That Growling Dog Probably Has a Growling Owner Too
People who are less agreeable tend to prefer aggressive dogs, according to a new study. But that's not the whole story.
By Ian Landau
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THURSDAY, May 31, 2012 —Next time you're out for a walk and you see a youthful person walking an aggressive-looking dog you may want to steer clear — of the owner, that is. Younger people who are disagreeable (meaning less concerned with others' well-being, suspicious, unfriendly, and competitive) are likely to prefer dogs perceived to be aggressive, according to a new study conducted by psychologists at Britain's University of Leicester. The research adds to the commonly held belief that the sort of dog a person prefers is a reflection of his or her personality.
Led by Dr. Vincent Egan, a senior lecturer in Forensic Psychology, the Leicester team "investigated the relationship between dimensions of personality, self-reports of delinquency, mating effort, and the desire to own a dog perceived as aggressive," according to the report on the study, which appears in the June issue of the journalAnthrozoos. To find out if there was a link between human personality and choice of dog breeds, the researchers asked study participants of varied ages from Britain and North America — 235 total — to complete an online survey in which they rated the aggressiveness of common dog breeds, and also answered questions about their own personality, past delinquent behavior, and mating habits.
Aggressive-Dog Fans Are Disagreeable, Not Criminal
Not surprisingly, subjects perceived dogs such as bull terriers and boxers as more aggressive. And those dogs, the researchers reported, were generally preferred by "persons lower in agreeableness, higher in neuroticism and conscientiousness, and of younger age."
However, while you might think young folks whose dogs look like a shark on a leash are more likely to be troublemakers, the study found no link between delinquency and people's preferences for aggressive-looking pooches. Similarly, liking aggressive dogs was "not necessarily driven by self-reported status display and intersexual competition," the authors write. In other words, researchers found that most people don't use tough-looking dogs as tools to show off or to attract romantic partners.
But what about this "conscientiousness" factor? In psychological terms, conscientiousness is one of the so-called Big Five personality traits (along with agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience). Highly conscientious people tend to be very organized, careful, disciplined, and rule oriented. The association between liking aggressive-seeming dogs and conscientiousness in the Leicester study was small, Dr. Egan said in a university news release, but he said the connection may be that just like conscientious humans "dogs also prefer rules and firm boundaries themselves."
Don't Judge a Dog by His Owner (or Vice Versa)
On a recent balmy, bright spring afternoon at the dog run next to New York's American Museum of Natural History, dog behavior expert and trainer Victoria Wells said she wasn't surprised by the Leicester study. "I wouldn’t think that someone who is anti-social is going to get a super-social dog," she said, adding that people low in agreeableness "probably don’t want their dog to approach everybody that they see."
Still, just as with people, Wells said you can't always judge the temperament of a dog by how cute or menacing it appears to be. Pointing out a friendly seeming chow hopping about, she said that while chows "look really fluffy and friendly, sometimes they can be a little temperamental and they don’t like to be approached by strangers — they’re really owner-oriented."
And on the other side of this appearances-may-not-be-what-they-seem coin there's Wells herself, who this afternoon was sporting electric blue pigtails, tattoos, nose rings, a black top, black skirt, black tights, and black boots. When asked what type of dog most people would assume she'd have, she replied, "Probably a rottweiler!" She actually has a lazy shih-tzu with one eye. And in terms of her and her dog's personalities matching up, Wells said that hasn't been the case. "She barks at me all the time when she wants something, and I’m just kind of laid back," she said.
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