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Unique animal personalities identifiable to observers

Individual animals have distinct personalities that can be judged as accurately as human personalities, according to new research.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Individual animals have distinct personalities that can be judged as accurately as human personalities, according to new research.

“Our studies show that personality traits can be judged in dogs with impressive levels of accuracy,” said Dr. Samuel Gosling, assistant professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. “Our two-species (human/canine) comparative approach made it possible for the first time to interpret the animal findings in direct comparison with findings based on human participants.”

“A Dog’s Got Personality: A Cross-Species Comparative Approach to Personality Judgments in Dogs and Humans” appears in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The research, conducted by Gosling, Virginia Kwan of Princeton University and Oliver John of the University of California, Berkeley, used three separate studies to assess the ability to distinguish the personalities of domestic dogs.

“We chose dogs for several reasons,” Gosling said. “They can engage in a wide array of behaviors and their behavioral repertoire is well understood by a large pool of observers.”

The researchers found personality could be accurately judged for four previously identified dimensions of canine personality: Energy, Affection, Emotional Reactivity and Intelligence. Although dog owners have long been convinced that their pets had distinct personalities, the idea had remained controversial in scientific circles where many researchers dismissed personality traits in animals as anthropomorphic projections.

Researchers recruited 78 dogs and owners from a dog park as participants. In the first study, participants were asked to rate their dog’s personality as well as their own, and to have both rated by a peer who knew both the owner and dog. The second study tested how well the owners’ personality judgments of their dogs predicted behavior during an observational field-testing session. In the third study, individual photos of the dogs were shown to another set of judges to examine the effects of breed and appearance on personality judgment.

The research found that owners could judge the personalities of their dogs with consistency, and those judgments were consistent with peer judgments about the animal. They also found that owners were generally able to predict their dog’s behavior based on what they knew of the animal’s personality.

“These findings, along with recent work in other species, suggest that animals do have personalities and these personalities can be judged by humans,” Gosling said. “By showing that judgments of dogs are as accurate as judgments of humans, the research underscores the legitimacy of the personality concept in animals. As such, it opens the way for applied research, such as identifying good seeing-eye or bomb-sniffing dogs or matching pets to suitable owners, and for basic research, on the biological, genetic and social bases of personality.”

For more information contact: Sam Gosling, 650-321-2052.