A Dog’s Personality Changes Over Time: Why Science Thinks It Matters

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The world has gone to the dogs in the past 12 months – especially in the area of ​​personality research. Increasingly, dogs are being used as a ‘model species’ in order to learn more about human beings, including stability and personality changes over the course of life – or more simply, how we behave in life. aging?

Does it stack up? A cynical yet sympathetic response might be: Any excuse for researchers to play with puppies is time well spent. And if we can find signs of ourselves in our dogs, even better.

A new study from the Clever Dog Lab at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna has found that dogs – like humans! – have personality traits which remain constant, but which change over time in the intensity with which they present themselves.

A human with an aggressive and sarcastic bent will continue to crack wise and mean to the grave – but there will be some relaxation with age. The same goes for more active and playful dogs: they will retain their essential nature, but their enthusiasm for chasing a bullet or sniffing the remains of an opossum in the grass will lose its edge.

To which you might say: Duh!

But the study’s results went further. The researchers found that a dog’s personality changes over time, “but these changes occur unevenly over the life of the dog, and each trait follows a distinct age trajectory.”

In a previous Clever Dog Lab experiment, dogs were trained to stand still in an MRI scan. Their brain activity was monitored while listening to the sound of their owner’s voice. The Clever Dog Lab investigated whether the digs were empathetic, if they were more responsive to their owner’s preferences, and if they could recognize happiness and disgust in humans. Photo: Enikő Kubinyi

In other words, the development of a dog – from puppy to grandfather with a gray muzzle conked in front of the fire – is marked by the plateau and decline of different traits over time.

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A UK study published in May found that dogs are going through a phase of adolescence – where the dog, like any provocative teenager, will push boundaries and be slow to follow commands.

The Clever Dog study goes further.

How did they come to these conclusions?

The authors studied the personalities of 217 Border Collies – beautiful black and white sheepdogs who are very active and sometimes manic. The participants ranged from cute six months to 15 years old. They were subjected to a comprehensive battery of tests known as the Vienna Dog Personality Test.

The researchers invited the owners and the dogs to return to the lab four years later – 37 subjects returned and were tested again.

The thought was this:

The human personality is characterized by a particular dualism: it is both stable and malleable, depending on the point of reference. If we compare ourselves to our peers, it is stable because our personality rankings relative to others remain consistent over time.

“However, personality changes have become evident if we compare ourselves over time, as people become more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and more enjoyable as they age.

But what about personality stability and change in dogs?

Dr Borbála Turcsán is the first author of the study, researcher at the Good Dog Laboratory and the Department of Ethology at Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary. In a prepared statement, she said:

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“Even though dog personality is a very popular topic in the literature, there are still gaps in long-term stability, as well as in the dynamics of personality development.

“In other words, if personality rankings remain consistent for several years, at what age do personality changes occur the most and how much do dogs change over the course of their lives?”

To study these shortcomings, the researchers compared the personalities of border collies, belonging to seven age groups, on the basis of their performance in the following tests:

  • Exploration test: The dogs had a minute to explore a room while the owner stood up and ignored the dog.
  • Frustration test: A sausage on a string was swung in front of the dog’s nose, but just out of reach, for a minute.
  • New Object Test: The dog was given one minute to interact with a noisy toy that moved by itself.
  • Ball game: A tennis ball has been thrown three times. The dog was encouraged to retrieve it.
  • Obedience test: The owner asked the dog to sit, lie down, stay and come. During this time, the experimenter tried to distract the dog with rustling noises.
  • Problem Solving Test: The dog was shown how to remove the lid from a bin and reach for a piece of sausage. The dog had a minute to remove the cover and retrieve the food.

So what were the conclusions?

Each of the tests measured a particular personality trait. Because collies were organized into seven different age groups, researchers were able to identify when certain traits were most pronounced or in decline.

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According to Dr. Zsofia Viranyi, co-author of the article, the researchers found that “the problem orientation trait, which describes dogs’ attention and problem-solving ability, changes widely early in life. , increasing sharply up to (about) six years. age, after which other changes became negligible. “

In contrast, the novelty-seeking trait (the way dogs responded to the toy) did not change markedly during the young stages of life, but around age three, “their curiosity for new objects and situations began to decrease, which continued until the geriatric age. . “

Dogs’ activity independence (explore room) also declined steadily over the lifespan of the dogs, but in this trait the most pronounced decrease occurred from infancy through adolescence, described here as one to two years.

Two of the oldest Border Collies who participated in the experiments. Interest in new things declined with age. But they have remained fairly consistent in their tolerance of being teased with a sausage on a string dangling at their noses. Photo: Enikő Kubinyi

The researchers found that not all traits showed such a marked change with age. For example, dogs showed only a small tendency to tolerate frustrating situations better (STOP TEASING ME WITH SAUSAGE!) As they got older, and dogs ‘sociability level seemed to remain constant throughout the dogs’ lives.

A 2019 Michigan State University study also looked at personality change over time, concluding that some of those changes were due to owner behavior.

“When dog parents spend more time scratching their dogs ‘bellies, taking them for long walks and going foraging, or even when they experience constant frustration with their dogs’ nasty chewing habits, they gradually shape the personality of their dogs, ”the researchers said.

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