When a baby is born, many new moms and dads pore over parenting books, striving to strike the right balance of firmness and warmth to raise their children into kind, intelligent, strong individuals. While nature plays a critical role, research supports the idea that parenting style and parents’ personalities do influence a child’s behavior.
Recently, studies of “fur babies” have turned up similar associations between personality and behavior. In a survey of English cocker spaniels and their owners, James Serpell, the Marie A. Moore Professor of Ethics and Animal Welfare at the School of Veterinary Medicine, found that owners who had aggressive dogs were more likely to rate themselves as socially anxious and emotionally unstable than owners of spaniels who were not aggressive.
“That always intrigued me,” Serpell says. “The question for me is, how is this mediated? How is an owner’s personality affecting their dog?”
In a new report, published in the journal PLOS ONE, Serpell teamed with Nicholas Dodman of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies and Dorothy Cimino Brown, formerly of Penn Vet and now with Martingale Consulting, to investigate the “how.”
Surveying 1,564 dog owners, the researchers used a battery of online questionnaires to assess the owners’ personality, depression, emotional regulation, and training methods. The owners also provided information about their dogs’ behavior, completing a condensed version of Serpell’s C-BARQ test.
Analyzing the results, the team found small but significant connections between the use of confrontational, often physically forceful training methods, such as hitting or using a shock collar, and certain behavior problems. For example, owners that reported using more confrontational training methods were more likely to have dogs that exhibited aggression toward the owner or strangers, had separation problems, and barked persistently.
In addition, Serpell and colleagues identified connections between aspects of the owner’s personality and a dog’s behavior problems. Dogs with owners who had higher scores on emotional stability and agreeableness were less likely to urinate in the house when left alone, for instance.
But the strongest link the researchers found had to do with whether a male owner had depression. Their results indicated that male dog owners with signs of moderate depression were five times more likely to report using forceful training methods than women without depression.
“This was a really striking result,” Serpell says. “When we went back and researched the literature on depression in men and in women, we found that they tend to express depression in different ways; men have a tendency to become aggressive or short-fused, whereas women seem to internalize their depression more.”
The findings suggest that men with depression may respond more confrontationally when a dog’s behavior is less-than-ideal, though more research needs to be done to see whether the dogs’ behavior problems are the symptom or the cause of the more forceful approach to training seen in these men.
“There is a slightly worrisome implication for the promotion of the use of dogs for ex-servicemen with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Serpell says. “I think on the whole dogs can be incredibly beneficial but we do need to be alert for the possibility of owners lashing out against their dogs.”
Overall, the study didn’t draw a clear line between owner personality, use of certain training methods, and dogs’ behavior, and was limited by the self-reported nature of the surveys. But Serpell is hopeful that further research can illuminate these connections, perhaps offering guidance that dog owners could use to elicit better behavior in their pets, ensuring fewer dogs are given up due to behavior problems.