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Morgan with Trooper Stanker on scent wall

Photo from John Donges

Research from James Serpell, the Marie A. Moore Professor of Ethics and Animal Welfare at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, brings to light new research that associates certain' aversive behavior problems in owners with aggressive behavior in their pets. The research also looked into the role harmful training methods play in this relationship.

Serpell's study — published this February with Nicholas Dodman of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies and Dorothy Cimino Brown, former Penn Vet research now at Martingale Consulting — collected self-reported data from 1,564 dog owners about their own personalities, training habits, and mental health, using online questionnaires. Owners also reported their dog's personalities using a condensed version of Serpell's Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire.

The research found "small but significant connections" between owners' use of confrontational training methods and behavioral problems among dogs, Penn Today reported. According to the study, harsh methods of training dogs, such as beating or using shock collars, sometimes correlated to aggressive habits, such as persistent barking towards the owner and strangers and separation anxiety. In addition, owners with higher scores of emotional stability also reported less instances of their dogs urinating in the house when left alone.

The study found a correlation, too, between the prevalence of male depression and the training tactics used on their dogs. The study found that men who exhibited even moderate depression were five times more likely to report using harmful training methods on their dogs compared to women without depression.

“This was a really striking result,” Serpell told Penn Today. “When we went back and researched the literature on depression in men and in women, we found that they tend to express depression in different ways; men have a tendency to become aggressive or short-fused, whereas women seem to internalize their depression more.”

The study noted that it needed to further investigate a causal link between the training methods, owner behavior, and pet behavior, and that it could not conclusively prove how these factors were connected.

Nonetheless, one of the most notable issues raised by this study, Serpell told Penn Today, is the common notion that those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder should adopt dogs as pets. This study brings to light potential dangers in harmful behavior in those situations.

“There is a slightly worrisome implication for the promotion of the use of dogs for ex-servicemen with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Serpell said to Penn Today. “I think on the whole dogs can be incredibly beneficial but we do need to be alert for the possibility of owners lashing out against their dogs.”

Research from biologists at the University of Vienna and Oxford showed somewhat similar findings — the dogs in their experiment mimicked the actions and methods their owners used when opening a box.

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated that harmful training methods in owners led to certain aggressive behavior in dogs and that the study looked at owners of cocker spaniels. The current version indicates that there is a correlation between the harmful training methods and certain aggressive behavior in dogs and that the study looked generally at dog owners. The Daily Pennsylvanian regrets the errors.