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animal instincts

Putting On the Dog

How your personality affects your pooch

Several years ago, a woman brought her lhasa apso to me because it kept biting her. Part of the rehabilitation program for such dogs is to have them earn valued resources by obeying a command, so I asked her what she was feeding it. It turned out that the little land shark was dining on filet mignon and would bite her as she was painstakingly sautéing the meat, presumably because it became impatient. I advised that from now on the dog should be fed nothing but dog food and she should tell it to sit before putting the food down.

Her reaction told me that she was among the millions of well-intentioned dog owners whose personalities interfere with their ability to control their pets. Horrified, she said filet mignon was the only food her dog liked, and she thought making it work for food was unfair.

I have repeatedly encountered this mawkish mentality in the owners of dogs displaying owner-directed aggression. If I ask them to move the dog’s bed to the other side of the room, they worry that it might catch a cold because of a draft. Or if I tell them that their dog may have to skip a meal if it does not do as it is told, they become concerned lest it feel hungry. Dogs with a pushy personality often take advantage of solicitous owners, interpreting their kindness as weakness.

Fearfulness is another trait that owners commonly exacerbate. Trainers have said for years that if owners are anxious, their dogs will pick up on it. Some have compared the leash to a telegraph wire that transmits the owner’s sense of danger directly to the animal. In one illuminating experiment, a woman’s storm-phobic dog became hysterical as it listened to a recording of thunder in her presence, but when the sounds were played again after she had left the room, it remained calm.

Then there’s separation anxiety, a condition said to affect 15 to 17 percent of the nation’s 73 million dogs. We know that dogs often come primed with this condition from a shelter or pound. But when owners are confident and matter-of-fact, the problem often virtually disappears within a year.

To explore the influence of the owner’s personality on behavior problems in dogs, my colleagues and I conducted a study using the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, a modification of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test. Although the results just missed reaching statistical significance, they were tantalizing nonetheless. Owners of dogs expressing owner-directed aggression scored higher than controls in the feeling and extroversion categories. Such personality types are often gregarious, expressive, and concerned with maintaining harmony in relationships. These owners also scored somewhat lower than controls in the sensing and judgment categories, suggesting that they are less practical and less likely to lay down the law.

We later conducted a study using a much more sophisticated instrument, the California Personality Inventory. Our test groups consisted of owners whose dogs expressed dominance aggression, fear aggression, and separation anxiety. We found that those owners scored significantly lower than controls in both dominance and capacity for status, which indicates that they were relatively unassuming and compliant, were less sure of themselves, and disliked competition. We were not surprised.

I hasten to add that the people in both the affected groups and the control groups were psychologically healthy. It isn’t that owners of dogs with behavior problems are somehow disturbed, just that their basic nature makes them slightly less well equipped to handle the situation. It’s worth noting, too, that here in the behavior clinic, we don’t expect people to change their personalities. We know they can’t. We ask only that they change the way they behave towards the dog.

A dog displaying owner-directed aggression needs confidently set limits. A dog with fear aggression needs its owner to take charge of situations. A dog with separation anxiety needs its owner to remain upbeat rather than expressing concern. All of this is possible, even for anxious, unassertive, sympathetic people. What they need to remember is that dogs can read our body language as well as we can read a book. If our body language says we know what we’re doing, the dog may actually come to believe it.

One of the world’s leading animal behaviorists, NICHOLAS DODMAN directs the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the author of four bestsellers in the field. His latest book is The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend (Houghton Mifflin).
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