All dogs are the same. really. Look at an evolutionary tree and you’ll find all domestic dogs, clustered together in one spot. But that can’t be the entire story. When asked, Rachel Licker of Lawrenceville, N.J., describes Piper, her “Basset Hound on stilts,” as incredibly goofy, communicative, playful and quick to overwhelm. According to Mary de Vachon of Nice, France, Ria, her Sheltie, is gentle and loving, content and confident, extremely shy, and above all else, a mademoiselle.
While all dogs might fit in the same spot on the tree of life, each has his or her own unique personality. Just as one person might greet you with a cautious wave or a coy smile, another will come barreling into your life doling out hugs and kisses. Dogs are the same, in that each is different.
WHAT IS PERSONALITY?
While the name Pavlov usually brings to mind bells and salivating dogs, early in his studies Pavlov and his students noticed that dogs differed from one another. Some tended to be nervous and sensitive, some were active and lively, and some were quiet and steady. Like Rachel and Mary reflecting on Piper and Ria, Pavlov and his team were describing dogs’ personalities. The concept of personality can be used to convey that individuals differ in how they perceive and interact with the world around them.
Additionally, the word describes an individual’s usual pattern of behavior, characteristics that are relatively stable over time and across situations. Say a snowman with stick arms that wave in the wind appears on the front lawn after a snowstorm. Some dogs would walk by as though Frosty had always been there. Others might play-bow and dance joyfully in front of their new friend, while a few are sure to freeze, tuck and retreat.
If those same dogs then confront other novel situations—balloons in a tree, a parade, clowns jumping out of a car, you name it—those who perceived Frosty as no bother would probably continue to be indifferent, while those who equated Frosty with Satan would also be likely to associate other odd events with the underworld. Although it does not imply that an individual will respond the same exact way every time (dogs are not robots, after all), the term “personality” denotes an individual’s usual perceptions or interactions.
Thinking about personality gets tricky very quickly because there is no universal definition. Some fields distinguish between personality and temperament, while others use the terms interchangeably. As Samuel Gosling, PhD, a personality and social psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, explains, “Temperament is the basic, biologically inherited tendencies of an individual, and personality is the result of the interaction between temperament and the environment.” That distinction is common in human psychology but is not always made in animal fields. But, as Gosling adds, “since adult animals are a combination of biologically inherited tendencies as well as individual experiences, it seems to me misleading to call that temperament. In humans, we would call that personality, so why not in other animals?”
Making a distinction between temperament and personality could enable researchers to explore whether certain traits are more stable over time than others. For example, a recent analysis surveying a number of studies found that in puppies, aggression and submissiveness were most consistent, while responsiveness to training, sociability and fearfulness were least consistent.
Understanding the relationship between early-life temperaments and later-in-life personalities could be paramount for real-world issues, such as selecting dogs for work or companionship. For working dogs, Gosling and his team advise the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to measure personality-trait consistency in order to improve the selection and training of working detector dogs.
Back home, you might think you have a handle on who your puppy Wizzer is, but what you’re seeing might or might not relate to Wizzer’s adult personality. (So even if Wizzer starts out apprehensive about the vacuum cleaner, there’s hope for improvement, and you can help him.)