What’s Behind Your Dog’s Personality? Trait Theory, Genetic Components, and Environment

We love our dogs and their unique personalities. Some of us may have descriptive adjectives ready to go when asked about our dogs’ mannerisms or behaviors. In the past, scientists have been dubious about attributing personalities to non-human animals and instead call personality “behavior-specific differences” or differences in behavior. However, fear not, as research has dissipated the scientific community’s reluctance to attribute a personality to a dog! 

Scientists are developing methods to evaluate canine personality traits similar to human trait evaluation methods. Further, the great nature vs. nurture debate continues with our canine companions as research to identify the genetic component of personality in dogs is ongoing. 

What is Personality 

Personality describes and accounts for consistent patterns of feeling, thinking, and behavior in individuals. Personality is generally stable over time and in situations. Initially, there was pushback about using the term “personality” to describe non-human animals, as they were wary about anthropomorphizing dogs. However, much of this pushback has dissipated. Studies show personality in non-human animals can be measured and evaluated, just as in humans. 

There are competing theories for evaluating personality in human psychology, such as Freud’s psychodynamic theory or behavioral and social-cognitive theories. One of the most accepted is trait theory, which we can apply both to humans and dogs. 

Trait Theory of Personality 

Human Personality 

Trait Theory is perhaps the most widely accepted of the personality theories. “Traits” are single words believed by experts to describe individual differences. In humans, factor analysis of the results of a large survey revealed five underlying personality dimensions called the Big Five personality traits: 

  1. Extraversion
  2. Agreeableness 
  3. Conscientiousness
  4. Emotional Stability
  5. Openness to Experience 

Canine Personality

The trait theory of personality applies to dogs; however, dogs are ever-so-less adept at filling out personality surveys. So, humans complete the questionnaires on the dog’s behalf. While the questionnaires do not rule out appearance-driven assumptions about personality, biases can be kept at a minimum with a large sample size. The Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ) is a widely used assessment of dog behavioral characteristics. Scientists used survey response and factor analysis to develop five underlying personality dimensions in dogs: 

  1. Sociability 
  2. Playfulness
  3. Chase-Proneness
  4. Aggressiveness 
  5. Curiosity/Fearfulness 

It’s not easy to summarize either human or canine personality into five buckets, and there is still much research to be done, especially with dogs. Now that you know the canine trait theory personality dimensions, you may wonder, how does my dog develop their personality? 

Genetic Components of Canine Personality 

You can derive as much information about your dog’s personality from their breed as you can from a dating profile. You get a good idea of how your dog may look, and you can glean ideas about their personality, but it is not necessarily the whole story. 

Humans and canines alike have genetic predispositions towards certain traits. However, biological control is “polygenic,” meaning that multiple genes, pathways, and interactions align to produce genetic outcomes that environmental factors can influence. 

After the canine genome was sequenced in 2005, scientists thought they would be able to pin down the genes that gave every breed its “hallmark” personality. Instead, they found much genetic variation within breeds. The team of scientists located 131 DNA segments that may help shape 14 key personality traits, and these DNA regions explain about 15% of a dog breed’s personality. In other words, 15% of the genes which are theorized to influence behavioral traits common within a breed. On average, this means that 85% of the traits which influence behavior are not breed-specific. 

Breed-based stereotyping can be harmful as certain dogs may be left in kennels or treated differently based on preconceived behavioral notions. Further, our treatment of dogs influences their behavior, and they are likely to enact the personality we project onto them. People who are knowledgeable about dogs realize that behavior is not just influenced by genetics. Instead, it is influenced by environmental factors such as the socialization of puppies, training, and humans having a better understanding of the consequences of abuse and neglect. 


In the great nature vs. nurture debate, the only clear winner is both sides. Like humans, a dog’s personality is the result of the interplay of genes and the environment. Here are some environmental factors which influence your puppy’s personality. 

  1. Experiences in the Litter – A puppy learns a lot from its littermates and mother, thus substationating the standard advice to get a puppy only after it has reached eight weeks. 
  2. The Socialization Window – puppies undergo a critical phase between four weeks and four months where they learn much about the world around them. Exposing a puppy to many people, noises, pets, and places will help the puppy adapt and not become overly reactive to new people or sounds. 
  3. Health – Health plays a significant role in behavior and personality. This is especially true for aging dogs who may experience discomfort or changing abilities. 
  4. Human-Dog Relationships – Your relationship with your dog is key. Dogs abused or, on the other hand, spoiled may undergo behavioral changes. If your dog has good experiences, they will display confidence; otherwise, they may be fearful and defensive. Anecdotally, you may perceive a similarity between dogs and their humans, and this is not your imagination!

Okay, So Why Does My Dog Act Like Me? 

The idea that dogs act like their owners has merit: there is research that humans both choose and influence their dog’s behavior to match their own. 

While people often choose a pup that matches their physical characteristics, they also choose to match their personality. Further – dogs are empathetic: they pick up what we put down. Dog’s can sense when we are tense, anxious, happy, and excited; over time, this sensitivity means that dogs often take on elements of our personalities. 

In a study that recruited 132 dogs and their owners, each human filled out the Big Five Inventory to assess their levels of the aforementioned personality dimensions. Upon analyzing the human and dog answers to their respective questions, it was determined that there is an association between traits in the dyad. The study found that a human was more likely to influence a dog’s personality than vise-versa. This is important to consider as you train your dog or try to ease their nerves: the best way to have a calm, happy pet is to lead by example.

The ElleVet Team
[email protected]