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Being a Super-Friendly Dog Has One Potential Drawback, Study Finds

31 JANUARY 2022

The friendliness of your dog could have serious implications for its social standing with other canines, new research suggests.

In a questionnaire designed to measure the personality traits of companion dogs and compare them against their social ranking with other canines in multi-dog families, researchers found that dogs who scored highly for agreeableness and affection were less likely to have a dominant status in the group hierarchy.

 

By contrast, dogs who scored highly on other measures in the Canine Big Five personality traits – specifically extraversion, openness, and conscientiousness – were more likely to be the dominant animals in their social group. The final trait, neuroticism, appeared to show no link with dominance in the dog hierarchy.

"Our aim was to find what traits might be related to the formation of these hierarchies and the rank of the individuals," explains a team led by biologist Kata Vékony, the first author of the study, from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary.

The findings, based on questionnaire responses from 615 dog owners from around the world (each of whom owned at least two companion dogs), suggest that a dog's age is also related to its hierarchical social status – with older dogs generally scoring higher dominance scores.

According to the researchers, that result – which has previously been shown in other studies of dog hierarchies too – can at least partially be explained by the fact that the older dogs in this analysis tended to be less agreeable and affectionate.

 

In other words: older dogs were generally more dominant but at the same time weren't highly agreeable, whereas highly agreeable (and generally younger) dogs weren't likely to be the dominant dog in their families.

In the wild, where animals have to compete amongst one another for limited resources, achieving dominance over other animals in a social group can have important implications for survival.

In the more comfortable, catered-to existence of companion dogs, the same sorts of social ranking system among animals still applies, but the consequences of a low ranking aren't quite so severe.

"Once stabilized, hierarchy can help the access to these resources – in favor of the dominant individuals – without serious conflict or harm," the researchers write in the paper.

"In groups of co-habiting companion dogs however, competition for these resources is less prevalent as they are readily provided and distributed by the owner."

But even though competition among animals in domestic settings is a less fraught affair, dominance hierarchies among domestic animals are something that animal researchers have observed for many years.

What's less understood is how these social rankings are constructed in the absence of competition for resources that directly affect survival, but researchers know enough to know that dogs' personality traits are part of the puzzle.

 

With that in mind, the new study gives us some fresh insights about which particular personality traits are most strongly linked with social dominance in the world of co-habiting dogs.

But as the researchers point out, a lot more work is needed to tease these relationships out further – let alone to explain why friendly dogs rank so low on the pecking order.

"Several different experiences, many of which are not related to competitive situations are involved in the development of personality traits of dogs," explains ethologist Péter Pongrácz, the principal investigator of the study.

"[The personalities] of family dogs have a complex relationship with the group hierarchy and the individual dogs' rank within. Further research is needed to discover what causal relationships may exist between personality traits and rank."

The findings are reported in Applied Animal Behaviour Science.