Careful, This Mistake Could Make Your Dog Aggressive

human mood affects dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dog behavior has been linked to the personality of the owner, and a recent study suggests there could be a connection between an owner’s personality, the training methods he/she uses and the dog’s behavior
  • The study results revealed that punitive training methods are sometimes associated with aggressive behavior in dogs
  • The study also suggests that men who are even moderately depressed may be five times more likely to use harmful training methods
  • Punishment is typically ineffective in training dogs, and often counterproductive
  • Positive reinforcement behavior training is hands-down the best way to help your dog become a good canine citizen, as well as to preserve the bond between owner and dog

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

For all you dog lovers out there, I'm sure it has been absolutely no surprise to learn from scientific studies that your mood and behavior have an effect on your canine companion. Anyone who shares a close bond with a dog knows this already. We also know, both first-hand and through research studies, that punitive training methods are linked to problem canine behaviors such as fear and aggression.

There's also evidence that a link exists between the personality of a dog owner and features of the dog's behavior, and recently a team of researchers set out to discover whether people with certain personality traits are more likely to use particular dog training methods, and if so, whether it might explain the link with the dog's behavior.

Punitive Training Methods Can Be Linked to Aggressive Behaviors in Dogs

The study, which was published earlier in the year in the journal PLoS One,1 involved over 1,500 dog owners who completed an online survey with questions about their personality, whether they suffered from depression, the methods they used to train their dog and their dog's behavior.

The researchers uncovered small but important connections between the use of "confrontational" (aversive, punitive) training methods by owners and behavior problems in their dogs. Some findings from the study:

  • Punitive training methods (e.g., physically hitting the dog or the use of a shock collar) were sometimes associated with aggressive behaviors such as persistent barking at the owner and strangers, and separation anxiety  
  • Owners with higher emotional stability scores reported fewer problems with their dogs relieving themselves in the house when left alone
  • Men with even moderate depression were five times more likely to use harmful dog training methods than women who are not depressed

"This was a really striking result," said James Serpell, Ph.D., professor of ethics and animal welfare at Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine and lead study author. "When we went back and researched the literature on depression in men and in women, we found that they tend to express depression in different ways; men have a tendency to become aggressive or short-fused, whereas women seem to internalize their depression more."2

More Research Is Needed to Establish a Causal Link Between Training Methods, Owner Behavior and Dog Behavior

The researchers acknowledge the need to further investigate the cause-and-effect relationship between training methods, owner behavior and dog behavior. However, they believe their study results raise an issue concerning people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) adopting therapy dogs.

"There is a slightly worrisome implication for the promotion of the use of dogs for ex-servicemen with post-traumatic stress disorder," Serpell notes. "I think on the whole dogs can be incredibly beneficial but we do need to be alert for the possibility of owners lashing out against their dogs."

I'm not sure why Serpell singled out veterans with PTSD as presumably of more concern than other categories of men with depressive disorders. From the study abstract:

"Recent studies suggest that men and women experience different symptoms of depression, and that men tend to report higher rates of anger attacks/aggression, substance abuse, and risk taking. Depressed men are therefore more likely to respond to their dogs' behavior problems aggressively and punitively, and this suggests that such individuals may be less than ideal candidates for dog ownership or adoption."3

In general, I don't find these study results particularly revealing. Hopefully future research into links between owner and dog behavior will provide us with more insight.

5 Rules for Positive Reinforcement Dog Training

I think one of the most difficult concepts for dog parents to grasp when it comes to training their canine companion is that punishment is typically ineffective, and it's often counterproductive. In other words, you can make your dog's behavior worse using punitive tactics. I can't stress strongly enough the importance of positive reinforcement behavior training, not only to help your dog become a good canine citizen, but also to preserve and protect the close and priceless bond you share with him.

The goal of positive reinforcement behavior training is to use very small-sized treats (pea-sized is good, and you can even use frozen peas if your dog seems to like them) and verbal praise and affection to encourage desired behaviors in your dog.

1. Give short commands and give them consistently. Come up with short, preferably one-word commands for the behaviors you want to teach your pet. Examples are Come, Sit, Stay, Down, Heel, Off, etc. Make sure all members of your family consistently use exactly the same command for each behavior.

2. Give treats as rewards for desired behavior. As soon as your dog performs the desired behavior, reward him immediately with a treat and verbal praise. Do this every time he responds appropriately to a command. You want him to connect the behavior he performed with the treat. This of course means you'll need to have treats on you whenever you give your dog commands in the beginning.

3. Keep training sessions short and fun. You want your dog to associate good things with obeying your commands. You also want to use training time as an opportunity to deepen your bond with your pet.

4. Gradually back off the treats. Use them only intermittently once your dog has learned a new behavior. Eventually they'll no longer be necessary, but you should always reward your dog with verbal praise whenever he obeys a command.

5. Continue to use positive reinforcement. This will help maintain the behaviors you desire. Reward-based training helps create a range of desirable behaviors in your pet, which builds mutual feelings of trust and confidence.

If your dog is displaying undesirable behavior and you're not sure you can deal with it on your own, talk with your veterinarian, a positive dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist. You might also enjoy the following interviews with three of the world's top positive dog trainers, Dr. Ian Dunbar, Victoria Stilwell and Tamar Geller.