The millennial dog parent may be a meme, but it’s certainly based in reality. And it turns out that, just like raising children, how we parent our pups has a significant impact on their wellbeing and our relationship.
“Disorders, emotional and cognitive states such as separation anxiety, general anxiety, reactivity, and aggression are all influenced by a parent and immediate family that a dog has frequent interactions with,” says Russell Hartstein, a certified dog behaviorist and trainer in Los Angeles. “Dogs don’t live in a vacuum, and their environment greatly influences everything about them.”
Here’s how your parenting style affects your dog’s behaviour.
Parenting and attachment styles 101
In human behavioural theory, there are three (or four or five, depending on your source) types of parenting styles. Authoritarian parents tend to focus on obedience to rules, punishment, and consequences. Permissive parents, on the other hand, are lenient, rarely enforce rules, and rarely reinforce consequences. In the middle are authoritative parents, who set limits and use consequences while also validating children’s feelings and focusing on positive reinforcement for behaviour.
As you might expect, kids who grow up with authoritative parents tend to have better self-advocacy, self-expression, and decision-making skills as adults than those whose parents are authoritarian or permissive.
A related concept in human relationships is attachment style: Securely attached people are comfortable both building connection and being independent, while those with anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment struggle in various ways with intimacy and relational interactions.
Does your dog parenting style matter?
Obviously, the above theories weren’t meant to describe behaviour in other species, but researchers are seeing some parallels in dogs. A recent study published in the journal Animal Cognition found that authoritative owners had dogs with the highest rates of secure attachment, sociability, and problem-solving skills compared to dogs whose styles were categorised as authoritarian or permissive.
Mindy Waite, a certified dog behaviorist at Senior Tail Waggers, says that authoritative dog owners are supportive but also have firm limits to address problem behaviours early on.
“By being nurturing and responsive, these owners are likely ensuring their dog’s basic and developmental needs are met, thus avoiding potential behaviour problems resulting from inadequate environmental setups,” Waite says.
In a practical sense, authoritative puppy parenting involves regularly attuning to your dog’s communication signals — being overstimulated or fearful in a social situation, for example — and communicating clearly back to them. Behaviorists also recommend positive reinforcement and rewards for learning over dominance and punishment, which are more authoritarian than authoritative.
Harsh verbal and physical handling, for example, are more likely to lead to unpredictable and aggressive behaviour from your dog, Hartstein says.
Here are a few authoritarian strategies to avoid, according to the experts:
- Holding your dog in place or flipping them around
- Jerking your dog’s leash
- Withholding valued items
- Equipment designed to inflict pain (choke chains, prong collars)
Finally, your emotional state matters. If you’re stressed, angry, or afraid, that will affect your dog’s behaviour. Try to keep your own emotions in check, and take a few breaths or step away from a situation if you need to.
Does your dog’s age matter?
The parenting style your dog experiences in puppyhood can have lifelong impacts, according to Waite — but that doesn’t mean all is lost if you adopted your dog at an older age or are just now learning what it means to be authoritative instead of authoritarian or permissive.
“Adult dogs can quickly learn new behaviours and adapt to their new environment, and I would believe that authoritarian owners produce more behaviourally-sound adult dogs than other types of parenting styles,” Waite says. “Again, these types of owners are more likely to read their dogs, respond in ways that ensure desired behavioural outcomes, and remove these dogs from contexts that are too challenging for them, which could produce undesirable or even dangerous behaviours.”
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