Approximately 3.3. million dogs enter US shelters and adoption centers each year, of which about 1 in 5 is euthanized . Behavior problems are known to be the most common reason for owners to surrender their dogs to shelters, and they are therefore significant risk factors for premature death [2–7]. These risks could be mitigated by a better understanding of the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the development of behavior problems in companion dogs, including aspects of the owner’s personality, emotional well-being and behavior.
Previous studies have demonstrated associations between aspects of dog owner personality and psychological status and the expression of behavior problems in their dogs. O’Farrell , for example, detected higher rates of behavior problems (sexual mounting, destructiveness, attention-seeking and aggression) among dogs belonging to owners who obtained high scores on the ‘neuroticism’ scale of the Eysenck Personality Inventory. Podberscek & Serpell  found that the owners of a sample of aggressive English cocker spaniels were significantly more likely to rate themselves as tense, shy, and emotionally unstable on the Catell 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire than a comparable sample of owners of non-aggressive spaniels, and Dodman et al.  detected associations between personality factors measured by the California Personality Inventory and the expression of canine behavior problems such as dominance-related aggression, fear aggression, and separation anxiety. Moreover, in a longitudinal study of the search & rescue dogs deployed at the WTC and Pentagon following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hunt et al.  found that owner’s/handler’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression symptom scores one year after deployment predicted the development of behavioral problems such as attention-seeking, separation anxiety and aggression in their dogs up to a year later. Since most definitions of human personality imply individual characteristics of thought, feeling and behavior that tend to remain relatively consistent throughout life [12, 13], such findings imply that the personality traits are causally related to the dogs’ behavior rather than vice versa. In the case of more changeable characteristics, such as depression, the likely direction of causation is more difficult to determine.
Currently the mechanisms responsible for such associations are unknown. However, other research has demonstrated that owner personality traits, such as ‘neuroticism’, ‘conscientiousness’ and ‘openness’ are related to how owners interact with their dogs [14, 15], and that owners’/handlers’ interaction style is linked to the animal’s working ability and likelihood of displaying undesirable behaviors [16–21]. The use of positive punishment and/or confrontational or aversive methods of behavioral control, in particular, have been shown to be associated with behavior problems, such as aggression, anxiety and excitability [22–27], increased behavioral and physiological signs of stress [28, 29], reduced ability to learn [20, 26] and reduced willingness to interact with strangers [15, 20]. Considered as a whole, these findings suggest the hypothesis that the relationship between owner personality and psychological status and the behavior of companion dogs is mediated by the quality or style of the owner’s interactions with the dog, particularly in the context of training.
The goal of the current pilot study was to test this hypothesis on a large convenience sample of dog owners by investigating the patterns of association between self-reported owner personality and psychological status, reported use of aversive or confrontational methods of training, and the prevalence and/or severity of canine behavior problems.
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