Does Your Dog's Behavior Affect How Much You Love Him?

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Jan. 13, 2014

Do you love your dog? Why?

Okay, that’s an unfair question. Trying to identify the causative factors behind something as inexplicable as love is probably an exercise in futility. However, attachment is certainly a part of love and that can be measured, as can a dog’s behavioral characteristics. Which raises the question: Are a dog’s behavioral characteristics “predictive of the quality of the relationship between dogs and their owners (i.e., owner attachment to dog)”?

This is just one of the questions that researchers addressed in a paper recently published in the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin. The answer is very relevant with regards to how devoted people are to their pets and issues surrounding pet retention and neglect.

Ninety-two children and sixty adults from sixty dog-owning families completed multiple surveys including:

  • The first 74 questions of the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), which “forces respondents to report on concrete, observable dog behaviors on a series of 5-point ordinal rating scales.”
  • The Pet Attitude Scale-Modified
  • The Dog Care Responsibility Inventory
  • The Pet Attachment Scale

The study’s authors found the following:

After controlling for [attitudes towards pets and the amount of time spent caring for the dog], the strength of owner attachment to dogs related to several dog behavioral characteristics. Regardless of gender, age class, or race/ethnicity, owners reported stronger attachment for dogs that scored high on trainability and separation problems. These findings indicate that individuals are most likely to benefit from interacting with dogs that are well-behaved and show high affinity for human social contact. Neither stranger-related fear nor aggression problems were associated with owner attachment to dogs, although it should be noted that almost all owners rated their dogs extremely low on both of these characteristics. This is not unexpected given that this was a study of families, and purchasing, adopting, or keeping a dog with severely aggressive or fearful behavioral problems would put children at risk. Because there was not much variation in owners’ reports on dog aggression and fear, conclusions cannot be drawn from this study about the quality of the owner-dog relationship when dogs are aggressive or fearful.

We also found that the effects of dog attention-seeking behavior on owner attachment differed between adults and children. For adults, level of dog attention-seeking behavior positively predicted their levels of attachment to their dogs, but for children, dog attention-seeking behavior did not relate to how attached they were to their dogs. Even when dogs showed low levels of attention-seeking behavior, children’s levels of attachment to their dogs were high. [Just another reason to love kids!]

This study emphasizes the need for good basic training for pet dogs before problems arise. Puppy “kindergarten” classes are invaluable. When a new adult dog is brought into the home, owners should consider making an appointment with a well-qualified trainer for an evaluation. Shelters can incorporate basic training into their pre-adoptive plan to increase the likelihood that animals leaving their care are going to “forever” homes.

I find it fascinating that the study found a positive correlation between strong owner attachment and separation problems. I wonder, is this a chicken and egg thing? In other words, did the separation problems cause the strong owner attachment or was it the other way around? That’s a study for another day, I suppose.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


Hoffman CL, Chen P, Serpell J, Jacobson K. Do Dog Behavioral Characteristics Predict the Quality of the Relationship between Dogs and Their Owners? Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin 2013, Vol. 1, No. 1, 20-37.

Image: Thinkstock

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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