Summary & Analysis: Consistency of personality traits in dogs

To best understand this article in the context of the behavior evaluation literature, please see National Canine Research Council’s complete analysis here.

Article Citation:

Svartberg, K., Tapper, I., Temrin, H., Radesater, T., & Thorman, S. (2005). Consistency of personality traits in dogs. Animal Behaviour, 69, 283-291. doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2004.04.011

National Canine Research Council Summary and Analysis:

The 2005 study by Svartberg, Tapper, Temrin, Radesater, and Thorman utilized a behavior evaluation to study “personality” in canines. Personality refers to behavioral consistency within an individual, so the researchers administered a behavior evaluation several times to the same dogs in different locations. The five personality traits investigated were: Playfulness, Chase-proneness, Curiosity/Fearlessness, Sociability, Aggressiveness, and one larger category, Shyness/Boldness. Though the researchers were not directly studying behavior evaluations, the results are compelling with respect to consistency over time, and give insight on evaluation reliability and validity.

Forty pet dogs (20 males) were the ultimate subjects in this study. Subjects were first recruited via convenience sampling; an ad was placed in a Swedish dog magazine. For the first behavior test, 81 dogs participated, but that number was reduced for time and financial purposes. Each of the 81 initial subjects were ranked for the five traits and the seven lowest ranking and seven  highest ranking for each trait were invited back to participate in the remainder of the study, yielding a study total of 40 dogs (some were among the 7 highest or lowest on more than one trait). The researchers employed the Dog Mentality Assessment (DMA) to measure personality. Standardized scoring sheets were used to record dogs’ behavior on 33 variables across 10 subtests, with scores ranging from 1 (low intensity) to 5 (high intensity) for each variable. The ten DMA subtests ranged from the mundane (e.g., approaching a stranger, a short walk), to playful (e.g., tug of war, chasing a rag) to starling (e.g., the sudden appearance of a dummy, loud metallic noise, and approaching “ghosts”). A gunshot was also used, but was excluded for the second and third tests due to possible sensitization. The tests were administered with approximately one month between the first and second, and second and third trials. Each dog was handled by his or her owner during all three trials, and a trained observer directed the handler and guided them through the tests. Measured behaviors included, but were not limited to, greeting behavior, attention towards a stimulus, interest in play, startle reaction, avoidance behavior, aggressive behavior, exploratory behavior, and activity level.

Scores on the 33 variables were used to calculate trait scores for the five personality traits (see Svartberg and Forkman, 2002). No personality differences were found between breeds for any of the five traits. The test-retest consistency for Aggressiveness was lower (alpha = 0.67) than any of the other personality traits (ranging from 0.80-0.89). This is of concern with regard to behavior evaluations used to inform decisions about the adoptability of shelter dogs because “aggressive” behaviors are typically those of most interest. Most of the traits (Playfulness, Chase-proneness, and Sociability) were consistent over time, demonstrating the test-retest aspect of reliability for these traits. However, Curiosity/Fearlessness often increased and Aggressiveness often decreased over time. Both Curiosity/Fearlessness and Aggressiveness resulted in significantly different scores between tests 1 and 2. Given this result in a test-retest scenario with the same owned dog, the prospect of such test-retest reliability before and after a transition from a shelter environment to a home becomes vanishingly unlikely. Again, this is alarming considering that similar tests for “aggression” are often used to determine if a dog is adoptable.

As with all attempts to date to validate behavioral tests on pet dogs, the most obvious sample weakness is selection biases. First, the owners were recruited from a national dog magazine, which represents a self-selection bias. Second, the researchers chose the highest and lowest ranking dogs from the first test to create the sample used in the subsequent tests. Together, this means that the results may not be generalizable, because they were not taken from a random sample.

The authors interpret the inconsistency of Aggressiveness in the second instance to the test being less novel and therefore less threatening.  The assumption is that the dogs habituated to the stimuli in the test, meaning they got used to them and stopped responding. However, such stimuli often result in the opposite response, sensitization, meaning the animal literally becomes more sensitive, responding more and more strongly. A simpler explanation might be that the behaviors in this set are simply less stable in general, that “aggressiveness” is in fact less a trait than the other behaviors tested for. In any case, if it cannot be reliably measured over time, and if it is higher on the first examination, then this raises concern for real world applications of temperament and behavioral tests.

Abstract and Link to Purchase Full Text of the Original Article:

Additional Reference:

Svartberg, K. & Forkman, B. (2002). Personality traits in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 79(2), 133-155.