The domestication process of dogs has made them well adapted to humans.
Dog-human interactions are of increasing scientific interest and research has revealed that dogs look at humans for help when confronted with an unsolvable task, use human pointing cues to find hidden food, can discriminate between negative and positive human facial expressions, and even show contagious yawning.
However, research into the more subtle aspects of dog-human interactions is limited and scientific proof is lacking that dogs can respond to their owner’s affective state. Neuroticism in owners might lead to increased anxiety in dogs, facilitating the development of behavioural problems.
Furthermore, research suggests humans might misinterpret dog behaviour, and could consequently further facilitate behavioural problems by responding inaccurately to the behaviour of dogs.
This research investigates whether the owner’s affective state influences the behaviour of the dog and if the owner’s interpretation and response to dog behaviour is related to behavioural problems in the dog.
To answer the first research question, a behavioural test was carried out, in which the owner’s affective state was manipulated by means of experimental exposure to pictures and problem solving tasks, and the dog’s response was measured by means of a lateralization test, a social referencing test, an obedience test and a two choice test. Thirty-two dog-owner combinations were tested.
The manipulation of the owner’s affective state had a significant effect on the owner’s anxiousness in the intended direction, but in general the latter did not transfer to the dogs as evidenced by the results of the behavioural test. Only in the obedience test, dogs of owners in a negative affective state tended to eat a treat more often in the presence of the owner, whereas dogs of owners in a positive affective state tended to eat the treat more often in the absence of the owner.
The results of the behaviour tests demonstrated how the dogs’ responses to different stimuli and the number of stress signals displayed by the dogs corresponded to owner-reported behavioural traits of the dogs (neuroticism and separation anxiety).
By means of a questionnaire, owners were asked to rate the behaviour of dogs in several movie fragments and to indicate how they would respond if their dog showed this behaviour. These results were linked to the dogs’ behavioural traits, as reported by the owner in the CBARQ.
A total of 100 owners completed both questionnaires and the results showed that owners of neurotic dogs scored the movies higher for fear aggressive behaviour, which falls into the category of neurotic behaviour.
Owners of dogs with separation anxiety problems scored the movies relatively high on play. Seemingly, the owner’s experiences with his or her own dog influences the owner’s interpretation of dog behaviour.
Furthermore, it was found that owners of neurotic dogs reported to respond to behaviour more often with positive reinforcement. This suggests that positively reinforcing fearful or aggressive behaviour may be rewarding to the dog, encouraging it to display this behaviour.
To conclude, the owner’s interpretation of, and response to, dog behaviour is related to behavioural problems in the dog, although causal mechanisms remain speculative.
No proof was found for the influence of the owner’s affective state on the dog’s behaviour in an experimental setting. The limited sensitivity of the readout parameters or unwanted influences of the test environment may have masked such effects and, if existing, emotional contagion from dog-owner to dog may be subtle in its manifestation in the receiver or require more intense emotions in the sender.