My late cockapoo, Connor, always reacted to my moods, voice, and facial expressions. Because I knew this, I played with it. Before our morning stroll, I’d look at him with an enormous grin and say, “We’re going for a walky-walk!” — and he’d hurtle himself off the couch and run full speed to the door. Other times, I put music on and danced around the room, and he’d kind of dance along with me, putting his front paws on my thighs to reclaim me. When I forgot myself around him and got angry at something, shouting or frowning or gritting my teeth, he became so unnerved that he’d run to my wife for comfort.
I regret the latter moments, especially since recent research shows that dogs are acutely aware of their owners’ moods. Just how aware? The answer is shocking.
Do dogs model human behavior?
Research shows that dogs reflect and may be seriously affected by their owners’ attitudes and actions. In a 2021 study from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, investigators found that dogs with behavior problems that were enrolled in an intervention program were profoundly affected by their owners’ personalities and their degree of attachment to their owners, with both factors playing a significant role in whether the dogs’ behavior improved or failed to improve over the course of the program.
“This study observed the effect of owner personality on dog behavior,” says animal behaviorist Stanley Coren, PhD, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia. “The bottom line is that dogs respond to the environment around them, and that is basically determined by the owner.”
What are the “Big 5” personality traits of dogs?
The researchers tested each dog using the C-BARQ (Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire), a well-established, standardized behavioral evaluation tool. In addition to measuring the level of dog-owner attachment, the researchers tested the owners for what psychologists call the “Big 5” personality traits, the most basic dimensions of personality. These are:
- extroversion — whether the person is outgoing and sociable versus solitary and introverted
- agreeableness — whether or not the individual is warm, cooperative, and considerate
- conscientiousness — whether or not the person is organized and reliable
- neuroticism or emotional instability — whether or not the individual is anxious and moody
- openness to experience — to what degree the individual is curious, imaginative, and intellectually flexible.
One of the key findings concerned the owner’s openness to experience, according to Penn Vet animal behaviorist James Serpell, PhD, the creator of the C-BARQ and a co-author of the study. “This personality trait is associated with people who are open to new ideas, not conservative, and those owners’ dogs showed significant improvements over time,” notes Dr. Serpell. “That makes sense, since if they’re going to a veterinary behaviorist who is telling them the possible source of their dogs’ problems, and giving them new ideas about how to handle those problems, people who are open to new ideas would respond positively and have a positive effect on the animal.”
“Really, the key dimension of openness is intelligence, with some creativity stuck in,” says Dr. Coren. “Intelligent people poke around and get info and have new experiences, and they listen to new ideas. They have the best chance of positively affecting their dog’s behavior.”
Can a dog parent be too conscientiousness?
For Dr. Serpell, the most surprising finding was that the dogs of owners scoring high in conscientiousness had less success in the treatment program. “You’d think that a conscientious owner would be really likely to comply with the treatment suggestions and do all the things required to manage their dog’s behavior appropriately, so you would see the biggest improvements,” says Dr. Serpell. “But instead, they show less improvement in stress and directed aggression over time and in some cases, their behavior got worse.”
One possible explanation is that extremely conscientious people may exhibit a kind of territoriality, wanting everything around them to be just so, and not wanting anyone to impinge on what their conscience tells them is right. They may therefore behave in certain ways with others that encourage the dog to show territorial aggression toward unfamiliar people.
“Conscientious people are often really organized, and they may set a rigid plan for behaviors,” says Dr. Coren. “Things have to go in a systematic way for them, and bringing a dog into it may disrupt their organized lifestyle. They can’t tolerate chaos, and they’re not willing to modify their preexisting plans.” The dog may sense all of this and feel negativity and a kind of rejection.
What is the best personality for a dog owner?
In addition to openness, the best owner traits for dogs appear to be agreeableness and extroversion, notes Dr. Serpell. “Generally speaking, it’s owners with an agreeable, sociable personality, who get along well with other people,” he says. “Their dogs tend to do well.”
Furthermore, extroverted owners are more likely to see decreases in their dogs’ fearfulness and touch sensitivity (being uncomfortable with petting, etc.) than introverted owners do. “Extroverts like noisy, people-filled environments, so their dogs sensitize to those environments,” and tend to become sociable and outgoing like their owners, says Dr. Coren.
How does a neurotic owner impact a dog?
Conversely, introverted and neurotic owners, those who are shy and retiring and somewhat anxious, have more problems with their dogs. “That may be due to circumstances beyond their control,” says Dr. Serpell. “If they have an empathic dog, one who is very attuned to them, the dog is going to pick up on their anxiety and perhaps respond to it in a bad way.” These owners should do their best to be as outgoing and calm as possible for their dog’s sake. “But of course, people with those particular personality types may find that very difficult,” says Dr. Serpell.
“We know that if kids grow up in a stressful environment, they are much less likely to form healthy attachments to other people in their lives,” Dr. Coren points out. “The same goes for dogs. Previous research has shown that owners who are high in neuroticism have dogs with stress-related problems.” Dr. Coren recalls a famous British dog trainer who would talk about how anxiety is “transmitted down the leash,” so to speak.
In fact, we know that people who suffer from high stress have higher levels of the major stress hormone cortisol, and a study in Scientific Reports found that owners with higher cortisol levels have dogs with higher cortisol levels, too.
An even more alarming finding emerged from the UPenn study. “It really had more to do with mental health than personality,” says Dr. Serpell. “We found that men with depression are five times more likely to use confrontational and coercive training methods with their dogs in response to behavior problems. This certainly suggests that if you’re a depressed man, getting a dog may not be the best thing for you or for the dog.”
Dr. Coren agrees. “Some research shows that people who are the most aggressive and antisocial have vicious dogs. And as one psychologist told me, ‘If I have to prescribe Prozac to a dog, somebody has already prescribed it to the owner.’” Depressives can be clingy and suffocating to their dogs, and at the same time, if depression is strong enough, they often may be very inward-focused, and inattentive to what goes on in the dog. “I think some people shouldn’t have dogs, in the same way that some people shouldn’t have kids,” he adds.
The Bottom Line on Personality Types and Dogs
Given all this research, it makes sense to look closely at yourself not just before you get a dog but also after you’ve gotten one. If you’re having problems with your dog, maybe it’s not her fault. “If you find yourself punishing your dog for relatively trivial misdemeanors, if you’re being abusive, it’s time to consider your own psychology and think, ‘This is not normal, I shouldn’t be behaving like this. Maybe I need therapy,’” says Dr. Serpell.
The golden key to dealing with dogs, says Dr. Coren, is the vast research showing the average dog basically has the cognitive abilities and emotional development of a two-and-a-half year-old child. “If the way you’re treating him is inappropriate for a two-and-a-half-year-old human, it’s inappropriate for dogs.”
“Generally, if you treat your dog the way a toddler with limited language should be treated, rewarding good behavior, ignoring bad behavior, and using punitive measures as little as possible, you’re going to wind up with a very good dog,” adds Coren. “If someone has the mental capacities and social skills to raise a toddler successfully, they have the wherewithal to raise a dog successfully. I think the vast majority of people have these skills.”
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Dog’s Mind.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, Woman’s World.
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