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Do Anxious Pet Parents Raise More Anxious Dogs?

Which comes first, a nervous person or a nervous pup?

by Hal Herzog Ph.D.
December 1, 2020
A dog sitting on a woman's lap looking very shy or nervous.
Ana Luz Crespi / Stocksy

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Kim Brophey, author of Meet Your Dog: The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior, is an applied behavioral ethologist. She specializes in working with dogs who have behavior problems and their owners. When I asked her if dogs who were brought to her canine behavior clinic with anxiety issues tended to have nervous owners, her response was immediate: Yes, indeed. Dogs belonging to high stress/anxiety clients are often higher than average in their stress levels, and exhibit more anxiety or hyperarousal.”

And when I asked Carri Westgarth, author of The Happy Dog Owner, whether she had noticed that fearful shy dogs tended to have anxious owners she said, "Absolutely! These observations are consistent with a growing body of research showing similarities in the personalities of dogs and their owners. The first systematic research on this topic was reported in a 1997 paper by the anthrozoologists Anthony Podberscek and James Serpell. Using the Cattell 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire — a personality test that was popular at the time — they compared the personalities of people who owned aggressive English Cocker Spaniels with owners of non-aggressive Cocker Spaniels. They found the owners of aggressive dogs were more likely to be tense, emotionally less stable, shyer, and more undisciplined than owners of dogs without a history of aggression.

The Five-Factor Model of Personality

Over the past couple of decades, personality research has been dominated by the Five-Factor Model. This is the theory that individual differences in human personality boil down to five basic dimensions: (1) openness to new experiences, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extroversion, (4) agreeableness, and (5) neuroticism. Some researchers now refer to the neuroticism trait as “negative emotionality” or “emotional instability.” And some investigators prefer to reverse the terminology of the neuroticism scale scores and call the trait “emotional stability.” In this case, more anxious people are said to have low emotional stability.

Studies Show Nervous Owners Tend to Have Nervous Dogs

Over a dozen studies have now found relationships between at least some Big Five traits in owners and the behavior of their pets. The most consistent findings, however, focus on the factor usually labeled “neuroticism.” People who score high on this factor often experience negative emotions such as fear, guilt, anxiety, and stress. Here is a sample of these findings.

Do Owners Make Their Dogs Neurotic? The Causal Arrow Problem

Patricia McConnell, the author of many books on dog behavior and the blog The Other End of the Leash, asked me, “So, Hal, which comes first, the nervous dog or the nervous owner?” Good question.

One possibility is the like-owner/like-dog phenomenon is simply a matter of perception — that is, neurotic owners project their anxieties on their perfectly normal pets. The Austrian and Hungarian researchers, however, controlled for this possibility by having outside observers in their study rate the behaviors of the dogs.

It could be that anxious owners are attracted to nervous and emotionally needy dogs and seek them out as pets. After all, social psychologists have found people choose friends and romantic partners with similar personalities.

Another possibility is that the causal arrow could point up the leash from dogs to their owners. Living with a fearful, aggressive, and emotionally unstable dog might increase their owners levels of stress and anxiety.

I suspect the most plausible explanation, however, is that neurotic owners — at least partly — help create anxious dogs. Neurotic owners, for example, might be poor dog trainers. Indeed, the canine behavior researcher James Serpell wrote me, “I have previously speculated that neurotic owners might be like overprotective helicopter parents who don’t socialize their dogs properly, thereby making them more anxious in unfamiliar situations.” But then he told me about a new study from Portugal that suggested a different mechanism might be at play — emotional contagion. Indeed, a slew of studies have found that dogs respond to human emotions. The researchers wrote of their findings, “The results suggest that dogs’ ‘empathetic trait’ (i.e, emotional reactivity to their owners’ emotions)… may explain the observed association between owners’ and dogs’ anxiety.)

Dog behaviorist Kim Brophey believes the emotional contagion hypothesis makes sense, particularly for some breeds. She wrote to me, "Many breeds have been particularly selected for attentiveness to and relationships with humans ... They are especially at risk for absorbing the emotional state of their human counterparts." I suspect she is right.

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Hal Herzog Ph.D.

Hal Herzog, Ph.D., is the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals.