Is Bad Behavior in Dogs Linked to Owner Personality?

March 6, 2018
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

Can a dog owner’s personality and mental health status be linked to behavior problems in his or her pet?

In the United States, behavior problems are the top reason why dogs get returned to animal shelters. Unfortunately, returning dogs to shelters increases their risk of premature death, highlighting the need to better understand the root causes of canine behavior problems.

Previous studies have investigated associations between owner personality and canine behavior. One study reported that an owner’s high score on the “neuroticism” scale on a personality test was associated with such canine behavior problems as destructiveness and aggression.

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What mediates this association remains unknown. Given that owner personality can influence human-dog interactions, and that aversive training methods are reportedly associated with canine behavior problems, a research team recently explored the hypothesis that dog training methods mediate the relationship between owner personality and psychological status and canine behavior. The team’s findings were reported in PLoS One.

The investigators recruited dog owners who completed the following online questionnaires:

  • Personality Inventory (TIPI): measures “big five” human personality dimensions (agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, extraversion, openness to experience)
  • Beck Depression Inventory
  • Emotional Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ): measures cognitive adjustment of emotional reactions versus emotional suppression
  • Attitude to Training (ATT): measures tendency to use forceful dog training methods
  • Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ): measures canine temperament/behavior

Statistical analyses determined whether there were associations between owner personality and canine behavior.

Survey Results

Of the 1564 dog owners who completed the questionnaires, 91% were women, 23% were first-time dog owners, and 31% had depression.

ATT scores correlated positively but only modestly with the increased prevalence and severity of many canine behaviors (C-BARQ scores), including owner-directed aggression, persistent barking, and separation problems. Interestingly, ATT scores were not associated with such fear/anxiety-related problems dog-directed fear. The researchers noted that these inconsistent findings highlight the difficulty in determining the cause of canine behavior problems—whether the behavior is caused by the forceful training methods or the other way around.

ATT scores were higher in men with moderate depression than in women without depression. Notably, the use of aversive training methods was 5 times more likely in moderately depressed men than in women without depression. Previous reports of higher rates of aggression and anger attacks in men with depression support the current study’s finding that depressed men are more likely to use forceful dog training methods.

TIPI scores were also modestly associated with canine behavior. For example, lower extraversion, emotional stability, and conscientiousness scores correlated with higher rates of stranger-directed fear, possibly because the owners were, respectively, less outgoing, overly protective, or careless, leading to fewer socialization opportunities for the dogs. Those 3 personality traits were also associated with urination when left alone and owner-directed aggression.

Surprisingly, the researchers noted, no associations were identified between ERQ scores and ATT scores or canine behavior.

Bringing It Together

The modest strength of associations identified in the study did not provide enough evidence to support the investigators’ original hypothesis. Further research will be needed to determine which mechanisms influence the relationship between owner personality and canine behavior problems, the researchers noted.

Importantly, the independent contributions of human and dog psychology to the human-dog relationship “have implications for the behavior and welfare of both companion and working dogs, and the impact of dogs on the health and wellbeing of their owners,” the researchers concluded.

Dr. Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.