Every dog has a unique personality, which anyone with more than one dog will already know. Some canine personality traits are linked to certain breeds. For example, some breeds are labeled as being aggressive, others as prolific barkers, and others as loyal and friendly pets. Some dogs are labeled as being ‘bad dogs’ due to certain undesirable traits, and the tendency is to blame the breed or the individual dog. Another factor that is considered is if the dog has had training. However, if the dog has had training and is still badly behaved, it is often blamed for its behavior. Now, animal behaviorists are looking at canine behavior from a different angle, says NBC News. They researched whether the owner’s personality has any impact on the effectiveness of training and how their dogs behave following the training process. The researchers believe that it is possible to improve many problem behaviors and that the bond between the dog and its owner can also influence behavior and training.
The Aim of the Research
Lauren Powell is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. According to Powell, very little is known about how the characteristics of the owner influence the success of the training. To better understand how to correct problematic canine behavior, a team of researchers at PennVet devised a study to look at the impact of owner behavior during a six-month veterinary behavioral program. For the study, the researchers recruited 131 pairs of dogs and owners.
The Canine and Human Questionnaires
The owners participating in the study were asked to complete two questionnaires at the beginning of the assessment. First, they completed a human personality assessment questionnaire. Then, they filled in a dog behavior questionnaire, which was repeated at three months into the study, and again at the six-month mark. Included in the dog behavior questionnaire were questions that asked dog owners to rate their pets according to a variety of factors, such as:
- Aggression towards the owner or strangers
- Aggression directed at other dogs
- Excitability and energy level
- Fear and separation anxiety
- On the human personality assessment questionnaire, participants were asked questions relating to categories such as:
- Introversion and extroversion
- Willingness to try new experiences
The Findings of the Research
Some of the results of the research were expected, while other results surprised the team. It was expected that factors such as sex, size, and age would affect the behavioral therapy’s success. The research showed that larger dog breeds showed more improvement than smaller dogs regarding aggression problems. Powell suggests that this is because owners of larger dogs may have a greater focus on eliminating their dog’s aggression as larger dogs may pose a great threat to safety. One of the results that surprised the team was that extroverted dog owners had a greater positive impact on dogs that demonstrated fear than introverted owners. One explanation given for this by Powell is that introverted owners may potentially find it harder to give their dog space as part of a behavioral treatment program.
Why is Dealing with Problem Behavior So Important?
For some people, a dog having some minor behavior problems is not a big issue. However, some problem behaviors are a bigger problem, such as aggression or excessive barking. In some cases, a dog owner will get rid of a dog rather than attempt to resolve the issue. Animal shelters are full of unwanted dogs that their owners abandoned due to the dog’s behavior. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) says that approximately 3.3 million dogs go to animal shelters in the United States every year. Of these, an estimated 670,000 dogs are euthanized, which is a shocking figure. If canine behavior was tackled through training, then it is likely that these figures would drop significantly.
How to Reduce the Risk of Problem Behaviors
Dr. Katherine Houpt is an emeritus professor of animal behavior medicine based at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York. Houpt says that starting training at an early age is essential. By doing so, you can work on stopping your dog from displaying behaviors that are mild annoyances as soon as possible, and this will prevent them from becoming major issues later. Something that dog owners often do not realize is that dogs are learning and reinforcing behaviors daily. One example is dogs that always bark when they see the neighbors or when strangers walk past the house. When a dog barks at people, and this is followed by the person going away, even when they are going anyway, the dog begins to associate their barking with making someone or something going away. Therefore, the dog will begin to bark every time they want something to go away, and they will gradually become more confident in their ability to achieve this.
There are also situations where a dog owner may subconsciously reinforce a dog’s bad behavior because they unknowingly see some aspects of the behavior as being desirable. Houpt explains that when a dog owner sees some positives in the behavior, even though they describe the dog’s behavior as bad, they will unwittingly encourage the dog to continue behaving in this way. Houpt gives the example of dogs showing aggressive behavior to strangers on the opposite side of the road while out for their walks. She describes watching videos of incidents with a dog’s owner smiling when the dog displays aggressive behavior. According to Houpt, they may smile as they regard their dog’s behavior as giving them some protection, even if the dog owner acknowledges that the dog’s behavior is undesirable. Responding positively to the dog’s behavior will reinforce to the dog that its behavior is acceptable. This scenario is another example of how humans’ behavior can impact the training and behavior of a dog.