It often amuses us to find similarities in the appearance of dogs and their owners – for example, both have long legs, or the dog’s coat is as curly as human hair.
A recent study showed that dogs are more likely to resemble their owners in a completely different way: in fact, their personalities tend to be similar.
William J. Chopik, a Michigan State University social psychologist and lead author of the study, studies how human relationships change over time. Intrigued by the bonds that develop between humans and their furry companions, he set out to explore both these relationships and their dynamics.
In his study, 1 dog owners assessed their personality and that of their pets using standardized questionnaires. Chopik found that dogs and their owners do tend to have similar personality traits. A very friendly person is twice as likely to have a dog that is active and energetic, and also less aggressive than a person with a bad temper. The study also found that conscientious owners describe their dogs as more trainable, while nervous people describe their dogs as more fearful.
Chopik points out an obvious snag in this study: you can ask people questions about them, but for dogs, you have to rely only on owners’ observations of their pets’ behavior. But it seems that owners tend to describe their pets quite objectively, because, as similar studies have shown, outsiders describe the character of dogs in the same way as the owners.
Why are there such similarities in the characters of people and their pets? The study does not address the causes, but Chopik has a hypothesis. “Part of you deliberately choose this dog, and part of the dog acquires certain traits because of you,” he says.
Chopik says that when people adopt a dog, they tend to choose one that fits naturally into their lifestyle. “Do you want an active dog that needs constant human interaction, or a quieter one suitable for a sedentary lifestyle? We tend to choose dogs that match us.”
Then, through conscious learning or just everyday interactions, we shape the behavior of our pets – and when we change, they change with us.
Behaviorist Zazie Todd says it’s important to note that the five main traits commonly used to assess people’s personalities (extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and open-mindedness) are not the same as the five personality factors that apply to describing dogs’ temperaments (fearful, aggressive towards towards people, aggression towards animals, activity/excitability and ability to learn). But according to Todd, there is some really interesting connection between humans and dogs, and the qualities tend to be intertwined.
For example, while “extraversion” is not a trait that clearly reflects an animal’s personality, extroverted people tend to be more outgoing and energetic, so their pet tends to be highly active and excitable.
Future research may shed more light on the issue of firstness and secondness in this matter. For example, are friendly, sociable people initially inclined to choose a less shy dog as their companion? Or is their lifestyle passed on to their pet over time? “Active people are more likely to take their dogs with them wherever they go, which allows their pet to socialize and get used to different things,” says Todd. “Maybe people shape their dog’s personality – but that’s an interesting theory we’ve yet to confirm.”