Together Forever – Perfecting Dog and Owner Matchmaking

Choosing a dog to become part of your family is a big responsibility. This animal is going to be an important part of your life, a member of your family. So how do you choose the right one? And how do you build a strong bond of affection with it when you get it home?

Tamzin Barber and Jacqueline Ley have independently been researching the possible mismatch between dogs and their owners – pooch personality conflicts.

Tamzin Barber, a psychologist and postgraduate student in the Veterinary School at the University of Queensland is researching what makes pet owners progress from being enthusiastic about the new member of their family to making the decision to give their dog away. She also runs her own business, Talking Animals, which focuses on the human-animal bond and enhancing our relationship with our pets.

Dr Jacqui Ley is a researcher at the School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological medicine at Monash University and co-author of world-first study on dog personalities. She says there is a lot of work still to be done in correlating known breed characteristics or stereotypes with actual dog personalities.

Both are quick to point out you can’t blame the dog for the owner’s misunderstanding of the animal’s emotional needs.

Tamzin Barber asked owners who had relinquished their pets over last five years, as well as owners who still had their dogs, to answer questionnaires on the health and behaviour of the animal, the owner’s bond with the pet, and their knowledge of animal behaviour and their expectations of how their pet should behave.

All the owners were relatively knowledgeable about their dog’s general behaviour and the general attributes of the breed they had chosen – “knowledge they picked up at puppy classes and general breed information from books and dog training shows on television”, she says.

“The breed is important when you choose a dog; you know what to expect from a particular breed. Pre-matching is very important, so the owners has realistic expectations of the dog. It’s when the breed or dog doesn’t match the owner’s expectations that you get problems.”

In her earlier research with owners who had given their dogs away, Tamzin found that, although the owners were fond of their pets, there was a serious mismatch between “what they would have liked their pet to be like, and what the pet was actually like,” she says.

Her further research showed that there was a noticeable difference between the expectations and attachment levels of people who kept their dogs (non-surrenderers), and those who relinquished them (surrenderers), often around the two year mark.

Most owners had behavioural problems with their dogs – barking, jumping up, toilet training problems and so on – but, she emphasises, it was not the unwanted behaviours that generally resulted in the dogs being given away.

The owners with unrealistic expectations about how their puppy would develop into an adult dog – what its emotional and physical needs would be and how they should be met — had difficulty in forming strong attachments with their pet.

“People don’t give their dogs away just because of unwanted behaviours,” she says.

“People give their dog away when life pressures become too much – relationship breakdown, moving house, changing a job, moving interstate – and the attachment between the person and the dog is not strong enough to hold together.

“People with realistic expectations of their dog are more likely to develop a strong enough attachment to the animal that unwanted behaviours don’t affect the relationship.

“Then when the life pressures occur, the dog is part of the family, and stays with the family.”

Building a good relationship with your dog

It’s significant, Tamzin says, that many dogs are given away when they are about two years old.

One of the crucial factors in developing a strong attachment between owner and dog is the amount of time spent doing things together.

Taking your puppy to obedience classes means spending quality time with it doing purposeful activities together and having fun.

Obedience training also involves other important factors in developing attachment: touch, understanding and appreciating the difference between the animal and humans, and between one animal and another.

The other crucial factor in creating a strong attachment between owner and dog is including the pet as a member of your family.

Sadly, for many dogs, the end of puppy classes means the end of all that attention and interaction, and the bond between owner and dog dwindles.

However, she says, it is not only at the two year stage that dogs are relinquished, and the important factor is the lack of shared activities with the dog.

“This was significant – there was a distinct difference between surrenderers and non-surrenderers in the amount of activities they did with their dogs,” she says.

“The risk of surrender goes up as these factors for attachment go down.”

As well as her ongoing research into the psychology of successful owner-dog relationships, Tamzin is working on developing a range of toys to encourage owners to have fun and quality time with their pooch.

What makes a good dog good?

From Jacqui Ley’s viewpoint, not enough is known about the finer points of individual dogs’ personalities, and a mismatch between dog and human can be the cause of problems.

“When someone is choosing a dog, they need all the help they can get, and any way that can help with owner and dog matching is important,” Jacqui told me.

“Dogs occupy a unique place in the western world, being kept as valued companions and as working partners,” she says. “To enable accurate selection of dogs for different purposes there is a need to develop methods to measure the behavioral tendencies of individual dogs.

“At the moment, people are relying on breed stereotypes from books like ‘Breeds of the World’ to get an idea of their dog’s likely personality.

“But these are untested stereotypes, and could be 40 years out of date, not really describing the dogs of today.”

Another problem in describing a dog’s potential personality is if they are not pure-bred. Most people will have mixed breeds, and available breed information is about pure breeds.

“What we’re trying to do is help owners discover ‘what makes a good dog good?’ “, Jacqui says.

By interviewing 1260 dog owners who had dogs aged between 18 months and 19 years old, Jacqui and her supervisor, Dr Pauleen Bennett, developed lists of adjectives to describe pooch personality traits.

All the seven breed groups recognised in Australia — toys, terriers, gundogs, hounds, herding dogs, utility and non-sporting — were represented, as well as small, medium and large cross bred dogs.

The owners were asked to complete a questionnaire of 67 possible adjectives, rating them on a scale of 1-6: one being “really does not
describe my dog”, and six being ‘really describes my dog’.

“There are differences between animals and humans, but we carefully selected adjectives which could be applied to dogs and the results confirm what devoted pet owners have always known; that individual dogs definitely have very distinct personality profiles,” Jacqui says.

The results revealed personalities including energy and extraversion, nervousness and sensitivity, self-assuredness and motivation, responsiveness to training and amicability.

“Amicability translates, in human terms, to friendliness, but since dogs don’t have the capacity to engage in the altruistic behaviour characteristic of human ‘friendships’, the alternative term amicability was used,” Jacqui explains.

“This provides us with a basic model of dog personalities which
could assist pet shelters to help pair dogs and potential owners.
“An outgoing young family might cope with an energetic puppy, while a dog with a placid personality would probably better suit an elderly person and a motivated dog may be the best type to engage in farm work or join our policing services,”

That basic model will be tested later this year in the next stage of Jacqui’s research, in which owners will be asked to complete a dog personality questionnaire. Details of the survey will be posted on the Animal Welfare Science website: http://www.animalwelfare.net.au/

Jacqui is very familiar with the personalities of two special dogs, her short-haired pointers, eight-year-old Cricket and 16 month-old Griff.

“They are energetic and fun to live with, like living with two three-year-olds,” she laughs.

Five personality descriptions
– energy and extraversion
– nervousness and sensitivity
– self-assuredness and motivation
– responsiveness to training
– amicability

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