Most dogs wag their tails, bark, eat, sleep, sniff at other dogs and go crazy when their humans come home from work. If their behavior’s so predictable, then what’s all the fuss about their personalities and breed characteristics?
Dog lovers know that each dog has a unique personality, largely shaped by genetics (breed) and environment. While some dogs are social and playful, others can also be aggressive and territorial. Knowing your dog’s personality can help you predict his behavior and, therefore, keep him out of situations that make him uncomfortable.
The Four Dog Personality Dimensions
Researchers have found four dimensions of canine personality traits. Using the five-factor model of personality dimensions that defines a human’s and a chimpanzee’s personalities, scientists identified four of the five traits in dog personalities. These are the four aspects that contribute to a dog’s personality:
- energy or extraversion
- affection or agreeableness
- emotional reactivity or neuroticism
The factor that dogs lack from the five-factor human personality model is conscientiousness.
In more simplistic terms, the degree to which a dog is either extroverted and agreeable or emotionally reactive indicates how dominant or submissive that dog’s personality is. Consequently, the dog’s personality affects his reactions to various situations: dominant dogs generally react aggressively or playfully while submissive dogs are more likely to display fear or anxiety. However, these traits alone don’t entirely explain dog personality.
The Four Drives Affect Dog Personality
Along with the four personality dimensions, four drives also affect a dog’s personality and behavior. In 1991, Wendy Volhard, co-founder of the Volhard Motivational Method for dog training, outlined the four drives and their corresponding behavioral patterns:
- The prey drive is reflected in aggressive, hunting-like behavior.
- The pack drive reveals itself in a dog’s agreeableness with other dogs and humans.
- The fight drive emerges when a dog stands his ground and maintains confidence in questionable situations.
- The flight drive is seen when a dog hides or bites in a stressful situation.
Dogs such as Golden Retrievers and Poodles not only tend to have a high pack drive but also display extraversion and agreeableness. Conversely, Akitas and Dobermans generally have high prey drives and are highly emotionally reactive. As a result, while Golden Retrievers make good pets for families, Dobermans make better guard dogs.
Dogs and Aggression
Aggression in dogs is not necessarily a foolproof indicator of the dog’s overall personality. Although some dogs have more aggressive, dominant personalities by nature, most aggressive displays can fall into one of the following four categories:
- Dominance aggression arises when a dog feels his rank in the “pack” or in a given social situation is being challenged.
- Fear-motivated aggression is a defensive response to a fear of being hurt.
- Protective or territorial aggression is a defensive reaction to the threat of losing something valued.
- Redirected aggression occurs when a dog can’t act out his aggression on the source and, therefore, takes it out on the next closest thing.
Because aggressive behavior isn’t erratic and can be explained, it can also be corrected. A dog’s overall personality doesn’t have to be characterized as “mean” or “unfriendly” just because he tends towards aggression.
Punishing your dog may only increase his aggressive tendencies if he feels that his social status is being challenged. To correct unnecessary aggression, you can spay or neuter your dog, avoid situations that arouse his aggression and consult with an animal behaviorist.
Shy or Abused Dogs
Like aggressive dogs, shy dogs can be mislabeled as “unfriendly.” However, a shy dog’s personality can be the result of a few different factors:
- learned behavior from the mother
- a physical handicap (a dog who can’t hear won’t respond to you)
- lack of socialization as a puppy.
Sometimes, a shy dog’s lack of positive human contact in the puppy years can mean that the dog was abused. Because they’re essentially being retrained to avoid fearing everyday things, abused dogs require much more patience, care and understanding than other dogs.
Some of the key components to nourishing a shy or abused dog’s personality are positive reinforcement and gentle socialization. The first step is to set up controlled situations in which the dog can face the factors that cause fear or shyness, and gradually build his confidence. Next, carefully socialize the dog with other people and dogs to promote more extroverted and less neurotic or fearful behavior.