Chaz is a free spirit. Iris is a good girl looking for love. Dylan is a foodie who isn’t sure how he feels about kids. Luke likes long walks—really long walks. All of them are ready for a long-term relationship. In fact, they’d like to move in right away. All of them are dogs.
Taking a cue from dating websites, a number of programs have begun using personality tests to pair pets with owners. For example, PawsLikeMe, a website described by a co-founder as “eHarmony for people and pets,” gives humans a questionnaire to gauge their lifestyle and expectations, then returns dating-site-style bios of rescue dogs. (For Karisma, a Chihuahua–pug mix: “If you are looking for big things in little packages, then look no farther!”)
Human–animal matchmaking may sound fanciful, but it mirrors a renewed scientific interest in animal personality. Having moved beyond the fear of anthropomorphism associated with researchers like Jane Goodall (who was ridiculed for “inventing” personality traits for chimps in the 1950s and ’60s), scientists are actively exploring animal personality’s implications for everything from daily care to evolution. As John Shivik, the author of Mousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes, points out, a species’ survival depends on diversity, including of personality. “If you don’t have variation, you will go extinct,” he says, noting that traits that are advantageous in one situation may not be in another. Boldness, for example, might be beneficial when food is scarce and risk-taking essential, but less helpful at other times. In one study, scientists assessed how bold or shy captive foxes were, and then released them into the wild. After six months, only bold foxes had died, perhaps because they were more inclined to take risks that put them in harm’s way.
Much as psychologists do when studying humans, scientists can characterize consistent behavior in animals. To this end, researchers have taken questionnaires designed to measure human personality and refashioned them for animals (a person fills them out based on observations). One influential early review of animal personality by the psychologists Sam Gosling and Oliver John identified three personality factors in dogs analogous to three of the “Big Five” personality factors in people: extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (A fourth factor for dogs combined the remaining two: openness to experience and conscientiousness.) Meanwhile, Marieke Cassia Gartner, a psychologist at the Philadelphia Zoo, led research that identified three feline personality factors—dominance, impulsiveness, and neuroticism—among certain species, including house cats.
Some of the new research is shedding light on how an animal’s personality—like a human’s—affects its life course. When Gartner and her co-authors examined the relationship between personality and subjective well-being in leopards and lions, they found that neuroticism correlated negatively with happiness, just as in humans. A 1999 study found that cheetahs in captivity who were rated as more “tense-fearful” than others were less likely to breed.
The better that pet owners and zookeepers understand an individual animal, the better they can tailor care to it. One study, for example, notes that highly neurotic cats can benefit from extra hiding places, while relatively extroverted cats may need more toys and more playtime with other animals.
Still other research supports the idea of matching pet and owner personalities. In 2011, an Oklahoma State University researcher surveyed the traits and preferences of dogs and their owners, then asked the owners to report how satisfied they were with their pet. Some factors that foretold a happy match were unsurprising—a mutual love of running outside, say. Others were a little more unusual. One particularly strong predictor of bliss was a shared “likeliness of being destructive.” That’s right: Owners who agreed with the statement “When I am feeling anxious, I am likely to tear up something” and the statement “My dog tears up pillows and other items” were among the most likely to have happy human–dog marriages.
With dogs as with people, there’s someone for everyone.
This article appears in the April 2018 print edition with the headline “Which Kind of Dog Are You?”