Dogs have earned the nickname “man’s best friend” for a good reason. They can smell our stress, cry tears of joy when reunited with us and express curiosity about us when we are away. It seems only fair that humans return the favor by treating our canine friends with the same respect they seem to give us.
Yet when it comes to dog ownership, there are many different styles of dog-rearing — and not all are equal, or result in happy, well-adjusted dogs. Such was the subject of a recent study published in the scientific journal Animal Cognition, that sought to understand what produces emotionally healthy, well-adjusted, happy dogs.
While permissive owners were affectionate toward their dogs, they also “had lower expectations for things like training and rule following.”
For this study, scientists looked at dogs react when their owners are gone and have returned; how they responded to strangers when in their owners’ presence; and how they interacted with their owners while trying to win a game.
Their findings? The most successful dog owners are “authoritative,” not “permissive” or “authoritarian.” The researchers’ results could have big implications for how pet owners train their dogs.
But what does it mean to be an “authoritarian” pet parent — or a permissive or authoritative one, for that matter? Salon spoke with the researchers involved in the study to get a better sense of what makes Fido a very good boy.
“Authoritarian pet parents are those who have high expectations of their dogs, but may be less accustomed to adjusting their own behavior in response to the dog’s needs, whereas authoritative pet parents have both high expectations of their dog and a readiness to adjust their own behavior to help their dog feel comfortable, safe and supported,” Dr. Monique Udell, a professor at Oregon State University who was the study’s corresponding author, told Salon by email.
Udell added that while permissive owners were affectionate toward their dogs, they also “had lower expectations for things like training and rule following.” By contrast, dogs with authoritative pet parents strike a happy medium. They have “high expectations coupled with high warmth and responsiveness,” and in response, their dogs “were typically more secure and showed greater resilience.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this “is similar to what has been observed in human children,” Udell notes.
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The new research is significant, Udell argues, because it “contributes to our understanding of dogs as individuals and as a social species whose behavior is heavily influenced by bonded companions, including humans.” Dogs are not merely the products of their genes, but also of the psychological environment created for them by the humans with whom they regularly interact.
This is not the first study to unravel the complexities of the canine mind. Indeed, as dog cognition has become a more studied field in the past decade, research has repeatedly shown that dogs and humans are more alike in mind than we might think.
“Authoritative pet parents have both high expectations of their dog and a readiness to adjust their own behavior to help their dog feel comfortable, safe and supported.”
Indeed, dogs can have learning disabilities akin to those experienced by humans, such as difficulties in paying attention and tendencies toward hyperactivity akin to human ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Like humans, dogs can become jealous if they feel that someone else is competing for attention with a person they care. More tragically, some dogs can develop a neurodegenerative disorder similar to the human disease known as dementia — canine cognitive dysfunction.
Now, this new research further illustrates the multitude of dog-human similarities by exploring how dogs, like humans, emotionally thrive when they are treated with love and are taught to have “high expectations.”
Udell also offered advice for struggling dog owners.
“Some questions an owner might want to ask include: Is the troubling behavior new? Could there be an underlying health problem? When does the behavior occur? Is there anything I can change in the environment or in my dogs routine that might help the situation?” Udell suggested. “Typically addressing challenges with dogs starts with understanding when and why the behavior may be occurring. Reaching out for expert help early on may make this step easier and help get them on the path to a resolution more quickly.”
In terms of the paper’s implications for those struggling with dog training, Udell had advice, too.
“Our research suggests that a willingness to truly understand what your dog is communicating with its behavior and responding appropriately can make a meaningful difference to its wellbeing and to the human-dog bond,” she added.