How Well Do We Recognize Behavior Issues In Dogs?
There are many ways to describe and define a dog’s “bad” behavior. Some studies refer to “abnormal” or “aberrant” behavior, but this may be confusing as it requires also defining “normal” behaviors. Some studies use the terms “malfunctional” or “maladaptive” behaviors, but those also have their own problems. In this study, researchers use “problematic” as an umbrella term to encompass the range of behaviors that can pose issues for both dogs and people. With many dogs being surrendered to shelters each year because of “problematic behavior,” it’s important to understand exactly what people consider “problematic.” Humans are the ones who ultimately make the decision to surrender animals to shelters based on an overall perception of what behavior is problematic, and the threshold is different for everyone.
This study set out to explore people’s perceptions of their companion dogs’ behaviors, the distinction between “problematic” and “undesirable,” and how people identify and deal with such behavior. The authors define “undesirable” as being behaviors that might be unpleasant or annoying, while “problematic” denotes behaviors that pose bigger issues that require intervention. The researchers also looked at how people’s perceptions might be associated with problematic behavior. They collected reports from 371 people with dogs over the age of one. They collected demographic information about both the dogs and people and asked questions about what people perceive as problematic and undesirable behavior, and how they address it.
Looking at the results, the human demographics broke down as follows:
- Most respondents were female (78%) and between 18 and 30 years old (52%)
- Most were single (59%) and resided in a childless (83%), multiple-person household (85%)
- More than half of the respondents (55%) lived in houses with lawns, and most had previously had a dog (70%)
The dog demographics looked like this:
- There was a balanced sex ratio of dogs, although significantly more females than males were sterilized (56% vs. 17%)
- Most dogs (47%) were young (1-4 years old), of large size (40%), and were purebred (74%)
- More dogs came from a friend/relative (56%) rather than a breeder (39%) or pet shop (6%)
The authors found that people fall into one of three main categories: (1) a very small minority of people (3%) who said that their dogs didn’t behave in ways they considered problematic or undesirable, (2) a majority of people (65%) who said that their dogs showed undesirable but not problematic behavior, and (3) a smaller group of people (32%) who said that their dogs displayed single or multiple behaviors they considered undesirable and problematic. They found that 80% of the people in group three looked for behavioral modification options, versus a much smaller 37% of people in group two. None of the people in group one sought any sort of guidance.
The researchers note that the study is based on the self-reporting of people who live with dogs. There is undoubtedly some degree of subjectivity in the findings. That being said, the authors state clearly that improving the welfare of both people and dogs requires the identification of factors that have an impact on the dog-person relationship. It seems clear from the results, subjective though they may be, that people must be willing to recognize and address problematic dog behavior if anything is going to change. Otherwise, the wonderful adoption work done by shelters may be partly undone by relinquishments due to perceived behavior issues.