Can Dog Owners Recognize Distress in Their Dog?

If you are a dog owner, how good do you think you are at spotting distress in their dog?  Do you think you are fairly good at it – and better than anyone else, because you are more familiar with your dog’s behavior than anyone? 

A study recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior examined the abilities of owners to detect distress in their dogs.  The study by Chiara Mariti*, and her colleagues at the University of Pisa, in Italy interviewed over 1,100 dog owners asking them what they thought stress was, what the behavioral signs of stress were and how stressed they thought their dogs were on average.

They found that most people could define stress in an accurate way, and that most could identify the most extreme signs of stress such as crying and trembling. But these are the only two out of 19 stress related behaviors that the majority of owners could consistently identify.  Said another way, fewer than half of the 1100 owners surveyed were aware of any but the most extreme signs of stress in their dogs.

That’s a scary and disconcerting finding, not only for the welfare of dogs but also for being able to have safe interactions with them.  Dogs that are stressed and anxious typically pose more of a risk of biting than those that are calm and relaxed.  And dogs under chronic stress are not only not living quality lives, but are also more prone to stress related diseases and illnesses.

As the authors point out, owners are in need of better education about what distresses dogs and how to recognize the more subtle signs of distress.  Education in this area is a service pet professionals who are knowledgeable about dog behavior and body language can, and should provide to their clients. 

One helpful resource is our DVD on Canine Body Postures.  How many of the other 17 stress related behaviors from the study do you think you could identify? The study also identified differences in the ability to recognize distress in their dogs between men and women, older versus younger people and those with and without high school educations.  What do you think the results were?

We provide these and other results from the study in a comprehensive review of this paper for the members of our Behavior Education Network.   Monthly reviews of scientific papers are just one of the many benefits of being a member of BehaviorEducationNetwork.

*Mariti, C., Gazzano, A., Moore, J.L., Baragli, P., Chelli, L. & Sighieri, C. 2012. Perception of dogs’ stress by their owners. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 7, 213-219.

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