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Highly sensitive personality and behavior problems in dogs

The Question

I recently came across a paper (Bräm Dubé et al. 2020) that looked at a characteristic called ‘sensory processing sensitivity’ or, more informally, ‘high sensitivity’. The authors define “high sensitivity” as a personality trait where people 1) process sensory information more deeply than normal, 2) are hyperaware of stimuli, and 3) react to stimuli with strong emotional responses. In previous research, the same group found evidence of a similar trait in domestic dogs, which they refer to as canine Sensory Processing Sensitivity (cSPS).

The authors wanted to examine the relationship between cSPS, owner personality and training style, and dog behavior. They lay out their argument for thinking there may be a link between these factors as follows. SPS in humans is associated with a number of mental health problems including anxiety and depression. We also know that the parents’ personality can influence behavior problems in their children. In humans, there is an interaction between parenting style and child personality – more sensitive individuals are more deeply impacted by poor parenting style. We have good evidence that humans and dogs form attachments similar to the parent-child attachment. Finally, there is evidence from previous studies that owner personality may play a role in behavior issues in dogs. All of these factors make it worth investigating the relationship between cSPS, owner characteristics, and behavior issues in dogs.

Survey Sample

The data was gathered using surveys. They had 3,646 owners respond to the survey which gives us a nice large sample size. This is important because large samples are more likely to give us an accurate picture of the population they are representing. ‘Behavior problem’ is a relatively vague term that can have a lot of different meanings. For this study, the researchers simply defined ‘behavior problem’ as anything that was defined as a problem behavior by the owner. That does not necessarily mean that it represents abnormal behavior. However, this is still valuable information to have because if the owner views a behavior as problematic that will influence how they interact with the dog, how likely they are to keep the dog, and how likely they are to seek help for the behavior.

Image by Ri Butov

Results

In the survey, 42% of owners reported that their dogs have behavior problems. The researchers also asked about the types of training methods used. Rather than using technical terms like “positive punishment” and “negative punishment” they described examples of what the owner might do and asked respondents to indicate whether they had used that particular method. For example, tugging on the lead, or giving their dog a time out. Based on these answers, 73% of owners used positive punishment and 67% used negative punishment. Almost every single person in the study (with the exception of three respondents) used positive reinforcement, which is very nice to see!

Higher cSPS scores (meaning dogs were more sensitive) were positively correlated with the likelihood of owner-reported behavior issues. That means that dogs that were more sensitive were also more likely to have owners that reported behavior issues. Correspondingly, dogs with lower cSPS scores were less likely to have owner-reported behavior issues. The cSPS score was better at predicting owner-reported behavior issues than any other factor examined in this study.

In addition, owners with higher SPS scores were more likely to report behavior problems. They were also more likely to report problems if there was a mismatch between the human and dog’s scores, especially if the dog’s score was higher than their own. So, if a person had a low SPS score and the dog had a high cSPS score, the owner was more likely to report behavior problems than if both the owner and the dog had low scores or both had high scores.

Owners that used positive punishment were also more likely to have dogs that had behavior problems, regardless of whether the dog was highly sensitive or not. The use of negative punishment was also associated with increased behavior problems, but only in highly sensitive dogs.

Image by Josep Monter Martinez

Possible explanations

Research on this topic is just beginning. That means interpretation of the results if fairly challenging and is largely (educated) guesswork. What this tells us is that dogs with the highly sensitive personality trait may be more likely to have behavior issues. At least, according to their owners. Remember, this doesn’t mean the dog’s behavior is actually abnormal, but that the owner perceives it as a problem. (You may also notice that I said highly sensitive dogs “may be more likely to have behavior issues” instead of they “are more likely to have behavior issues”. This is because this was one study. We need these results to be replicated before we can say with conviction that there is definitely a link between behavior issues and high scores on the canine Sensory Processing Sensitivity scale.)

The authors put forward several different possible explanations for the findings. First, individuals with SPS are more sensitive and responsive to external stimuli which means they may be more easily overwhelmed by stimuli. This feeling of being overwhelmed can lead to stress. In people, there is a positive association between high SPS scores and self-reported levels of stress. It’s possible that our dogs could have a similar experience. If dogs with cSPS personality traits are more vulnerable to stress, that could certainly make them more likely to show a wide range of behavior problems, including anxiety-related issues and decreased tolerance for frustration. Another possibility is that dogs with higher cSPS are more sensitive to the characteristics of their owners, such as owner personality and training style. We do know that SPS seems to be associated with increased sensitivity to the environment, and owners are part of a dog’s environment, so this idea is consistent with what we know about SPS in humans.

Image by Andrés Carlo

Positive punishment was associated with increased behavior problems in dogs. Negative punishment was also associated with a higher incidence of behavior problems, but only in dogs that scored high on the cSPS scale. This could mean a number of things. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the positive punishment (and negative punishment in high cSPS dogs) is responsible for the increased behavior problems. However, we cannot make that conclusion from the data in this study. That’s because this is a correlational study. It only tells us that these two factors are related. The data from this particular study cannot tell us which direction things are going in. Does the punishment cause the behavior problems? Do the behavior problems cause the punishment? Or is there some third factor that’s contributing to both?

Here are some possibilities:

  • Punishment could be a direct cause of behavior problems in dogs. In this case, positive punishment may be contributing to behavior problems in all dogs, but negative punishment only results in increased behavior problems in dogs that are highly sensitive.
  • Dogs with highly sensitive personalities may be more difficult to manage and dogs that are more difficult to manage may be punished more often. Perhaps dogs with the highly sensitive personality trait don’t react as well to positive punishment, so the owners focus on negative punishment instead.
  • Inexperienced or less skilled owners have dogs that have increased behavior problems and use punishment more often, but the use of punishment and behavior problems are not directly related.

Any of the above could be true. There are other possible explanations as well, I just listed a few examples. We simply cannot know from the data we have here. We need additional studies to try to piece apart the answer.

Image by Mabel Amber

I think this is a good example of how behavior can get very complicated, very quickly. On the face of it, this may seem like a simple study. Dogs with highly sensitive personality have more behavior problems. But, once you start to dig into it just a lit bit, things start to get very murky. Here are some key points:

  • Canine SPS is not a behavior issue or an abnormal behavior. It is a personality characteristic.
  • In this study, canine SPS was associated with increased incidence of owner-reported behavior issues in dogs. Note that the study did not ask for specifics on the behavior issues, so those behavior issues could be anything from repeatedly getting into the trash, to biting family members.
  • Owners with high SPS scores and owners that used positive punishment were also more likely to report behavior problems. Owners that used negative punishment were more likely to behavior problems in dogs with high cSPS scores.
  • Owners were more likely to report behavior problems if there was a big difference between their SPS score and their dog’s SPS score, especially if the dog’s score was higher.
  • This study, and their previous study finding evidence of sensory processing sensitivity in dogs, is a good starting point. However, more data is needed before we can say with any kind of authority that dogs can have a highly sensitive personality and that it impacts behavior and dog/owner relationship

Implications

So, what can we do with this information? Is it worthless? Not at all! I think one of the most important and impactful things we can do is be curious. Use this information to encourage you to look at dog behavior from a different perspective. Think about what might be motivating the dog’s behavior. Could it be that they are feeling overwhelmed because there is too much going on? Could moving them to a quieter place be helpful? Or finding some other way to limit their sensory input?

Image by Candid_Shots

If you work with clients, it may be helpful to alert the client to the possibility that the dog may be easily overwhelmed and teach them how to help their dog cope with those feelings. Better yet, teach the client how to prevent their dog from getting to that point in the first place! Examples of that include learning to watch for subtle signs that a dog is becoming overwhelmed. In many dogs, this will present as an inability to focus on the owner or food and difficulty settling or relaxing. They may be alerting and pulling toward multiple different stimuli in the environment. Other dogs may begin the process of shutting down and may slow down or stop frequently on a walk. When we see these signs, it’s a good time to move a dog to a quieter environment. That may mean leaving a training class or park, or moving to a quieter area.

Again, reducing incoming stimuli can also be helpful. This can be done with the use of visual barriers, or by moving dogs further away from activity. Calming Caps are mesh caps for dogs that cover their eyes. They are still able to see, but the cap limits the amount of visual stimulation coming in and can have a calming effect on many dogs. The cap should be introduced slowly with the use of food so that the dog is comfortable wearing it. The Muzzle Up project website has some great videos on muzzle training a dog and the same principles can be applied to getting a dog comfortable with a calming cap.

This data also suggests that we may need to be extra careful about using negative punishment with cSPS dogs. The most common forms of negative punishment are things like turning your back on the dog or giving them a time out. I think negative punishment can be helpful at times, but if it is exercised too often and is not combined with skills training it can lead to increased frustration and distress without effectively changing the behavior. In terms of skills training, I recommend teaching dogs: 1) what we want them to do (for example, walk on a loose leash or stay on a bed) and 2) how to cope with stress in acceptable ways (such as playing tug or chewing on a bone).

If you’d like to learn more about recent behavior research in dogs, then you’d love my Research Bites monthly webinars. In January, we’ll be talking about a research paper on clicker training. I also offer several multi-week courses on the science behind dog training and behavior. My next course, Advanced Concepts in Instrumental Learning – starts on January 14th. In February, I’ll be teaching a course on Advanced Concepts in Learning – Beyond Reinforcement and Punishment. The February course is more focused on topics outside of instrumental learning, including emotional and observational learning and the neuroscience of learning.

References

Bräm Dubé, M., Asher, L., Würbel, H. et al. Parallels in the interactive effect of highly sensitive personality and social factors on behaviour problems in dogs and humans. Sci Rep 10, 5288 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-62094-9

Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

2 comments

  1. Having a dog high on the cSPS scale is a challenge I do not recommend for a typical working-person; or a person who enjoys hobbies other than dog-related activities; or a person who has kids; or a person who wants kids; or a person with neighbors that has kids or dogs; or anyone who wants a life with mental and emotional peace by default. Positive punishment is overwhelming, negative punishment is underwhelming; their attention is all over the place until you work thru that energy, a hyper vigilant reactive energy that creates hyper vigilance in the handler because there are 1000 reactions per moment and each one requires a calmness to lead and redirect. Maintaining a calm environment is imperative, however readjusting to a human-centric environments then become overwhelming very quickly. Excitability is off the charts as a flip side of the low threshold for frustration. The emotional response to sound, movement, and being alone for more than a few minutes is crazy making.

    It took two years for my dog to stop trying to follow me into the bathroom, and 11 months for him to hang in the yard for more than a few seconds without acting like their was an invisible monster chasing him into the house.

    After 9 years, my patience is still tested way too often – but at the same time this dog is incredibly sweet, extraordinarily playful, engaging, loyal, and an absolute joy to watch be himself. His zest for life is beyond the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, which is why he deserves my best effort to give him a good one.

  2. I wished I had been aware of highly sensitive dogs 2 years ago. I have put my lil pup through so many situations that have only exacerbated his behavioral issues. Sadly, I listened to too many different trainers that had no idea either about these sensitive creatures. My veterinarian believes he needs to be put down because he has become so aggressive/biting me. I can see how it’s all fear based.
    He is the most darling, brightest little dog I’ve ever had, fascinating in ever so many quirky ways. Now, I fear I have caused harm beyond repair with all these traumatizing trainings, grooming nightmares, experiences, vet visits, etc. At a loss on how to help with any efficacy.
    In some small strange way it helps to know my lil guy is just a exceedingly sensitive boy that struggles to be at home in our crazy human world, but heartbreaking as well.

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