Nature versus nurture is a matchup we ponder when observing many walks of life, and we certainly question which has a greater influence on our pets as much as anything else. Many behaviors of dogs are often anticipated and even stereotyped by breed, whether it’s a canine’s playfulness, its aggression, hyperactivity, anxiousness, fear, and the list goes on. It’s even fair to say many people will base a decision of which breed to bring home from the adoption clinic or which breeders to seek out based on these same stereotypes. Golden Retrievers immediately come to mind as the lovable, playful, and agreeable dog to introduce to a young family.
But how does any dog’s mood or personality change over time and as he or she grows older? People certainly learn and change as they grow older, so why should we assume that dogs are any different? One simple assumption could be that a dog’s life is probably pretty boring and monotone by human standards. They stay at home all day while we work. They nap until we come home and make us feel like kings and queens because our simple presence at home after a long shift is made out to be the highlight of their day. Dogs cope with depression and anxiety, they experience joy and sadness and illness, but it’s tough to wrap our minds around the mental and emotional stimulation we experience being parallel to that of a dog’s, which is why it’d be easy to imagine much of their life, and therefore personality, remains pretty stable. According to a new study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, dogs’ personalities do in fact change as the years go by thanks to a number of factors.
The large study was published in the Journal of Research in Personality, surveying the owners of more than 1,600 dogs, including 50 different breeds ranging from a few weeks old to 15 years old. In the study, owners were asked to answer questions about their dogs’ personality and behavior as well as questions about their own personalities.
"When humans go through big changes in life, their personality traits can change. We found that this also happens with dogs—and to a surprisingly large degree," said William Chopik, professor of psychology and lead author of the study. "We expected the dogs' personalities to be fairly stable because they don't have wild lifestyle changes humans do, but they actually change a lot. We uncovered similarities to their owners, the optimal time for training and even a time in their lives that they can get more aggressive toward other animals."
What doesn’t appear to change much as dogs age, the study found, are fear and anxiety. But the research also dug into how much influence an owner’s personality has on the changes that may or may not occur in a dog’s personality through the years. And they also found some scientific evidence to support the old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
"We found correlations in three main areas: age and personality, in human-to-dog personality similarities and in the influence a dog's personality
It’s probably not surprising that the owners who self-reported having the strongest and happiest relationships with their pets also reported viewing their dogs as being the most active and excitable, bringing the whole “nature versus nurture” conversation full circle in this study.
Chopik’s research comes not too far behind a recent study of more than 17,000 canines across over 100 different breeds to see which personality traits, if any, are inherited by breed. In that study, Evan MacLean, a comparative psychologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, led a team of researchers that compiled data on the behavior of different dog breeds taken from Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). Researchers used the data compiled from all those dogs and their owners to cross reference the genetic data of each breed, finding that trainability, chasing, and a tendency to be aggressive toward strangers that are most likely to be dictated by each dog’s DNA.
"Our findings suggest that dog breeds also provide a powerful and highly tractable model for questions about the evolution and genetic basis of behavioral traits,” the researchers reported. “Across 14 traits, we found that breed differences in behavior are highly heritable, and that clustering of breeds based on behavior accurately recapitulates genetic relationships.”
In many ways, the findings of these two studies complement each other greatly. Chopik would likely say the findings of the U of A research can give us a good baseline for expected behaviors and personalities of each dog, while Chopik’s research shows us how malleable canines are. And in fact, that very idea will apparently feed Chopik’s upcoming research, which plans to examine how the very environment a dog is provided with — not just the person raising them — dictates their personality as well as how that personality changes over time.
"Say you adopt a dog from a shelter. Some traits are likely tied to biology and resistant to change, but you then put it in a new environment where it's loved, walked and entertained often. The dog then might become a little more relaxed and sociable," Chopik said. "Now that we know dogs' personalities can change, next we want to make a strong connection to understand why dogs act—and change—the way they do."
It all adds up to a solid reminder of how heavy a role we play in the development of our pets emotionally and intellectually. And it can certainly offer a bit of support to the idea that our dogs do often mirror our own behaviors and personalities.