Anxious Owner, Anxious Dog? - Instinct Dog Behavior & Training

Anxious Owner, Anxious Dog?

Welcome to the blog!

Today, we’re tackling a complex and contentious topic: the relationship between owner personality traits and dog behavior. We dive into the existing scientific research to explore if, how,and to what degree owner personality impacts the likelihood of a dog displaying behavior issues like fear, anxiety, and aggression.

Happy Reading,

The Human Factor: How Owner Personality Traits Impact Dog Behavior

If you have a dog with fear, anxiety, or aggression issues, you’ve likely wondered—or, more likely, worried—whether your own personality traits are to blame for their unwanted behaviors.

Understandably so. For years, dog owners have been fed messages like, “it’s all how you raise them” and “there are no bad dogs, only bad owners.” Even experienced dog behavior professionals, who fully acknowledge the huge influence of biology and individual traits on dog behavior outcomes, are quick to affirm that stressy, anxious owners are far more likely to have anxious dogs.

It makes sense for us to assume that our personality traits—and corresponding behaviors—have at least some influence on our dogs. If we look at the research on human interpersonal relationships, there is a pretty rich literature showing that traits like neuroticism and high levels of anxiety have a negative impact on our relationships with other people…and sometimes, on those people’s behavior as well.

Studies suggest that humans who score higher in neuroticism have trouble maintaining friendships and have a smaller number of friends than non-neurotic individuals (Kang, 2023); they have more difficulty sustaining healthy, happy marriages and romantic partnerships (Finn et al., 2013; McNulty, 2008); and neurotic mothers are more likely to have kids who display anxiety, depression, and behavior problems, even after controlling for genetic and environmental factors (Ask et al., 2021; Wright & Jackson, 2022).

But dogs are not humans. Yes, we maintain close personal relationships with our dogs. And most dogs excel at social and emotional intelligence. They are often incredibly savvy at perceiving—and sometimes mirroring—our human emotions. But they’ve also been selected to be uber-adaptive to, and accepting of, a wide variety of human traits and behaviors.

Today, we’re taking a look at the small(ish) but growing body of research that explores the potential connection between owner personality traits and dog behavior. We’ll walk through the findings of the studies, discuss some different potential explanations for the study results, then regroup to sort through what this all means for us as dog owners, in the most practical sense.

Review of Studies Examining Owner Personality Traits & Dog Behaviors

We reviewed five studies that examined the relationship between owner personality traits and dog behaviors. Below, we provide a brief summary of the key findings of each.

Note: there are additional studies that examine things like owner demographics (age, gender, experience, income, education, etc.) and owner behaviors (chosen training methods, etc.), as they relate to dog behavior outcomes. But, for the scope of this review, we stuck to studies that examined owner personality dimensions (neuroticism, conscientiousness, etc) as well as owner anxiety & depression levels.

Study Focus: Investigated the relationship between owner personality traits, depression, emotional regulation, training techniques, and dog behavior.

Measures: Used standardized questionnaires to assess owner personality traits and dog behavior. (Ten Item Personality Inventory to measure Big Five personality traits; Beck Depression Inventory; Emotional Regulation Questionnaire, and Mini Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire)

Participants: Included a sample size of 1,564 current dog owners

Significant Results: High neuroticism in owners was associated with increased owner-directed aggression and stranger-directed fear; low levels of conscientiousness and extraversion were also associated with higher rates of stranger-directed fear.

Study Focus: Examined how owner psychological characteristics, specifically owner levels of anxiety, depression, and self-esteem, impact dog behavior traits.

Measures: Assessed owner and dog traits via standardized questionnaires. (Beck Depression Inventory, Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7, Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire)

Participants: Included 497 dog owners

Significant Results: Owners with higher levels of anxiety and depression had dogs with increased levels of attention-seeking behavior, separation-related behavior, stranger-directed aggression & fear, non-social fear, dog-directed fear, touch sensitivity and excitability.

Study Focus: Explored the relationship between owner neuroticism and attachment-style and dogs’ behavior & sociability.

Measures: Used standardized questionnaires to assess owner personality and attachment style to pets, and dog behavior. (Big 5 Inventory, Experiences in Close Relationships-Revised, Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire, Dog Mentality Assessment)

Participants: Included 40 dog-owner pairs, with dogs separated into three groups: non-aggressive dogs, dogs aggressive towards humans, and dogs aggressive towards other animals

Significant Results: Owners with higher levels of neuroticism had dogs who displayed higher levels of aggression towards both humans, more stranger-directed aggression, and more owner-directed aggression; owners with higher avoidant attachment scores had dogs with higher levels of owner-directed aggression.

Study Focus: Investigated the impact of owner personality on aggressive behavior in English Cocker Spaniels.

Measures: Used standardized questionnaire to assess owner personality traits, and recorded owner-reported incidents of dogs’ aggressive behavior in 13 different situations. (Catell 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire, Aggression Questionnaire)

Participants: Included 285 owners of English cocker spaniels; dogs were classified into two groups (based on a previous study conducted with the same owners): “low in aggressiveness” and “high in aggressiveness”

Significant Results: Owners with “high aggression” dogs were significantly more likely to have higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of conscientiousness.

Study Focus: Explored the influence of owner personality on the behavior of dog-owner pairs. This was the only study in our review that did not rely solely on self-reports; it measured observable owner behaviors and compared them to owner personality traits and dog behaviors

Measures: Used standardized personality assessments and an in-person experiment in which the owner gave the dog various obedience cues in the presence of distractions (a stranger and a tennis ball). (Big 5 Inventory, German version)

Participants: Included 78 dog-owner pairs

Significant Results: Owners with higher levels of neuroticism used more commands/cues and gave more hand signals when trying to get their to dog perform a simple obedience task. They also had dogs who took longer to perform the sit command. Owners with higher levels of extraversion praised their dogs more often, and had dogs who spent more time looking at them.

How Does Owner Personality Impact Dog Behavior?

Multiple studies show there is a significant relationship between owner personality traits and dog behaviors. Who we are as people does, in fact, appear to be connected to how our dogs show up in the world.

But when it comes to explaining why/how certain owner personality traits might impact our dogs’ behavior, most of the existing studies could only hypothesize at potential explanations. In the discussion sections of their papers, the authors leaned on human-focused research findings to support their theories.

Here are a few of the authors’ thoughts on how owner personality traits may impact dog behavior:

Gobbo & Zupan (2020) suggest that “neurotic owners affect their pets’ behavior by being less warm, more hostile and overall displaying unpredictable styles of caretaking, resulting in higher stress levels and decreased social control.

Dodman et al. (2018) consider that “Previous studies have also found that ‘neurotic’ emotionally unstable dog owners are more likely to report having dogs with owner-directed aggression problems. This may be an indication of these dogs’ greater willingness to assert themselves aggressively in competitive interactions with their more anxious owners.

They go on to state, “People with low conscientiousness scores see themselves as ‘disorganized, careless’ vs. ‘dependable, self-disciplined’. Like most animals, dogs tend to find unpredictable environments stressful, and it is possible that the more pronounced fear of strangers displayed by these dogs in some way reflects the stress of living with their more disorganized owners.

Podberscek & Serpell (1997) highlight that even if the interpretation that “anxious, tense and neurotic owners sometimes cause their pets to become more aggressive or badly behaved” is accurate, the mechanism of this cause and effect relationship is really unclear. The authors remind us that, based on existing research, we can’t say with any certainty whether it’s that, for example, anxious or neurotic owners are more protective of their dogs and therefore tend not to socialize them as much during early life; or whether dogs are responding with increased stress levels to the owners’ anxiety about life in general; or, whether the owners’ anxiety and less consistent behavior is creating increased conflict between owner and dog. Or, some combination of all of the above.

If we consider the authors’ thoughts together with human-focused research findings, we can reasonably conclude that owner personality traits impact dog behavior in at least two ways:

  1. Behavioral Influence: Our behaviors, which are influenced by our personality traits, affect how we interact with our dogs, which in turn influences their behavior to some degree.
  2. Emotional Contagion: Dogs have been shown to experience emotional contagion—the phenomenon in which emotions and related behaviors “spread”, unconsciously, from one individual to another. They can absolutely pick up on and mirror our current emotional states (Huber et al., 2017). And those emotional states are often influenced by our personality traits

Feeling Discouraged? Stop Right There.

Let’s Explore What Significant Really Means.

If you are feeling a renewed sense of guilt or personal blame about your dog’s behavior based on the findings we reviewed above—if you’re feeling like the people in your life who have told you “it’s all your fault” might actually be right—please, stop right there.

Yes, there does seem to be a significant relationship between who we are as individuals, and how our dogs behave. But “significant” in statistical terms means something very different than “significant” in our everyday lives.

Below, we take a closer look at the reviewed studies’ results to move beyond the question of “IF”, and explore the very important question of, “to what degree” our personality traits appear to influence our dogs behavior outcomes.

Exploring Effect Sizes

For three of the five studies (Kis et al., 2012; Podberscek & Serpell, 1997; and Gobbo & Zupan, 2020), we are unable to parse out the degree to which certain owner personality traits impact variances in dog behavior, either because of the type of statistical tests used in the study, or because the authors did not share the effect sizes of their statistically significant results within their published papers.

For Gobbo & Zupan (2020), in which owners with higher neuroticism scores were found to be significantly more likely to have dogs with human-directed aggression, what we can say is this:

  • Owners of human-aggressive dogs and owners of non-aggressive dogs both had average neuroticism scores that fell within the “moderate” range of the Big 5 scoring scale. But, owners of human-aggressive dogs averaged a neuroticism score of 32.7, which is at the higher end of the moderate range, while owners of non-aggressive dogs averaged a neuroticism score of 25, which is at the lower end of the moderate range.

What does that mean in practical terms? Who knows.

The two remaining studies (Dodman et al., 2018 and Clarke & Loftus, 2023) provide more insight about the magnitude or size of the relationship between certain owner personality traits and dog behavior variances:

In Dodman et al. (2018), the authors state that, while they found a large number of significant relationships between owner personality traits and severity of various dog behaviors, most of those associations accounted for less than 10% of the variance in the dog’s behavior.

In Clarke & Loftus (2023), the authors reported that, while the relationships where statistically significant, owner traits like depression and anxiety explained only small portions of the variance in dog behaviors – typically less than 10% and most often, accounting for only 3-5%, of the variation in behavior frequencies/occurrences between dogs.

One Piece of a Bigger Puzzle

While our personality does appear to be connected to our dogs’ behavior, it’s a smaller piece of the puzzle than we might imagine—or, perhaps better said, than we’ve often been led to believe.

Does this mean we should discount our personality influence on our dogs as meaningless and inconsequential?

Absolutely not—because even if it’s (sometimes) a smaller piece of the puzzle than we might assume, it’s still an important one.

But it does mean that we need to stop heaping blame upon ourselves as being the primary cause of our dogs’ behavior issues.

Instead, we’re far better served focusing on concrete tactics we can use to help both us and our dogs feel more relaxed, comfortable, and confident moving through the world together.

Practical Advice for Dog Owners

Here are a few things to focus on if you’re concerned about how your own personality traits might be impacting your pup:

1. Prioritize Predictability

  • It’s hypothesized that a lack of predictability may be one of the primary ways that owner anxiety and neuroticism levels translate into higher rates of certain dog behavior issues.
  • Establish simple routines, boundaries and rules of engagement that make it easier for you to behave in a predictable manner with your pup.

2. Focus on Positive Interactions

  • Make a list of all the things your dog does—and activities you do together—that bring you both peace and/or joy. Do more of those things.
  • Choose training methods that focus on positive reinforcement, and that emphasize warmth and social connection. Training methods that prioritize punishment and aversive techniques have been shown to increase aggression and other behavior issues in dogs (Dodman et al., 2018).

3. Learn about Dog Body Language

  • Educate yourself about canine body language and signs of stress or discomfort. Understanding your dog’s signals can help you respond appropriately and create a more harmonious relationship. Lili Chin’s book, Doggie Language, is a great place to start.

4. Seek Support

  • Having a dog with fear, anxiety, and aggression issues is stressful for every dog owner, whether you tend toward a more anxious personality or not.
  • If you find yourself struggling with anxiety, depression, or other emotional challenges, consider whether you might benefit from outside support via a therapist or counselor.
  • If you’re concerned about specific behavior issues, relieve yourself of some of the stress and burden of trying to navigate it all on your own; consult with a qualified behavior consultant to collaborate on a tailored plan to address your dog’s needs. And, connect with other dog owners—via online or in-person communities—who are experiencing similar issues.


Ask, H., Eilertsen, E. M., Gjerde, L. C., Hannigan, L. J., Gustavson, K., Havdahl, A., … & Ystrom, E. (2021). Intergenerational transmission of parental neuroticism to emotional problems in 8‐year‐old children: Genetic and environmental influences. JCPP advances, 1(4), e12054.

Clarke, T., & Loftus, E. (2023). Owner psychological characteristics predict dog behavioral traits. University of Edinburgh, Preprint, not yet published,

Dodman NH, Brown DC, Serpell JA (2018) Associations between owner personality and psychological status and the prevalence of canine behavior problems. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0192846. 

Finn, C., Mitte, K., & Neyer, F. J. (2013). The Relationship–specific Interpretation Bias Mediates the Link between Neuroticism and Satisfaction in Couples. European Journal of Personality, 27(2), 200-212.

Gobbo E, Zupan M. Dogs’ Sociability, Owners’ Neuroticism and Attachment Style to Pets as Predictors of Dog Aggression. Animals. 2020; 10(2):315.

Huber A, Barber ALA, Faragó T, Müller CA, Huber L. Investigating emotional contagion in dogs (Canis familiaris) to emotional sounds of humans and conspecifics. Anim Cogn. 2017 Jul;20(4):703-715. doi: 10.1007/s10071-017-1092-8. Epub 2017 Apr 21. PMID: 28432495; PMCID: PMC5486498.

Kang W, Establishing the associations between the Big Five personality traits and self-reported number of close friends: A cross-sectional and longitudinal study. Acta Psychologica, Volume 239, 2023, 104010, ISSN 0001-6918,

Kis A, Turcsán B, Miklósi Á, Gácsi M. The effect of the owner’s personality on the behaviour of owner-dog dyads. Interaction Studies: Social Behaviour and Communication in Biological and Artificial Systems. 2012;13(3):373-385. doi:10.1075/is.13.3.03kis

McNulty JK. Neuroticism and interpersonal negativity: the independent contributions of perceptions and behaviors. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2008 Nov;34(11):1439-50. doi: 10.1177/0146167208322558. Epub 2008 Aug 13. PMID: 18703488.

Podberscek, A.L. and Serpell, J.A. (1997), Aggressive behaviour in English cocker spaniels and the personality of their owners. Veterinary Record, 141: 73-76.

Wright, Amanda & Jackson, Joshua. (2022). Is parent personality associated with adolescent outcomes for their child? A response surface analysis approach. 10.31234/

Check out the resources below!

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