Competitive, warm and conservative: what exactly makes someone a dog person? | Dogs

My first word was “dog”, which my mother described as a curiosity, since the “d” and “g” sounds come from different parts of the mouth. Babies start with “mummy” or “daddy” precisely to avoid these tongue gymnastics. But it wasn’t a curiosity. It was because I wanted a dog. This was definitely nature rather than nurture and, in a house full of cat people, it went unnoticed. My parents started with a cat called Oedipus, and I decline to comment on whether or not that’s because they were/are wankers. When they got divorced and my mum kept custody of our cats, we had many more – Mitten, Mutley and Mutley’s offspring, plus step-cats Shearer and Le Tissier, in my father’s second family, where he sired yet more cat people.

Zoe Williams as a teenager with her dog Toby.
Zoe Williams with Toby: ‘If you’re a dog person you can’t pretend to be any other kind.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Zoe Williams

I got to the age of five, and still no dog. The other thing I was incredibly good at, apart from consonants, was finding currency notes on the ground, which my mother always made me give to charity, I think because she thought I was “finding” them in people’s pockets. I always gave the cash to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. One day, running unsupervised across the road to see my friend, who had a dog, I got run over. In the course of the three months I was in hospital, another wave of Mutley’s kittens were rehomed. I cut such a pathetic figure, lying in traction, pretending to care about kittens, saying “No? All gone [Strategic sniff]? Now can we have a dog?” We finally got Toby from Battersea, which should by then have named a wing or a dog scholarship after me since I’d sent them all of my income.

Woman stroking a dog on her lap
Research in the mid-80s first demonstrated the cortisol-reducing, heart rate-slowing effect of patting a familiar and friendly dog. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

When Toby died 18 years later, my mother was as distraught as she’s ever been – it’s possible, therefore, for a cat person to become, what, ambipetxdrous? Bipetsual? If you’re a dog person, though, you can’t pretend to be the other kind. It will not necessarily be obvious to you why cat people think the way they do.

“Dogs are partners in the crime of human evolution,” wrote the philosopher Donna Haraway in her book The Companion Species Manifesto, in which she argues for a relationship with dogs as a feminist act – but not, I think, that you have to be a feminist to be a dog person. “They are not here just to think with … They are here to live with … They are in the garden from the get-go, wily as Coyote.” A similar point is made from a zoological perspective by Jules Howard, when he writes in Wonderdog: “The more compassionate we have become in our explorations into the minds of dogs, the more intelligent they have shown us to be.” Dogs and humans are a co-evolution, which is as true in the long game – did we domesticate them 50,000 years ago in east Asia, or did they civilise us? – as it is in the short. You don’t bring your personality template clean to each dog you have for him or her to reflect back at you. It’s a relationship, dummy.

Nor can you discount the huge range of breed characteristics, unparalleled by any other species category; an alsatian person is going to be quite different to a whippet person. Nevertheless, since Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, published Why We Love the Dogs We Do, in 2000, there have been some personality universals in dog people, replicated by researchers time and again. Coren spoke to me remotely from Vancouver and is – these words are going to come up a lot – off-the-charts warm and personable.

Research into the physiological effects of dog ownership landed in the mid-80s, when Alan Beck and Aaron Katcher first demonstrated the cortisol-reducing, heart rate-slowing effect of patting a familiar and friendly dog. This spurred Coren’s first inquiry, in 1994, into dogs themselves in his book The Intelligence of Dogs, which generated a huge amount of correspondence – including “people saying, ‘I’ve had some smart dogs, but this didn’t work out in my life’. So that started me on the study of how the personalities of dogs interacted with the personalities of people.”

Jules Howard hugging his dog Oz in the woods
Author Jules Howard with his dog Oz. Photograph: Courtesy of Jules Howard

Trait studies are typically divided into the “Ocean” big five: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. But Coren, instead, used the interpersonal circumplex model , devised by his colleague Jerry Wiggins: extroversion, dominance, trust and warmth. It made sense practically; the Ocean evaluation is 48 questions minimum, whereas Coren wanted to get people while they were at dog shows or out walking, and the circumplex profile can be established in eight.

Coren expected dog people to be more extroverted, friendly and affiliative: “Dog people, they walk into the house, the first thing they do is say ‘where are you, Lassie? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.’ Cat people, they walk in, if they happen to trip over the cat, they said ‘hello’ to the cat. So those results I expected.” But he didn’t necessarily expect there to be a difference in terms of warmth: “Once a person’s sitting there with a cat on their lap, I thought that was adequate affection: but dog people seem to have a much stronger bond overall.”

This bond is rather unflinchingly measured in the amount people would be prepared to spend to save their dog’s life, and Dr Deven Carlson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma established the statistical value of a dog at $10,000 (approx £8,000) – what people would be prepared to pay for a hypothetical vaccine in the event of an epidemic. “The interesting thing,” Coren says, “is the people who have both dogs and cats act more like dog lovers. In a mixed household, their response, their protectiveness, for their dogs and their cats are pretty much the same. They’re willing to spend a hell of a lot more on saving the cat than in a cat-only household.”

In 2010, Sam Gosling and his team at Texas University did a classic Ocean study where the results pretty much replicated Coren’s findings: dog people were 13% more agreeable and 15% more extroverted, with an additional dimension: we were also 11% more conscientious. Cat people, meanwhile, were 12% more neurotic (neuroticism in psychological terms doesn’t describe anxiety, but sharp shifts in mood – most now describe this as a stability/instability scale), and 11 % more open, a trait with a lot of connotation in the regions of adventure, counter-culturalism, novelty and creativity.

A couple in the autumn sunshine holding their Corgi dog
Dog lovers unite … Photograph: Taiyou Nomachi/Getty Images

Dogs themselves can be scored on an Ocean scale. “We have data,” Coren says, “on over 1,000 dogs, and there is a similar dimension. There are some dogs that will go from being perfectly quiet and happy to growling and snapping, and that’s very similar to the human dimension of stability-instability [neuroticism].”

“In theory,” he says, “we can change each other, but how many marriages do you know that went on the rocks because ‘I knew he was moody when I first married him, but I thought I could change that’? You can’t fight genes. They don’t explain everything, but they load the dice. I think you are better off getting a dog that is likely to fit your personality than trying to modify whatever dog you’re sitting in front of to what you need.” Whatever the baseline traits of a dog person, there is a dog out there to suit even an outlier dog personality. The same could easily be true of cats, but it is unlikely they would submit to your questionnaire.

A teenage girl petting golden retriever in the sunshine, with her back to the viewer
Boundless … ‘Dog people are friendly and outgoing.’ Photograph: LSOphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

I’m wrestling against the conclusion, here, that dog people are just better. I’ve always loved the sight of a toddler, hinging forward in a pushchair saying, “dog, dog!”, as I think, “I know you, youngster. You’re part of my tribe.” I wouldn’t feel it legitimate, however, to turn the toddler’s (and my) preference for a dog, via a personality questionnaire system conceivably invented by a dog person, into a scientific finding that dog people, and also dogs, are simply nicer. Can Stanley Coren think of anything bad to say about dog people? “If a dog owner lives with a quiet, introverted sort of a person, they will drive them crazy. They will engage in conversation when none is wanted, when the individual just wants to be moody. Dog people are friendly, they’re outgoing. If you want to spend quiet time, a dog owner is not going to suit you.”

Ironically, even in this situation – in which it still sounds to me, by the way, like the not dog-person is at fault – getting a dog can help. “There was a study, done in a law journal rather than a psychology journal, which showed that couples who owned dogs were less likely to sue for divorce,” says Coren. “And the author concluded that if you come home, you’ve had a rotten day, all you want is a little TLC, but your partner has also had a rotten day and also needs a little TLC, that’s going to end in an argument. But if you also have Lassie right here, you don’t put any extra pressure on your spouse.”

Let’s take an intervention from a not-dog person. Dr Beatrice Alba, a lecturer in psychology at Deakin University in Australia, who has cats, conducted some research specifically into dominance and pet ownership. “The dog loves you, worships you, whereas the cat is like, ‘you worship me, you serve me’. Cats are not submissive, they’re trainable but only up to a point. The theory was, if you’re a person with more dominant characteristics you’re going to like a pet that complements your dominance by being submissive.”

A man in the distance with a dog in the foreground catching a frisbee in its mouth
‘If you want quiet time, a dog owner is not going to suit you.’ Photograph: Zave Smith/Getty Images/Image Source

Alba’s markers were social dominance; interpersonal dominance; competitiveness and narcissism. “Social dominance isn’t quite personality – it’s much more around attitudes and beliefs. If you believe that the world is hierarchical, that some groups should dominate others, that men should dominate women, that certain racial groups should dominate others, that’s a social dominance orientation and dog people were higher on that than cat people.” Interpersonal dominance, though, Alba describes as “your tendency to take the lead and be assertive in situations. This is where I expected to find a difference, and there was no difference [between cat and dog people].”

Competitiveness came out as Alba expected: “This is a straightforward correlation. You like to compete and you like to win, and with a dog you’ve already won. There’s something about cats that’s intolerable to those people. You don’t win with a cat, the cat wins every time.” The narcissism results, though, surprised her: “We thought if you’re the kind of person that sees yourself as naturally superior, you’d like to have a dog around. But we didn’t find that – nor did we find cat people were higher, we just found that there wasn’t a difference.”

A female couple embracing on the coach with their dog
‘A study in a law journal showed that couples who owned dogs were less likely to sue for divorce.’ Photograph: MoMo Productions/Getty Images (Posed by models)

Both social dominance and competitiveness map on to politics, suggesting dog owners are more likely to be conservative and cat owners more progressive, which dovetails with cat people scoring higher for open-mindedness. Or, as someone once wrote bracingly in the Telegraph, “cats are fickle citizens of nowhere, just like the average Remain voter.” Numerous US studies have shown a straight red state/blue state dog/cat split, immortalised in a Washington Post interactive map, which psychologists reverse-engineered to explain that dog lovers, being more security and safety-minded, were more likely to be Republicans. In fact, the real correlation is as it is in the UK, that progressive voting patterns are more likely to be found in more densely populated areas and conservative ones where there is more land and home ownership. These conditions between them are quite decisive as to what kind of pet you have room for. However, a predisposition to dog companionship has been shown, Coren says, “to make people a wee bit more gullible in regards to political figures, responding well to those who come across as being friendly and cooperative, perhaps paying a little more attention to personalities and less to detail.” If you’re prepared to surrender to the proposition – I know I am – that rightwing politics, especially in 2023, leans a lot harder on gullibility than the left ever has, then dog people would be naturally more likely to vote Conservative.

Zoe Williams with her dog Spot.
‘Dog people are just better’ … Zoe Williams with Spot. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

The interesting, or maybe confronting thing about considering the dog person personality is that, truthfully, I still think of it as just being human. I accept that cat people exist, but not in the way I accept, say, that introverts exist: I find introversion fascinating and mysterious. Objectively, there’s something admirable and maybe profound in having something better to do than show off and chat all the time. Whereas cat people, I think are kidding themselves. They’ve met dogs, right?

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