Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Effects of Canine Personality and Joint Activities on the Dog-Owner Relationship

A new study in Denmark by Iben Meyer and Bjørn Forkman (University of Copenhagen) investigates the influence of owner characteristics and canine personality on the relationship between dogs and their owners.

An older woman and her dog paddling and playing on the beach
Photo: Martin Valigursky / Shutterstock

The study of 421 dog owners aged 18 to 75 used data from dog personality tests taken between six months and two-and-a-half years earlier, and a questionnaire of owners that included the Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale. The dogs were all pedigrees since these were the dogs that had taken the personality test for the Danish Kennel Club. Several breeds took part, including Golden Retrievers, Icelandic Sheepdogs, Danish Broholmers, Boxers and Rottweilers.

The canine personality test was the Dog Mentality Assessment, which gives dogs scores on five personality traits. The researchers analyzed the DMA sub-scales to give the five traits used in this study: chase proneness, non-social fear, playfulness, social fear and sociability.

However, only one of these traits (social fear) predicted scores on the dog-owner relationship scale. People whose dogs were fearful or aggressive in response to the tests with social stimuli gave higher ratings for the emotional closeness of their relationship with their dog than those whose dogs were not fearful/aggressive. The other traits were not related. 

The scientists suggest this could be because dogs that are fearful demand a lot of attention and support from their owners, and hence people perceive the relationship as closer. However, more research is needed to investigate this further.

The feeling of emotional closeness was related to the dog’s actual test results for social fear. The owners may or may not perceive the dog as fearful, since people sometimes are not very good at recognizing fear in dogs. The researchers also looked at the perception of fear. 15% of the owners said they thought their dog had a problem with fear. Owners who thought their dog was fearful reported a higher cost of the dog-owner relationship than those who did not. This may be because people find fear difficult to deal with. 

This result suggests that behavioural advice on how to manage and treat fear in dogs would help to improve the canine-human relationship for this group of owners. (If you have a fearful dog, there is plenty of useful advice on www.fearfuldogs.com).

If there were children in the home, the dog-owner relationship was rated as less close and had less dog-owner interaction. If the dog was kept for companionship only then the relationship was perceived as less close than if the dog took part in activities with the owner, such as agility, dog shows, hunting and herding.  In this study, only 10.5% of owners kept the dog for companionship only, while 57.5% took part in working dog training and 26.4% in dog shows.

The researchers were surprised to find that people who owned more than one dog reported higher levels of emotional closeness than those with only one dog. However, it could be that people only acquire a second (or third…) dog if they have a close relationship with the first dog. Those with a less close relationship may feel less inclined to get another dog.

One caveat is that the results only accounted for a relatively small proportion of the variance, and so there are likely other factors at play too. In addition, since all the dogs were pedigrees and almost all were acquired from a breeder, the results may not generalize to all dogs and their owners.

The results suggest several ways to improve the relationship between dogs and their owners. The researchers say, "In general, information about the positive consequences of engaging in different activities with the dog could benefit many dog-owner relationships, and more information to dog owners on how to handle fear-related behavior problems could benefit not only the fearful dogs but also the owners' perception of the relationship with their dog. Interestingly, dog personality does not seem to have a large impact on the owner's perception of the dog-owner relationship."

Are you and your dog emotionally close?

Reference
Meyer, I., & Forkman, B. (2014). Dog and owner characteristics affecting the dog–owner relationship Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.03.002

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