Our pets and our personalities

An interesting article has just been published in The Conversation. It is about how people’s choice of a pet may be influenced by their personality. I’m sure there is some relationship between the two, but it is by no means simple and straightforward. The authors explore the mistaken view that dogs are servile and cats have servants. They assume that people who choose dogs as pets do so because they want to dominate. I think there are many flaws in this argument, as I argue in my comments (see below).

To read the article, see the original article in The Conversation.

My reply.

Thanks for some interesting speculation. However, some of your assumptions are questionable.

I have some experience to draw on, because I am a professional dog trainer and long time dog owner. However, I did also have a cat, who lived to be 17, and was the most skilled reader of canine body language that I have come across. She and my otherwise predatory German Shepherd used to sleep together, the cat curled up against the dog’s neck or face.

There have been plenty of surveys that show that the most common reason given for pet dog ownership nowadays is companionship, and that most people regard their dog as a member of the family. This suggests that your focus on social dominance is misplaced.

Dominance (I hope) is not the basis for human relationships of companionship or family. I know there are exceptions. I was raised in a family in which my father was domineering and oppressive (towards his wife, children and the dog!). However, this is not what people generally mean when they refer to companionship and being a member of the family.

I have a hypothesis that you might like to do some research on one day – that many people involved in animal welfare, dog rescue and fostering, dog ownership and reward-based dog training suffered some form of childhood abuse, and that their relationships with dogs is one way of dealing with it. Interestingly, the vast majority of dog trainers, dog training instructors, dog sport hobbyists, people involved as professionals or volunteers in working with dogs and so on, are women. The majority are caring and nurturing.

You may be aware also that there has been a huge debate going on in the dog training world for the last twenty years about whether the basis for dog training is social dominance or positive reinforcement. While I agree that dogs are social mammals, and so are humans, I am a reward-based trainer. It is more scientific, rather than being based on misinterpretations of wolf behaviour. Our social bond with dogs is great and takes many forms. Dominance is probably the least of them.

People who study wolves have found that the pack is an extended family, and that most interactions are caring and affectionate, rather than being about enforcing dominance. While different statuses exist, it is not a rigid hierarchy, and social behaviour is elicited by complex social signals of body language, facial expression and vocalisation – not by force as the advocates of dominance-based dog training, claim.

While not denying that you can observe dominant and submissive body language and interactions between dogs, and also between a dog and a person, this is usually done to avoid the need for force, not by way of inflicting physical control to enforce appropriate behaviour.

The notion that dogs “want to please” is only partly true. If it were really true, then people would not have a problem with their dogs. Clearly many pet owners have problems with their dog’s behaviour.

Mostly, like all of us, dogs want to please – themselves. However, what they find rewarding can be a range of things, including eating food, playing with toys, a variety of social interactions with other dogs, a variety of social interactions with people and also performing activities including the work that dogs have been selectively bred for. With all these ways to motivate a dog to behave appropriately, it is not necessary to use physical punishment or physical means of enforcing dominance.

In the 1970s, the Monks of New Skete popularised training techniques such as the “alpha roll” and the “scruff shake”, forms of physical correction. This was supposedly based on how wolves and their descendents (dogs) enforce behaviour in social dominance hierarchies.

In 1993, I was privileged to hear one of the authors of the Monks’ book, Job Michael Evans, who had left the Monks to become a professional dog trainer in NYC, speak to an audience of around one thousand of the leading dog trainers in north America. He said he no longer advocated those methods because too many people had been bitten following that advice. The Monks held the copyright and refused to change the book. Sadly Job died shortly afterwards, and it took US trainers almost a decade to generate a groundswell of opinion which eventually led the Monks to revise the book retract that advice. There is now a revised edition of the book.

Dominance-based training methods provoke defensive aggression, and furthermore tend to shut down all behaviour if they are “effective”. They are not instructive. Tell the dog “no”. But no, what? Don’t jump up, jump up but only after I have change out of my work clothes, no you’re not jumping high enough, no stop what ever it is you are doing… Reward-based trainers such as myself prefer to motivate the dog to want to prefer appropriate behaviour. If I ever do use “no” it is in the sense of “no don’t jump up, sit instead”. Interrupt that, choose this instead. That is instructive. Better still, teach the dog to “sit to say hello” in the first place.

Reward-based training, which is about using motivation to promote co-operation, is more consistent with the view that people own pet dogs for companionship, and treat them as family members. It is the approach that is generally preferred by women, and by increasing numbers of men.

According to research on human origins, dogs were the first species to be domesticated, but arguably this was a two-way street. Dogs in various ways, aided in human survival and evolution. They were not just scavengers who then helped men to hunt. The “oxytocin theory” of domestication suggests that social bonding played a key role. The hormone oxytocin is released in mammals to facilitate social bonding. It is associated with the onset of labour, female orgasm and the let down reflex in breast feeding.

It has been suggested that our early human ancestors breast fed canine pups, and this social bonding was part of the process of domestication. Don’t underestimate the importance of having a few doggy bodies around to help you keep warm at night as well.

Apparently cats were domesticated much later, as far as I have read, by being allowed to live in grain stores where they kept down the mouse population. This period of human history, for example in ancient Egypt, was much later than the early human stone age hunter gatherer period when dogs became dogs and arguably people became people.

You may be interested to learn that one well known US author and dog training authority, Wendy Volhard, developed a Drives Profile, which assesses the varying predispositions of dogs, their inherited tendency to behave in a particular way. Some dogs of course are sociable and responsive to people. others are more independent and focused on pursuing prey, rounding up anything that moves or following a scent on the ground. They also vary in terms of how confident they are and how they react to being challenged, for example stand their ground or back off. Only a minority of dogs have the “teachers pet” desire to please profile. Others are more independent, less motivated by social rewards (such a praise or interaction with their owner).

Wendy Volhard was interested in Myers Briggs personality tests, and once tested whether there was any relationship between a dog’s drive profile and the owner’s Myers Briggs profile. She found no relationship. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe she was using the wrong indicators. Maybe a lot of people get the wrong dog. I see a lot of mismatches.

On your point that a melancholy person might choose either a “sluggish” or an active, cheerful dog, I simply make the comment that dogs tune in to their owner’s emotions, including depression, anxiety, stress and other specific signs of illness. Dogs are playing a therapeutic role for people with PTSD, depression, anxiety and increasingly they are being placed with families with kids on the autism spectrum.

They can elicit emotional or verbal responses from withdrawn and uncommunicative people or stimulate interaction and activity where family members and therapists can’t. I have had quite a few people say to me “My dog saved my life. When I was depressed I would never have got out of bed, except that I had to get up and feed and walk my dog.”

My own dog, Clancy, a Smooth Collie, who is not yet six months old regularly visits my Mum’s aged care facility and gets the residents laughing, talking and interacting. He has also enticed a boy to play with him, throwing the ball and playing all sorts of games. Just normal boy and his dog stuff. The only difference is that this boy is on the Autism spectrum, and never does that sort of thing. His Mum was amazed at the impact a puppy had on her son.

The way people treat dogs varies as much as they way we treat each other – from extremes of caring and nurturing, to opposite extremes of abuse and cruelty.

I wonder whether you would use a similar methodology to relate parenting styles to personality. Certainly there is something going on there, but it is not reducible to single or simple factors. Anecdotally, I see “under-controlling parents” who are “under-controlling dog owners”. If I call at their home, there are four kids hooning around the house, bouncing off the walls, with hundreds of toys strewn all over the floor. The parent/dog owner comes to the door and says “we are having trouble with our dog being over-excited and unruly inside the house and wrecking everything”. Oh, really? Why am I not surprised?

And by the way, we have a saying “positive does not mean permissive”. We set a few humane and sensible boundaries, which are necessary to train our dogs to be acceptable members of the family and acceptable members of the community when we go out. This is an important social bond, but it is not dominance.

About transformational1

I have many interests and I have had a varied career. I am a semi-retired professional dog trainer, specialising in the use of positive reinforcement. I do some consultations, I run instructor workshops and I am setting up a Dogs and Psychotherapy Research Project. I have a law degree from Melbourne University (but have never practiced) and I am passionate about Human Rights. My first degree was in Sociology. I worked as a social researcher on issues such as low income housing, women's refuges and women in the workforce. I live in an inner suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and I have a German Shepherd called Chance.
This entry was posted in animal training, Assistance Dogs, Behaviour problems, Behavioural science, Dogs, Dogs and children, domestication of dogs, Human-animal bond, Pack theory, Psychiatric service dogs, research about dogs, Training theories. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Our pets and our personalities

  1. John says:

    Brilliant, Kaye…..luvanwags, JohnanMolly XX


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