I was having coffee with a friend this morning and somehow the conversation wandered into how smart our dogs are. Like proud parents, we regaled each other with stories about our respective dogs’ personalities. I asked, rhetorically, whether dogs really have a personality. Like any dog owner, our answer was “Of course!” But the easy answer bothered me. The fact that millions of dog owners would believe it to be a fact doesn’t make it so. Strictly speaking, that simply makes it millions of anecdotes. And anecdotes, however numerous, do not constitute proof. At best it amounts to a bunch of observations by loving owners, and, thus, inherently highly biased.


What is personality?

Psychologists who study this subject describe five components that together make up a personality.

  1. Openness to experience. It includes several dimensions, such as active imagination (fantasy), aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity.
  2. Conscientiousness. This trait implies being thorough and careful; a desire to complete a task and do it well.
  3. Extraversion and introversion. Extraversion tends to be manifested in outgoing, talkative, energetic behavior, whereas introversion is manifested in more reserved and solitary behavior.
  4. Agreeableness. This personality trait manifests itself in individual behavioral characteristics that are perceived as kind, sympathetic, cooperative, warm and considerate.
  5. Neuroticism. This trait is characterized by anxiety, fear, moodiness, worry, envy, frustration, jealousy, and loneliness.

Each of these traits has a wide spectrum, and individuals can fall on one extreme of a trait, such as openness to experience, and in the middle of the spectrum of agreeableness, and maybe on the lower scale of extraversion, being a socially awkward introverted loner. I know many scientists who fit this pattern. But what about dogs?


Dog personality

Research on dog personality identified several dimensions to their personalities. Here are some:

  1. Reactivity (approach or avoidance of new objects, increased activity in novel situations)
  2. Fearfulness (shaking, avoiding novel situations)
  3. Activity
  4. Sociability (initiating friendly interactions with people and other dogs)
  5. Responsiveness to Training (working with people, learning quickly)
  6. Submissiveness
  7. Aggression

Please note a basic fact: Dogs do have a personality, and it can be described in very specific terms, just like those of humans. These traits even have their equivalents in human personalities. For instance, reactivity and fearfulness are features of human openness to experience, Submissiveness and aggression are components of human agreeableness, sociability is a manifestation of extraversion-introversion in humans.

Is this surprising? I think not. Dog behavior has been shaped by millennia of contact with humans. As a result of this physical and social evolution, dogs, more than any other species, have acquired the ability to understand and communicate with humans and they are uniquely attuned to our behaviors. And just like in humans, their intelligence is defined by their ability to perceive information and retain it as knowledge for applying to solve problems. Dogs have been shown to learn by inference, or by prior experience. Just like we do.

Anecdotally, my deceased beagle-basset, Hubert, was a master of deception. He would steal food and bury the wrappings, so as not to leave evidence of the crime. Which implies that dogs have what psychologists call a theory of mind, namely the ability to figure out what we think and feel. Guess what? This is called empathy. Can you think of a more human trait?


The co-evolution of humans and dogs has a downside.

Unlike dogs, untrained wolves don’t understand our gestures (like pointing), they don’t stare lovingly into our eyes, and, of course, they don’t play fetch. But a dog’s highly sociable nature carries a cost. According to a new study, it makes them less able to solve problems on their own.

An experimenter (the dog’s owner in the case of the pets) called each animal, and allowed it to sniff a bit of sausage. He or she next placed the meat inside a clear plastic container and snapped on a lid, from which a short piece of rope extended. The dog or wolf had only to pull on the rope while holding down the box to get the treat.

The results show that even when faced with a puzzle that is easily solved, wolves and dogs use different strategies. The wolves were bent on figuring out the solution by themselves, whereas the dogs generally made no effort to work on the puzzle until someone encouraged them—and even then they were oddly unsuccessful.

Well, maybe dogs are not mechanically inclined, but what about their understanding of the human language? Wolves may be able to figure out how to open a plastic container, but you can talk to them until you get blue in the face and they still won’t understand a word you said. They may even get irritated with you for bugging them—and then watch out!


How dogs understand language

When we listen to speech, we can separately analyze lexicon (words and their meaning) and intonation (the emotional content of a sound). Our brain then integrates this information into a unified content.

A recent New York Times article reports on an fMRI study done in Hungary to determine how dogs perceive human speech. Dogs were put in an MRI machine (How did they get the dogs to sit still? This, in itself, is a feat). A trainer then said words of praise, such as “good dog”, and neutral words, such as “however”. Both the praise words and neutral words were offered in positive and neutral tones.

Unsurprisingly for us dog owners, parts of the dogs’ left hemisphere reacted to meaning and parts of the right hemisphere to intonation—just like in our brains. And here is a bonus find: Only words of praise said in a positive tone made the reward system of the dog’s brain light up.

My guess is that it’s the positive tone that makes the difference. My dog would wag his tail if I told him, in a loving voice, that he is a dummy.

So, do dogs have a personality? Of course, they do. It is just a little different from ours. But do they have a language? Not really, except for some rudimentary barks that convey simple messages, like “let’s go for a walk” or “I am hungry”. But they do understand language, and can read our body language as well or better than we do.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.



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