By Renata Rome
I became interested in dog research because of my close relationship with my first pet, Pantro, a friendly and energetic cocker spaniel. Pantro was perfect for me, being a great companion for long walks and at the same time calm and independent when left alone. However, his behavior problems were challenging on several occasions.
I’ve spent over a decade researching the unique connection dog owners have with our beloved pets. As a researcher in the field of human-animal interactions, I studied how other pet owners dealt with both positive and challenging canine behaviors.
Benefits and challenges
Having a dog has several benefits for people psychological and physical health. However, relationships with dogs are complex and may involve some conflicts. Unwanted dog behaviors such as aggression and barking are the main reason why people abandon their dogs.
Behavior Problems in Dogs Can Cause Distress by requiring extra time for training, problems when exercising the pet and limitations related to where to go with the dog and increased stress.
Further studies are needed to understand how to prevent deterioration of the shared relationship with the dog when owners are confronted with unwanted canine behaviors.
As part of my doctoral studies and together with researchers Christine Tardif-Williams, Shannon Moore and Patricia Pendry, I carried out three studies between 2018 and 2023. My goal was to better understand not only what factors improve the quality of the relationship between people and dogs, but also what happens when relationships with dogs become stressful.
Personality, attachment and well-being
In my first study, 401 participants between the ages of 17 and 25 completed a series of questionnaires about their personality, their dog’s personality, and their attachment to the dog. Participants also answered questions related to their well-being, such as their sense of connection and stress levels. This was to assess the extent to which personality characteristics and attachment are related to well-being in young adults.
I found that aspects of the youth’s personality, as well as factors related to their attachment to the dog, are key to understanding youth well-being in the context of dog ownership. For example, avoidant and anxious canine behavior was associated with lower well-being among youth, which was not surprising.
Such a finding supports past studies highlighting that the quality of emotional connections between dog owners and their dogs can have an impact on people’s well-being. Therefore, living with a dog will not necessarily have a positive impact on people’s well-being, unless there is a positive emotional connection in the shared relationship with the dog.
The study findings also emphasize the links between the personality of the youngsters and their well-being, but not between the personality of the dog and the well-being of the participants. Personality-related characteristics of youngsters appear to be more relevant than personality-related aspects of their dog in explaining well-being among young dog owners.
Quality of life
The second study involved 131 participants and focused on the emotions of dog owners when dealing with stressful and unwanted canine behaviors. Unsurprisingly, unwanted behaviors displayed by dogs were associated with a worse sense of quality of life in the context of dog ownership. More specifically, the stress and responsibility of owning a dog and a lower emotional quality of life were related to situations such as dog aggression and excessive barking.
Dealing with pet behavior
The third study involved interviews with seven dog owners between the ages of 17 and 26. Participants were asked about their perceptions, feelings, and coping styles when the dog misbehaves to explore how young dog owners deal with challenging dog behaviors.
The interviews revealed that the coping styles and emotions of the participants varied, but overall, they were able to handle challenging and stressful situations with their dogs. The results suggest a preference for more proactive coping stylesmainly focused on positive reinforcement and working with trainers, when necessary.
At the same time, the participants discussed the importance of physical and emotional connections, as well as synchronicity in their shared relationship with their dogs. Synchrony refers to mutual adjustments in dog and owner behaviors that result in feelings of being “in tune” with each other during daily interactions.
For example, participants described how their dogs adjust their behaviors to different family members by being more playful with some and more respectful of family members the dog perceives as more authoritative. A dog’s ability to do so seems crucial to creating a positive and harmonious interaction with the different people who live with the dog.
What does this mean
The results of my research illuminate some of the factors associated with positive and challenging relationships between the youth and their dogs which, in turn, could contribute to the well-being of the youth. The results also shed light on the link between behavior problems in dogs, the quality of life of youth in the context of dog ownership, and the coping styles used by dog owners when their dogs misbehave.
This holistic view of dog ownership suggests that, just like relationships with other people, pet owners’ connections to their dogs can also fluctuate depending on their psychological state, their dogs’ behavior, and their environment.
Renata Roma is a Research Fellow, Child and Youth Studies, Brock University.
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