When Things Go Wrong: Young People And Dogs
Just as we have to address uncomfortable emotions in our human relationships, problems can arise in relationships with our companion animals. For example, dogs can cause their guardians to feel unwanted negative emotions due to aggression. While dealing with challenging dog behaviors might be considered a downside of guardianship, it can also teach valuable lessons. This is especially the case for young people learning how to cope with difficult situations.
In this study, the authors interviewed seven dog guardians aged 17-26 in Canada. They were interested in exploring the strategies young people used to handle challenging interactions with their dogs and how this compared to their human relationships.
Importantly, none of the participants claimed that their dog’s negative behaviors (e.g., barking and aggression) drastically harmed their well-being. Also, none of the dog guardians reported negative behaviors directed toward them, as all undesirable actions involved fear or violence directed at other people or dogs.
Clashing with someone close to us can be an emotional stressor. Similarly, it appears that dogs’ behavioral issues can impact their young guardians. Most of the interviewees dealt with moderate behavioral problems that sometimes caused them to adjust their routines (e.g., one participant avoided moving things around her apartment to prevent her dog from barking). Participants reported feeling anxiety or even hypervigilance as a result of their dogs’ misbehavior.
Coping mechanisms ranged from accepting the behavior without intervention to confronting it forcefully (e.g., using a muzzle for aggressive dogs). Other strategies participants reported were shifting their dog’s focus elsewhere and direct interventions like behavioral training. These techniques were labeled as proactive since they involved intentional action to correct the behavior.
Research has found that using proactive strategies to manage dog behavior is correlated with lower stress. Proactive approaches were common among the young people in this study. The authors pointed to previous research showing that older people are more likely to use avoidance in conflict management, suggesting that their results are in line with these findings.
During conflict resolution, people tend to self-evaluate how they handled a situation. In the study, the data were split — 50% of respondents were satisfied and 50% were dissatisfied by how they’d handled their dogs’ undesirable behavior in the past. Several participants wished they could have sought professional help from a trainer or intervened when the dog was a puppy. Highly dissatisfied interviewees were more likely to report moderate to severe discomfort about their dogs’ problems.
The authors noted that the relationships between young dog guardians and their companion animals shared parallels with human relationships. There were crucial differences, like the ability to speak, and guardians reported lower expectations for their dogs than they would for a family member, friend, or partner. However, the authors deduced that confrontations with animal companions may be similar to human-only conflicts. For example, one participant who tended to avoid human conflict also handled her dogs’ problematic behaviors by not addressing them.
Though living with a dog companion might be stressful, the authors noted that all participants seemed to be coping well with the challenges of animal guardianship. That being said, the results suggest that many young guardians would benefit from guided training when they adopt a dog. The authors also point to aggression and unwanted barking as the biggest issues their participants faced, meaning that shelters and rescues should consider this when helping young people adopt a dog.