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Penn Vet Contributes to New Study Linking Owner Personality, Confrontational Training Methods to Dog's Behavior

By Sacha Adorno Published: Mar 2, 2018

[March 2, 2018; Philadelphia, PA]—Every year, approximately 3.3 million dogs enter U.S. shelters and adoption centers, and one in five of them are euthanized. Behavior problems are the most common reason people surrender a dog. New research by co-investigators Dr. James A. Serpell of Penn Vet and Dr. Nicholas Dodman of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies (CCBS) aims to help reduce behavior-related surrenders.

Published in PLOS ONE, the study—Associations Between Owner Personality and Psychological Status and the Prevalence of Canine Behavior Problems—shows an association between owners' use of aversive or coercive training techniques and dog behavior problems. Sponsored by CCBS, the survey of more than 1,560 dog owners in the U.S. and UK, is the largest of its kind to explore the influence that an owner’s personality, psychology, and choice of training can have on a dog’s behavior.

“Existing research shows that an owner’s personality can impact a dog’s behavior, but what has not been clear is how the owner contributes to these effects,” said Serpell, Marie A. Moore Professor of Ethics & Animal Welfare and Director of the Center for Interaction of Animals and Society at Penn Vet. “We designed our study to explore this question and whether the answer might be found in how people interact with their dogs, particularly through training. Although we found only weak evidence that owner personality is associated with punitive training, we did find some other surprising associations.”

An analysis of survey results saw a link between owners’ use of confrontational training methods and dog behavior problems, specifically stranger and owner-directed aggression, separation issues, chasing, persistent barking, and urination and defecation when left alone. The results also showed a connection between owners' low scores on agreeableness, emotional stability, extraversion, and conscientiousness—four of the ‘Big Five' personality dimensions, as measured with the Ten Item Personality Inventory (TIPI)—and their dogs' tendency to display higher rates of owner-directed aggression, stranger-directed fear, and/or urination when left alone.

Additionally, the research indicated a more than five-fold increase in the use of confrontational training techniques among men with moderate depression compared with women with no depression.

“There are, of course, many factors that contribute to a dog’s behavior—personality of the owner accounts for between ten and fifteen percent of the total picture, a small but statistically significant effect,” CCBS co-founder Dodman said, adding that additional variables can include genetics and other environmental circumstances. “With our research, we want to mitigate any factors that might lead to a dog’s surrender by making people aware of how personality tendencies can affect dogs and by encouraging owners or potential owners to be mindful of their own behaviors in regular day-to-day interactions with dogs. We also hope they will understand coercive or punitive training methods are regressive and cause more problems than they solve—it is always better to train with a carrot than with a stick.”  

For the survey, Serpell, Dodman, and Dr. Dorothy C. Brown, who provided statistical support to Penn Vet through Martingale Consulting LLC, used five instruments to evaluate owner personality, psychological status, and training methods and dog behavior or temperament. To assess owners, the research team employed TIPI; Beck Depression Inventory; Emotional Regulation Questionnaire; and Attitude to Training scale. For measuring canine temperament and behavior, they used an abbreviated version of the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), which Serpell developed in 2003 and is now the world’s most referenced behavioral assessment tool for dogs.

Serpell and Dodman’s study is the first for the CCBS, which holds as its mission to maintain the behavioral wellness of dogs and strengthen the human-companion animal bond to ensure that dogs remain in their owners’ home as trusted and valued companions for life.

The study was funded by The Simon Foundation, Inc.

About Penn Vet

Ranked among the top ten veterinary schools worldwide, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) is a global leader in veterinary education, research, and clinical care. Founded in 1884, Penn Vet is the first veterinary school developed in association with a medical school. The school is a proud member of the One Health initiative, linking human, animal, and environmental health.

Penn Vet serves a diverse population of animals at its two campuses, which include extensive diagnostic and research laboratories. Ryan Hospital in Philadelphia provides care for dogs, cats, and other domestic/companion animals, handling nearly 35,000 patient visits a year. New Bolton Center, Penn Vet’s large-animal hospital on nearly 700 acres in rural Kennett Square, PA, cares for horses and livestock/farm animals. The hospital handles nearly 4,900 patient visits a year, while the Field Service treats more than 38,000 patients at local farms. In addition, New Bolton Center’s campus includes a swine center, working dairy, and poultry unit that provide valuable research for the agriculture industry.

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