can be applied to dogs. People independently and reliably score individual animals in a similar way.

It is not known, however, if dogs pick up the personality traits of their owners…

Lead image:

Elisa/Flickr CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Neuroscience, Ecology and environment, Psychology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development