Owners, Not Breeds, Predict Whether Dogs Will Be Aggressive

Researchers suggest training your dog well and early on to avoid any problems with aggression—regardless of what breed you’ve got

dog stick
Hello human! I got you this stick! Jessie Hodge

Some dogs get a bad rap. Pit bulls, rottweilers, dobermans are all considered aggressive dogs, while labs and corgis are supposed to be fun and docile. But while breeding might have something to do with temperament, a recent study suggests that a far better predictor of how aggressive a dog will be is what their owner is like. 

Rachel Casey, a researcher at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences sent out 15,000 questionnaires to dog owners. About 4,000 people sent them back. Analyzing their responses, Casey found that certain traits of an owner said more about a dog's aggression than the dog’s breed could. For example, dogs with owners under 25 were almost twice as likely to be aggressive than dogs with owners over forty. Unsurprisingly, dogs who attended puppy-training classes were half as likely to be aggressive to strangers. Dogs who came from rescue centers were more likely to be aggressive than those bought from a breeder. 

Owners who trained their dogs using punishment and negative reinforcement wound up with twice as likely to be aggressive towards strangers, and three times as likely to lunge at family members. “These data suggest that although general characteristics of dogs and owners may be a factor at population level, it would be inappropriate to make assumptions about an individual animal's risk of aggression to people based on characteristics such as breed,” the researchers write.

Defining aggression can be difficult. An earlier study included barking in their survey about aggressive dogs, but Casey says that barking has a lot of roles and aggression isn’t the only one. "Aggression is incredibly complex. It's going to be both situation-dependent and dependent on the history of both the people and the dog," Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), told HealthDay. "You can't just pick the breed of the dog and say somehow that will be predictive of whether the dog will be aggressive."

Overall, the researchers suggest  training your dog well and early on to avoid any problems with aggression—regardless of what breed you’ve got. And if your dog is aggressive, well, maybe it's not his fault.

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