At the same time, many shy away from using the term when it comes to non-human animals, sometimes because they’re uneasy about the “A” word: anthropomorphism. To avoid linking dogs and personhood so explicitly, scientists use alternative descriptors such as “behavioral types,” “behavioral syndromes” and “coping styles.” Regardless of the word employed, when the definitions are compared, they tend to describe the same basic phenomenon: consistent, individual differences in behavioral tendencies over time and across situations.
Much of the initial pushback against the term “personality” has dissipated because studies now suggest that personality in non-human animals can be measured and evaluated, just as in humans. (Relatively speaking, this field is in its infancy, and techniques and methodologies continue to evolve, so stay tuned.)
HOW IS PERSONALITY EVALUATED?
While human personality is often assessed by questionnaires, dogs are less adept with that format, tending to provide insufficient responses (mostly, slobber and paw prints). But their inability to hold a pen does not exclude them from questionnaire-based personality assessments; humans complete questionnaires on dogs’ behalf. The method is reliable because independent observers—in this case, dog owners and other humans who know the dog— generally concur in their descriptions of a dog’s personality. This type of consistency is a hallmark of human personality research and lends credibility to the approach. And, even better, similar ratings provided by observers over time further substantiate the utility of particular questionnaires.
Questionnaires, however, are not bulletproof. Gosling notes that questionnaires “don’t rule out the possibility that ratings are based on some stereotype, say a physical stereotype, like ‘bigger animals are more aggressive.’ You could still get those biases.” Dogs’ physical appearances are emotion points for humans and make them susceptible to attributions and judgments that might have no bearing on the personality of individuals. For example, the Papillon breed standard specifies that these small dogs are to be “happy, alert and friendly,” and their physical appearance easily promotes this perception of an overall perkiness. But on an individual basis, just like other dogs, Papillons can be shy (or downright neurotic).
Even taking into account the risk of stereotyping, questionnaires provide meaningful information about canine personality. When comparing questionnaire ratings with separate behaviorobservation assessments, a strong link has been found. So if a dog is judged on a questionnaire to be highly timid, independent observers will generally also describe the dog’s behavior in terms consistent with shyness.
Since people are rarely shy about discussing their dogs, collecting data via questionnaires can be incredibly fruitful. The Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), developed by James Serpell, PhD, and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, is a widely used assessment of dog behavioral characteristics (available for public use). The 101 questions gather insights into dogs by asking owners to use a five-point scale to describe how their dog would likely react in a variety of different situations, such as anxiety or fear in heavy traffic or when examined by a veterinarian; excited when the doorbell rings or when visitors arrive; and of course, likely to chase cats if given the opportunity.
A recent study of former breeding dogs from commercial breeding operations— commonly referred to as “puppy mills”—relied on the C-BARQ to evaluate the dispositions of these dogs once they’re out in the world. Overall, they were found to be more fearful and nervous than typical pet dogs, particularly regarding strangers and stairs, and many were sensitive about being touched. Despite having lived for years in their adoptive households, many of these dogs still displayed persistent fear and anxiety, which is exactly the type of long-term rather than short-term tendencies that investigations of personality aim to reveal.