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Why Some Bad Dog Behaviors Are Hard to Fix

An owner's personality can affect the success of canine behavior modification.

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There are a flock of behavioral issues in dogs that often cause their owners to seek professional help. The most common problems are aggression toward people or dogs, chasing cars or animals, general fearfulness, separation anxiety, poor trainability, excessive barking, and fear of being touched. Fortunately, in the majority of cases, professional remediation works and the behaviors which are driving their owners to distraction do diminish. In some cases, the improvement is dramatic, while, unfortunately, in others there is little or no progress. A team of researchers led by Lauren Powell of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine decided to see which factors predicted the success or failure of using behavior modification to get rid of bad canine behaviors.

The study enlisted 131 dogs and their owners, who had been referred to the Behavior Medicine Service of the Ryan Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. The dogs were enrolled in veterinarian-monitored intervention which extended over a six-month period. The process began with a veterinary consultation involving a physical examination, direct behavior observation, and behavioral diagnosis. The dog's behavior during the first 30 minutes of each consultation was also video recorded. The owners were provided with a personalized treatment plan which could include behavioral modification techniques, changes in the dog's living environment, safety rules, and in some cases psychopharmacological medications. The owners were then followed up by telephone approximately 10 days, 3 months, 6 months, and 9 months after the consultation.

The behavior of the dogs was measured using the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (usually abbreviated as the C-BARQ). It is a long questionnaire, involving 100 items, and it has been shown to be a valid and reliable way of measuring several aspects of canine aggression, fear and anxiety, attachment, excitability, trainability, and other factors. It is based upon owners directly reporting the occurrence or non-occurrence of specific behaviors in their dogs in a structured way. In addition, some measures were taken of the owner's personality. The first was a measure of the owner's attachment to the dog. Also, the owner was given a test to measure what psychologists call the "Big Five," which are the most basic dimensions of personality: extroversion (whether the person is outgoing and sociable versus solitary and introverted); agreeableness (if the individual is warm, cooperative and considerate); conscientiousness (whether the person is organized and reliable); neuroticism or emotional stability (if the individual is anxious and moody); and openness to experience (to what degree the individual is curious, imaginative, and intellectually flexible).

The good news is that the dogs with the worst behavioral symptoms, including those who were particularly rebellious, aggressive, and excitable, showed the most dramatic improvements overall. Of course, this may be because these were the dogs that had the most much to gain from the training.

Age is definitely an important factor. The study indicates that younger dogs are more likely to benefit from behavioral intervention. Dogs over 3 years of age showed significantly less improvement for stranger-directed aggression, non-social fears (including loud noises and unfamiliar objects and strange situations), attention-seeking behavior, excitability, and trainability. The authors explain that "problem behaviors are likely to be more established in older dogs, and some problem behaviors are known to increase with age."

Sex was an important factor for certain problems. Female dogs were more than 4 times more likely to show improvements in reducing their excitability and attention-seeking behaviors than were male dogs.

What is interesting is that a number of factors associated with the dog owner's personality had major influences on the success of the behavioral intervention. Perhaps the most influential had to do with the level of the owner's attachment to their pet. Owners with higher levels of attachment were more likely to have dogs who managed to decrease their touch sensitivity, separation anxiety, and stranger-directed aggression. They also found a progressive increase in trainability. The authors note, "To implement behavior modification techniques, dogs must be attentive, responsive to commands and able to ignore distracting stimuli. As such, trainability is vital for the success of clinical intervention."

When it comes to the owner's basic personality factors, extroverted dog owners were more likely to see decreases in fearfulness and touch sensitivity than were their introverted counterparts. Extroverts tend to be enthusiastic and seek out high levels of social interaction while introverted owners may find it more difficult to leave their dog or give it space that may be required as part of the dog's treatment.

Openness to experience also made a difference, since people who were high on this dimension tended to have dogs that became gradually less fearful toward other dogs. This may have to do with the fact that individuals high on this personality dimension are more flexible and may be more likely to accept new methods. The authors suggest, "Dog owners who scored lower in openness may have relied on historic training methods based on forceful methods and positive punishment, which have been associated with increased fear."

One of the results that initially surprised me was the fact that dog owners who were high on conscientiousness were significantly less likely to be successful at reducing stranger-directed aggression in their dogs. Generally speaking, individuals who are highly conscientious are better organized and more diligent in their behaviors. Apparently, these same characteristics may sometimes come with a form of emotional territoriality where individuals high on this personality dimension don't want anybody interfering with their orderly routines, perhaps even routines involving their dog. It may be that such negative feelings may be telegraphed to the dog, raising its suspicion of strangers and thus counteracting the treatment regime.

One thing this new study definitely tells us is that the success or failure of any behavioral treatment regime for dogs does not just rely upon the physical and mental status of the dog — although those are quite important. Since the dog owner must ultimately help to implement any behavior modifications, that human's personality plays an important role in treatment outcomes as well. Thus a dog behavior specialist should be most confident of a successful behavioral intervention when a client who is extroverted and open to experience, and is strongly attached to his young female dog, arrives at the office.

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Powell L, Stefanovski D, Siracusa C and Serpell J (2021). Owner Personality, Owner-Dog Attachment, and Canine Demographics Influence Treatment Outcomes in Canine Behavioral Medicine Cases. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. 7:630931. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2020.630931