The parallels between dogs and their owners tend to the physical — studies show overweight owners tend to have overweight dogs, while other research shows complete strangers can match dogs to owners, suggesting there must be some truth to the adage that dogs resemble their humans.
Now, a new study suggests the similarities go beyond the physical. Owners’ personality may play into your best friend’s behavior, too — specifically, their ability to unlearn bad behaviors, including separation anxiety, aggression, and nervousness.
Why it matters — The findings have significant implications for pet owners who are having trouble training their dogs — the answer to your problems may be more to do with your own psychology and behavior than your pooch’s. Essentially, if your dog is naturally fearful and you're an introvert, for example, you may have a harder time training them out of their separation anxiety. And while you might be at home right now in the midst of the pandemic, as the world starts to open back up, myriad pandemic pups may start to experience these kinds of problematic behaviors for the first time.
Beyond giving owners a clearer idea of what’s driving their dog’s behavior, the findings also give vets a better understanding of the relationship between a dog and their human. Ultimately, the findings enable vets to give more targeted advice to pet parents in the future, making positive behavioral changes more attainable.
How they did it — The study was published Friday in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science. For this paper, a team at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine analyzed 131 dogs and their people pairs at veterinarian-led behavioral classes over a six-month period.
At the beginning, middle, and end of the trial, the human half of the duo filled out questionnaires about themselves and their four-legged buddies, answering questions about their own personality, as well as how often their pups showed signs of aggressiveness or separation anxiety, and how easily excitable they were.
What they discovered — Encouragingly, the dogs with the worst manners starting out — including those which were particularly ornery or hyperactive — showed the most dramatic degree of improvement over the course of the trial.
What was surprising to the scientists, however, was that owners who self-identified as diligent and dedicated in their efforts to better their pets’ conduct did not notice significant refinement of their dogs poor habits. Their dogs largely still operated at the same level of disobedience at graduation as they had on day one.
Lauren Powell is the lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. She says the result came as a surprise.
“This was a surprising result, which was in some ways at odds with the findings from a previous study,”Powell says in a statement accompanying the research.
Powell is referring to a 2018 paper, published in PLOS One, which examined the connection between owner personality and psychological status with the prevalence of canine behavior problems. That study found a relationship between conscientious owners and owner-directed and stranger-directed fear behaviors in dogs — the more conscientious the owner, the less of these behaviors were apparent in the dogs.
Digging into the details — There are a couple factors to explain why the results clash with prior investigations. One possibility is the more persistent pet parents may have reached the limits of their dog’s ability to correct ingrained actions. Basically, you’ve tried everything.
Another explanation, Powell says, is also to do with the personality of the owners.
“Conscientious owners may be more aware of their dog’s behavior and report changes in a more accurate manner, whereas less conscientious owners may only report major changes, like the absence of bites,” she says.
What’s next — These results speak to a sad truth: Every year, an estimated 3.3 million dogs end up in animal shelters in the United States. Of these, roughly 670,000 are euthanized, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Vets who are able to help owners successfully modify a pet’s behavioral issues may be able to keep more dogs in homes.
“Veterinarians that are able to pick out situations where dogs may be at risk for low improvement can also be more proactive during the follow-up, reaching out to the clients more frequently and empathetically,” Powell says.
In the case of the fearful dog, for example, a vet can explain what care the pet needs to an introverted owner in a way that they understand: the dog needs to choose when to interact or be left alone if it’s going to be receptive to modifying behavioral problems — just like their human.
Helping humans reach desirable outcomes with their pets, ranging from being chill around small children to not being destructive when left home alone, will aid in lowering the number of surrendered pets each year.
The Inverse analysis — If your dog is exhibiting objectionable behaviors, it doesn’t mean they are inherently naughty. There are a number of factors that contribute to your dog’s ability to improve their manners, including their age, sex, size, their connection to their people, and their peoples’ personalities.
Ultimately, if you’re having trouble navigating behavioral training for your pet, it’s worth seeking guidance from your vet. They may be able to help craft training that speaks specifically to you and your dog.