Everyone is familiar with that old saw about dogs looking like their owners……certainly, there are plenty of photos in this genre floating around the internet………
However, appearances aside, this common belief leads one to ask – Do dogs often behave similarly to their owners? Or more precisely, do dogs and their owners share personality traits? Recently, a group of collaborating scientists from Eotvos University’s Family Dog Project in Hungary and from the “Clever Dog Lab” in Vienna, Austria asked exactly this question (1).
Background information: Studies of human relationships provide quite a bit of scientific support for a hypothesis entitled the “similarity-attraction hypothesis“. Rather than the “opposites attract” theory that prevails on TV sit-coms and in romance novels, it seems that friends and romantic partners who share personality traits, communication patterns, and yes, even degree of attractiveness have reduced conflict and disagreements and are generally happier in their relationships than are folks who tend to be more dissimilar from each other. Although not completely understood, it is presumed that hanging out with someone who mirrors our own values and self-perceptions supports our world view and enhances our feelings of security. (Hmmm…..so it really IS “all about me” in relationships, after all……).
SIMILARITY-ATTRACTION HYPOTHESIS IN ACTION
Which of course begs the question…..Given that many people have strong and enduring relationships with their dogs, does the similarity-attraction hypothesis operate when we choose our canine friends?
The Study: The researchers studied a group of 389 owner and dog pairs who had lived together for at least 10 months. Pairs were approximately evenly distributed between the Clever Dog Lab (Austria) and the Family Dog Project (Hungary). The researchers presented a set of 4 hypotheses for their study that captured factors such as dogs’ perceived versus actual personality traits, the number and age of dogs living in the home, and cultural differences between owners living in Austria and those living in Hungary. The owners completed a personality questionnaire about themselves that was designed to measure the “Big Five” personality traits of neuroticism, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness. They also completed a modified Big Five questionnaire to describe their dog’s personality, a measuring tool that had been previously validated in dogs by another group of researchers (2). Last, both the owner’ and their dog’s personalities were assessed independently by a peer and by a family member.
Results: Overall, the researchers found statistically significant correlations between the personalities of owners and the personality traits of their dogs, both when self-reported by the owners and as reported independently by another person. Here are a few specific results that may be of interest to dog folks:
- Strongest association: While all five personality traits had significant correlations between owner and dog, the strongest association was found for neuroticism (ease of becoming upset, degree of emotional stability). In other words, anxious owners tended to live with anxious dogs (and vice versa). The authors suggest that owners who are by nature more anxious may cause their dogs to become more nervous by behaving inconsistently, by being overly protective, or by failing to socialize their dogs adequately. Alternatively, the relationship may work in the opposite direction; a dog who is by nature more nervous may cause the owner to be distressed and anxious about the dog’s behavior. (It is important to remember that correlations do not imply causation – these results cannot provide evidence of the direction of these associations or even if there is a causative relationship).
HOW DO NERVOUS OWNERS PREPARE?
Projection? The study’s results also showed that, contrary to popular belief (usually of non-dog folks), the similarities between owner and dog personalities were not the result of simple projection of the owner’s self-perception onto his or her dog (for example, “I think of myself as an open and outgoing extrovert; therefore, my dog is also the life of the party!”). Both family member and peer ratings supported the significant correlations that were found between owner and dog personality traits.
- Differences between single and multiple-dog homes: Perhaps one of the most interesting results of this study had to do with comparisons between single and multiple dog homes and the order in which dogs were acquired. When an owner lived with two or more dogs, the similarity patterns between owners and the dogs complemented one another. For example, one dog might share a similar extraversion score with his owner, while the second dog’s openness score positively correlated with her owner’s score. The researchers speculated that these differences may reflect specific roles that each dog plays in the home, different reasons for obtaining the second or third dog, or even acquired differences as the dogs each develop their place in the family structure.
Take Away for Dog Folks: This study suggests that owners may often share one or more personality traits with their dogs, and that such observations reflect actual similarities rather than wishful thinking or the manifestation of popular folklore. The study could not tell us however, how these similarities come about. The most obvious explanation is that people consciously or subconsciously select a breed or an individual dog who matches their own personality in one or more ways. (Indeed, there is some evidence in the literature to support this). Alternatively, a dog’s personality may converge with the traits of his owner over time as owner and dog learn from each other and develop a compatible lifestyle. However, the data from this study found no correlation between the length of ownership and degree of personality similarities, which suggests that this was not the case. Regardless of the underlying cause, trainers, behaviorists and other dog professionals who work with dog-owner pairs can use this information as we encourage our clients to recognize and capitalize upon all of the positive traits in their dogs. Emphasizing those traits that the owner and the dog share is likely to lead to appreciation rather than disdain, seeing that we humans have a tendency to recognize many of our own personality traits in a favorable light.
For me personally, this study certainly brings new meaning to the phrase “Love me, Love my dog“. So, if you profess to care about me, then caring about my dogs should come quite easily for you as well, since chances are, we are a lot alike! 🙂
- Turesdan B, Range F, Viranyi Z, et al. Birds of a feather flock together? Perceived personality matching in owner-dog dyads. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2012; 140:154-160.
- Gosling SD, Kwan VSY, John OP, et al. A dog’s got personality: A cross-species comparative approach to personality judgments in dogs and humans. Journal of Perspectives in Social Psychology 2003; 85:1161-1169