This time around, I would like to hand over the writing to a guest blogger, a former student of mine, Lauren Robinson. Lauren has gone on to graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh, but we have continued to pursue a project that she began back here at the University of Washington. As she will explain, this project was to complete a study started some years before by my Master’s Degree student, Becky Skiver-Thompson. It’s done, and a paper has resulted. Here’s Lauren to tell you about it…
This is my black Labrador retriever Juneau; I realize it’s a bit strange to introduce my dog before I introduce myself but we’ll get to that. Juneau is a very clever and funny dog but she doesn’t really understand boundaries, such as why she shouldn’t be allowed on the kitchen table! It would be fair to describe Juneau as a dog with a lot of personality, but in fact all dogs have personality… it just depends on what kind. Are they lazy? Friendly? Excitable? These are all terms that we regularly use when we describe our dogs but when we scientifically study personality, we have to change our approach, and that’s where I come in as a scientist.
My name is Lauren, I’m one of Jim’s previous undergrad students and I’m currently working on my PhD at the University of Edinburgh (see the bottom of the blog for my contact info). My work is all about personality, previously in dogs and now in monkeys, because they’re awesome. For me, that line of research started with the project I’m going to tell to you about today.
Going back to Juneau, could I have predicted the deceptively sweet puppy I received would turn into the daringly clever dog I now own? Were her littermates just as clever? What about other retriever breeds? I honestly don’t know but those are the questions that Jim, our coauthor Rebekah Skiver Thompson, and myself explored in our recent publication (https://t.co/zT3RZTRZlW).
One of the things that may come up when you start to look into the animal personality literature is that there’s a debate over the use of the terms ‘temperament’ versus ‘personality’ and if I’m honest, it’s not an overly exciting debate. I use the terms interchangeably as to me they both mean the individual differences in behavior and/or emotional states across the lifespan of an animal. Most of the time I use the term personality because it’s the more commonly used term and I feel like most people have a better idea of what personality is.
There are multiple ways to assess temperament/personality and in our study we used what are known as temperament tests. These tests are when the researcher does something with the animal and scores their resulting behavior. For example, in our study we have eight tests used with puppies across seven breeds including Australian cattle dogs, golden retrievers, Bernese mountain dogs, and corgis (check out the paper for the full list!). These tests including rolling the puppy on its back, throwing a ball to the puppy, and playing with a tug rope, among others. We then scored the puppy’s behavior in response. For example, the puppy may fetch the ball, leave it alone, or even walk away. We did this for all of our puppies and then looked for similarities between them.
Here’s the gist of what we found: You can predict which American Kennel Club (AKC) breed group the puppy belonged to, simply from the puppies’ temperament scores. This means that dogs in the same AKC group, such as herding and sporting, tend to have similar personalities.
The next finding was that you can predict the breed of the dog with the temperament tests. So puppies of the same breed act similar, which makes sense. When you’re looking for a breed, you tend to think of breeds being similar. Golden retrievers love everyone, Aussies (the dog, not the people, though it may also apply) tend to be very intelligent and quick learners. This is a good thing then, when you pick a breed with the personality type in mind, you’re probably going to get something similar to what you’re looking for. However, you have to be careful because we did find that litters, although similar, have different personalities within them.
So now that we knew about the puppies, the next thing we did was to patiently wait six years and then contact the owners. Just kidding, this is where I actually took on the project as an undergrad. All that great puppy data was there and Jim decided he wanted to find out if those temperament scores could predict how the puppies, now six-year-old dogs, acted as adults. We contacted the owners and we got people to fill out an online questionnaire based on our original measures. What did we find? Puppy temperament scores are not very useful for predicting adult temperament. We did find a couple of the tests correlated with some the adult scores but none of the puppy tests correlated with their direct adult counterpart. By this I mean that if a puppy plays with a ball, it doesn’t mean they will act that way as an adult.
So what’s going on? Temperament tests are very reliable when they’re used with working dogs so why didn’t it work with companion dogs? Well, we’re not sure but we think this has to do with the age of testing. We tested puppies at seven weeks and working dogs are usually tested at six months, or even 2 years old. This makes the tests more reliable because the dogs aren’t changing as much. Anyone who has ever had a puppy, or child, knows how quickly they change in those six months so maybe that’s the problem. It may also be that dogs are very adaptable to their environment making it hard to predict their personality at a young age.
So what does this mean for you when picking your next dog? Pick your breed based on what you think will be the general temperament and be open to some deviation within your own puppy. Or better yet, if you have to get a breed, get an adult dog, perhaps from a breed-specific rescue! You’ll know the dog’s personality, you rescue a dog, and it’s the cheaper option. While I wouldn’t trade my too-clever dog Juneau for anything, it wouldn’t have hurt to have known what trouble I was getting myself into!
Anyone interested in contacting me or following my work can check out the below:
Lauren M Robinson
University of Edinburgh
University website: http://www.ppls.ed.ac.uk/people/lauren-robinson
APA citation for our paper:
Robinson, L. M., Skiver Thompson, R., & Ha, J. C. (2016). Puppy Temperament Assessments Predict Breed and American Kennel Club Group but Not Adult Temperament. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-14.