Whether a dog misbehaves when alone is linked to its owners’ stress levels.
A new study by M.T. González-Ramírez et al, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, looks at links between how dog owners perceive their pet’s behavior when they are out and the owner’s levels of happiness and stress. The results suggest that owners of well-behaved dogs are happier.
While this may not seem surprising, the scientists suggest there can be a negative spiral wherein stressed owners do not respond well to their dog’s misbehaviors, causing more stress or anxiety in the dog:
“Owners with higher levels of stress may not have a relaxed relationship with their dogs, which can contribute to their annoyance about their dogs’ behavior, so they spend less time with them, increasing the anxiety in the dogs. In turn, a dog’s behaviors may annoy the owner and may be a source of stress for him or her, which affects his or her perceived happiness.”
The study, which took place in Mexico, surveyed dog owners about their pet’s behavior in terms of separation-related behaviors, trainability, and attachment/attention-seeking. The scientists compared 36 dog owners who said their dogs had separation-related behaviors with 40 people who said their dog was well-behaved when they were out.
This study looked only at the owners’ perceptions of separation-related behaviors and not a specific diagnosis of separation anxiety. (It’s important to note that canine misbehavior while the owner is out can also be due to boredom or aggression, barrier frustration or confinement activity, or house-training issues). In this study, the questions about separation-related behaviors asked about whether the dog vocalized when the owner was out, destroyed things, or showed other signs such as trembling and restlessness.
Interestingly, dogs that did not show separation-related behaviors were rated as more trainable. They also had been in the home with their owner for longer than the dogs that did have separation-related behaviors.
The dogs with separation-related behaviors were rated higher for attachment to the owner, but the relationship between dog and owner was rated as worse than if the dog was well-behaved when the owner was out.
Although it is widely believed that owning a dog or other pet decreases stress and improves health, the evidence is mixed. This study, albeit small, suggests individual differences in the dog-owner relationship should be taken into account, because the people whose dogs had separation-related behaviors had higher stress levels.
The study is just a snapshot in time and does not show causality. Nonetheless, the scientists think teaching a dog to be well behaved will increase happiness for the owner:
“The findings of this study suggest that if owners do something to improve behaviors that they consider annoying in their dogs, their perceived happiness and dog-owner relationship could improve. Owners who perceive themselves as stressed also perceive separation-related problems in their dogs.”
The best way to train a dog is with positive reinforcement—or, if the dog is fearful, it may involve desensitization and counter-conditioning. If you need help with your dog’s behavior issues, hire a qualified dog trainer and/or speak to your veterinarian as appropriate.