Your dog's behaviour could be affecting your life more than you think, Brock University study finds

·5 min read
Renata Roma was inspired by her relationship with her late dog, Pantro, to study the relationship between dogs and humans and how these affect people's well being and behaviours. (Submitted by Renata Roma - image credit)
Renata Roma was inspired by her relationship with her late dog, Pantro, to study the relationship between dogs and humans and how these affect people's well being and behaviours. (Submitted by Renata Roma - image credit)

Have you ever felt judged or embarrassed when your dog misbehaved in front of other people?

I have, and this research by Brock University researcher Renata Roma made me feel a little bit less alone.

As part of her paper, My 'Perfect' Dog: Undesired Dog Behaviours and Owners' Coping Styles, she interviewed dog owners from the ages of 17 to 25 to study how the relationship between dogs and their owners affected the human's behaviour, well-being and quality of life.

She said the inspiration for the project came from time she spent with a dog she once owned, a cocker spaniel named Pantro.

"We had a really strong bond, but he had many behavioural issues over time, so I had to adjust myself to him," she said.

Roma said she wasn't prepared when Pantro started misbehaving, and I understood. As a new dog owner, I thought I was so prepared for when my new family member first arrived.

I was so wrong.

Eduardo Simão/Submitted by Renata Roma
Eduardo Simão/Submitted by Renata Roma

I adopted Akina because I wanted a companion, and I got it. The first time I held her I fell in love.

It took her a while to get used to us. She was just over one-year-old. I knew it would be hard the first few months for both of us to adapt to each other, but as much as I tried to predict the problems, the reality was way harder.

Akina is calm, loving and gentle. But she's an anxious mess.

"We hear a lot about how dogs are amazing and can promote interactions with people … and all of this is true. But it's also true that there is another side of this relationship," Roma said.

Roma and her team — Christine Tardif-Williams, Shannon Moore and Patricia Pendry — interviewed subjects about attachment, the owners' and dogs' personalities and more.

She said she noticed how the subjects stressed being physically close to the dogs was important. Some of them talked about their dog "as babies or a brother."

"[There was] this type of discourse about perceiving the dog as a family member. For some people it seems to help in terms of [having] a greater emotional connection with their dogs," she said.

Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC
Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC

I related to that so deeply.

Akina is the first dog I've ever had who's my responsibility only. I had a family dog growing up that I also considered a family member, but Akina is different, I have to take care of every aspect of her life.

She counts on me to feed her, bathe her, take her out to potty, be aware of how she might be doing mentally, physically, and more.

So, I already knew the answer to my next question when I asked Roma if she found people felt protective of their dogs, even when they exhibited bad behaviours.

"Yes," she answers excitedly and explained how one of the study participants describe feeling protective, particularly in public spaces.

"She tried to make sure that she protected the environment so that not only people could be protected [from the dog's behaviour], but also her dog from the criticism from others," she said.

What a relief this was for me.

While Akina is not aggressive toward others, she fears everyone and everything. She gets scared so easily during walks. When someone walks near us, she's liable to sprint back home.

I've found myself having to walk her late at night, when there are fewer people and cars around, to protect her from her fear, but also so people won't judge me when they see me pulling her leash to continue our walk as she's frozen in place with her tail between her legs.

Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC
Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC

Fear of judgment and embarrassment, as it turns out, was often mentioned in conjunction with protectiveness in a lot of cases, Roma said, especially in cases where the dog doesn't behave well toward other people.

She compared it to someone criticizing a child, and how a parent's protectiveness will come forward.

Esther Santos, a mother to a 10-month-old girl and a dog named Dexter, drew the same comparison.

She said Dexter has very bad separation anxiety and hates being away from her or her husband, even while they're all at the house. They rarely leave the house without him.

Submitted by Esther Santos
Submitted by Esther Santos

She expressed some guilt, saying, as a psychologist who understands behaviour, she feels it's her fault for not leaving the house more when Dexter was a puppy.

Like me, she had to change some habits so she could accommodate her dog, and although she said it's not a hard choice because of her love for Dexter, it has changed her life.

"I really enjoy to do things at my house instead of going out [so] it wasn't that hard for me [to stay at home], but at the same time I know that this affected my relationship with my friends because I had to be with Dexter all the time when I was younger," she said.

While Roma didn't explore solutions in her study, many subjects did report positive reinforcement to be a very helpful tool.

It certainly has been with Akina. Slowly but surely she's getting better by just rewarding her when she does something brave. I can't wait to see what the consequences of that bravery will be.

Roma said solutions might be something to explore in future studies.

"I want to explore therapy with dogs in other aspects of this relationship in other contexts, maybe with Indigenous populations," she said.

She said she hopes to continue studying the relationship between dogs and humans in the future and explore how different age groups interact with their pups.