Does Owner Personality Affect Dog Training Methods?

Intriguing findings from a study of personality, punishment, and dog behavior.

Posted Jun 27, 2018

Research shows that using aversive dog training methods–like positive punishment–are associated with reports of increased problem behaviors such as fear and aggression. And research also shows a link between the personality of a dog owner and some aspects of the dog’s behavior. Are these two findings linked?

In other words, are people with certain personality traits more likely to use particular dog training methods, and does that explain the link with the dog’s behavior? That’s the question investigated in a recent report by Dr. Nicholas Dodman et al (2018).

Wyatt Ryan/Unsplash
Source: Wyatt Ryan/Unsplash

For example, earlier research found that people with high scores for neuroticism were more likely to have dogs that were disobedient. Perhaps this is because of the training methods they choose?

The study involved 1,564 dog owners who completed an online survey that included measures of their personality, whether or not they are depressed, the dog training methods they use, and their dog’s behavior (using a questionnaire called the mini-CBARQ).

The results suggest the link between owner personality and dog behavior is not actually mediated by training methods. But they do show a link between depression in men and a tendency to use aversive methods.

The findings also show an association between the use of aversive training methods and dogs' aggression toward the owner and strangers, separation-related behaviors, persistent barking, chasing, and house-soiling (urinating and defecating) when alone. This is not surprising and ties in with the results of other studies of dog training methods.

Surprisingly, and unlike previous studies, the results did not show an association between the use of aversive training methods and fear and anxiety in dogs.

Among owners who had low scores for conscientiousness, there was a link between the use of aversive methods and the dog’s chasing behavior; and amongst men with depression, there was a link between the use of aversive methods and the dog defecating in the house.

The study also found a link between the owner’s personality and dog behavior. People who had lower scores for agreeableness, extraversion, emotional stability, and conscientiousness were more likely to have dogs with aggression towards the owner, fear of strangers, and urinating in the house when alone. (A lower score for emotional stability means higher neuroticism).

You are encouraged to read the paper (which is open access) for a full statement of the findings relating to owner personality, as there are many small effects.

The researchers say some of these findings make intuitive sense. One that interested me is the link between owners who rate themselves as less agreeable and dogs that are more likely to urinate indoors when left home alone. Less agreeable means more quarrelsome and critical. The researchers suggest dogs of less agreeable owners are more likely to be anxious and hence may urinate as a separation-related behavior. I wonder if these owners are more likely to tell their dog off for house-soiling mistakes, something which can make the dog fearful of urinating in front of the owner (e.g. on walks) and more likely to urinate in the house when the owner is not there. This would be an interesting topic for future research.

Another interesting suggestion in the paper relates to the finding that men with moderate depression are five times more likely to use aversive training methods than women who are not depressed. Their dogs are also more likely to be aggressive to other dogs and to soil the house (urinating and defecating) when left alone.

Other studies have also found men are more likely to use aversive training methods than women, but the link with moderate depression and dog behavior is surprising. It’s also hard to interpret. The scientists write,

“Recent studies suggest that men and women experience different symptoms of depression, and that men tend to report higher rates of anger attacks/aggression, substance abuse, and risk taking. Depressed men are therefore more likely to respond to their dogs’ behavior problems aggressively and punitively, and this suggests that such individuals may be less than ideal candidates for dog ownership or adoption.”

But although this study found some links between personality and training methods, they did not really account for much of the variance in dog behavior. It seems that if the owner’s personality affects dog behavior, it’s via some other means than the training methods they choose. This was a surprising finding, and more research is needed to investigate what’s happening.

Of course, correlational results do not show causation. The scientists suggest that since personality traits are stable over time, they are likely to be the cause of differences in dogs’ behavior, but that use of punishment may be the result (rather than the cause) of dog’s behavior problems. This is quite possible (but if so, punishment has not resolved the problem, at least by the time owners completed the questionnaire). I think it is also possible that use of punitive methods is related to lower levels of knowledge of dogs and dog training.

The scientists called their short questionnaire on dog training methods Attitudes to Training, but (as they say in the paper) it is actually a measure of how much people use aversive methods. For example, questions related to the use of choke/prong/shock collars, yelling at the dog, and alpha rolls. There are no questions on positive reinforcement. The questions on training methods were the only items that had not been validated in previous research.

Since other studies have found a link between the frequency of positive reinforcement and better dog behavior (e.g. Arhant et al 2010), it would be useful to include questions on positive reinforcement in future research. The question of whether owners’ use of positive reinforcement mediates the link between owner personality and dog behavior remains unanswered and would be an interesting question for future research.

Since the use of aversive methods is a welfare risk, research on ordinary people’s use of dog training methods and how to encourage people to use positive reinforcement is urgently needed (Ziv, 2017; Todd, 2018).

This is a fascinating paper that gives us plenty to think about, and some good ideas for future research. It is also another study that reminds us it is better not to use confrontational methods to train dogs.

References

Arhant, C., Bubbna-Lititz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog Applied Animal Behaviour Science (123), 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003

Dodman, N. H., Brown, D. C., & Serpell, J. A. (2018). Associations between owner personality and psychological status and the prevalence of canine behavior problems. PloS one, 13(2), e0192846. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0192846#abstract0

Todd, Z. (2018). Barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 25: 28-34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.03.004

Ziv, G. (2017). The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs—A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 19, 50-60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2017.02.004

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