Pulp Fiction gangster Jules Winnfield is right. “A dog’s got personality, and personality goes a long way."

Cross-species animal behavior studies confirm Winnfield’s statement (although he’s wrong about pigs: pigs have personality, too). Humans aren’t the only ones with ‘personalities,’ that is, usual patterns of behavior or characteristics that are relatively stable over time and across situations. When referring to animals, researchers sometimes prefer terms like ‘behavioral types,’ ‘behavioral syndromes’ or ‘coping styles,’ but ‘personality’ gets at the same thing. Leave it to an enlightened gangster to keep things simple.

Something odd happens when you investigate personality in dogs. Instead of making personality assessments based on ‘usual’ patterns of behavior, people often make personality judgments about companion dogs based on the way dogs look. Banjo over there looks a certain way, so he will probably act a certain way. A recent study by Fratkin and Baker (2013) investigated whether dog coat color and ear shape affect personality attributions that people make towards dogs.

In the study, participants saw four dog pictures. As the researchers explain, “One picture depicted a black dog, one showed a yellow dog, one showed a dog with floppy ears, and one showed a dog with upright, pointy ears. The pictures of the black dog and the yellow dog were identical photographs; however, the coat color of the dog was manipulated so that one picture showed a black dog and one showed the same dog with a yellow coat color (see Figure 1). Similarly, the pictures of the floppy-eared and pointy-eared dogs were identical, other than the shape of the dog’s ears (see Figure 2).”

Participants looked at the pictures and rated the dog’s personality using the ‘Big Five” dimensions of personality — ‘Extraversion, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness’ (see definitions here).

Despite being images of the same dog—differing only by coat color and ear shape—dogs were rated differently. The floppy-eared dog was rated higher on "Agreeableness" and "Emotional Stability" than the exact same dog with pointy-ears (which was rated higher rating on "Extroversion"). The yellow dog received a higher rating on "Agreeableness", "Conscientiousness", and "Emotional Stability" than an identical dog with a black coat.

Speaking of “black coats”, I wonder if humans who wear black jackets are more likely to be perceived as “cool.” Again let’s consult Jules:

Jules: We're all gonna be like three little Fonzies here, and what's Fonzie like? [Pause, Yolanda is confused.]. Come on Yolanda! What's Fonzie like?!!

Yolanda: Cool?

Jules: What?

Yolanda: Cool?

Jules: Correct-a-mundo.

But back to dogs. Even when there’s no behavior to observe, people make personality attributions to dogs simply based on the way the dog looks. I’m left wondering how much we do this in the real world. For example, do people assume that all Labradors—or all Labrador-looking dogs— will be ‘Agreeable’? Or do people look at the individual dog’s behavior to assess that dog’s ‘Agreeableness’? Do people recognize that Labradors (and Labrador-looking dogs), like all dogs, come equipped with body parts and physiological underpinnings that could lead them to display aggressive behavior, and not only behaviors commonly associated with being ‘Agreeable’?

This dynamic could be relevant in shelters. Is ‘black dog syndrome’ a real thing? Are black dogs in shelters perceived differently than non-black dogs and adopted less frequently? See the end of the post for links to research on the scant support for ‘black dog syndrome’ — the belief that black dogs are harder to place from shelters than dogs of other coat colors.

Or maybe it plays out on the street where people see a dog of a particular body size or shape and put that dog in the category of ‘friendly and safe’ or ‘unfriendly and unsafe.’ Again, if people are making assessments based on physical appearance as opposed to behavior, they could be missing out on well, the dog.

I would have made a pretty lousy participant in the online Fratkin-Baker study had I been one of the 4,000 James Madison University students invited to participate. As you can see, I would be hard-pressed to make personality attributions simply based on appearance. Had there been videos of dogs, particularly videos showing a dog’s behavior in multiple contexts and over time, I assume I would be more comfortable making some personality attributions. I’d want to see how dogs responded to novel objects or sounds, as well as familiar and unfamiliar people. This info is much more informative than appearances.

On the other hand, prior to studying animal behavior and welfare, I would have made a pretty great study participant because, as much as I was interested in animals, I had not yet learned about the importance of looking at actual behavior. But perhaps that’s entirely the point. Left to our own devices, people often make personality attributions to dogs simply based on appearance.

Do you find yourself making personality judgments based on the way dogs look?


Images: Alex Eylar Pulp Fiction Lego; Figure 1 and Figure 2: Fratkin and Baker, 2013.


Fratkin J.L. (2013). The Role of Coat Color and Ear Shape on the Perception of Personality in Dogs, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People , 26 (1) 125-133. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175303713x13534238631632

Hecht, J. (2013). Dog’s Personalitites: Studies now suggest that personality in non-human animals can be measured and evaluated, just as in humans. The Bark

Gosling S.D. & Oliver P. John (2003). A Dog's Got Personality: A Cross-Species Comparative Approach to Personality Judgments in Dogs and Humans., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 (6) 1161-1169. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.85.6.1161

Is there such a thing as the 'Black Dog Syndrome'?

Hecht, J. Is There a Black Dog Syndrome? Do You Believe in Dog?

McConnell, P. The Black Dog Syndrome – Fact or Fiction?

Svoboda, H. Black Dog Syndrome: A Bad Rap? Do You Believe in Dog?

Weiss, E. Hmm… It Really Ain’t So Black and White! ASPCA Pro