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When Dogs Are Bad, Are Their Owners to Blame?

More often than not, they do nothing when their dogs bite.

Key points

  • A recent study looks at the characteristics of individuals whose dogs were confiscated for severe biting incidents.
  • At the time of the biting incident, 63 percent of dog owners did not provide assistance and only 14 percent demonstrated cooperative behavior.
  • Owners of aggressive dogs were found to be more likely to have a history of antisocial behaviors and instances of animal abuse or neglect.
Linnaea Mallette CC0 Public Domain
Linnaea Mallette CC0 Public Domain

Some readers may be old enough to remember Barbara Woodhouse, a British dog trainer and author. Her 1980 BBC series made her a television personality at the age of 70.

In her various books and many TV appearances, Woodhouse's motto was always some version of "There are no bad dogs, only bad owners." A new study coming out of the Netherlands seems to validate her claim—at least for really bad dogs.

The team of researchers in this new study was led by Ineke R. van Herwijnen at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University. They decided to look at demonstrably bad dogs, with "bad" defined as being extremely aggressive. This investigation focused on dogs that had gotten into a biting situation, involving a human or animal, in which the outcome was so severe that the dog was seized and confiscated by a governmental agency in the Netherlands. They looked at a total of 374 dogs in two batches: 159 dogs had been confiscated between the years 2008-2010, and a second group of 215 dogs had been impounded between the years 2020-2022.

Most previous studies that have looked at aggressive dogs have focused on breed. This study built on the findings of those earlier studies in that the majority of the dogs seized for aggressive behavior were classified as a "pitbull-type" (58 percent). However, the unique aspect of this investigation was that it primarily studied the characteristics of the owners of these aggressive animals.

How Do Owners of Aggressive Dogs Act?

The owners of these belligerent dogs were mostly male (61 percent). The victims were 51 percent adults; 13 percent children; 30 percent other dogs; and 6 percent other animals (cats, sheep, and horses). The majority of belligerent dogs were not first-time offenders: 64 percent had more than one previous biting incident reported to authorities, and more than 22 percent had four or more reported biting incidents.

One begins to get an idea of the nature of the owners of these aggressive dogs by looking at how they responded at the time of the biting incident. The majority of these owners (63 percent) did not provide any assistance at the time their dog attacked, such as trying to stop the biting.

Furthermore, 20 percent of the owners were themselves aggressive, threatening, or intimidating toward the victim. The owners of these aggressive dogs showed little empathy toward the individuals who were bitten: 13 percent denied the seriousness of the situation (despite the fact that the severity of the bites was later judged to be sufficient to have the dog impounded) and 9 percent blamed the victim. Only in 14 percent of the cases was the owner's behavior labeled as "cooperative."

Are the Owners of Bad Dogs Really Bad?

A lot of information was gathered about the owners of these aggressive dogs; 30 behavioral, personality, and animal care factors were measured. This resulted in too many analyses to discuss in this short report; however, some of the main trends are quite easily described.

The investigators grouped their analyses into global categories. Two are of particular interest here: antisocial behaviors on the part of the owner, and the way in which their dog was treated by them.

The antisocial behaviors that investigators recorded included substance abuse, owners shouting at others or intimidating people in public spaces, criminal offenses, disturbance or noise incidents, domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, and using the dog as a weapon to intimidate. It turns out that 29 percent of the owners had two or more behaviors that fit into the antisocial grouping.

The animal-treatment category included several negative factors such as animal abuse, forcing the dog to live in isolation, or letting the dog roam free and unattended. In this sample, 22 percent of owners had two or more animal mistreatment behaviors recorded.

Are Dog Owners Getting Worse?

Since the two samples of confiscated dogs were taken at least 10 years apart, the investigators could see if systematic changes in the characteristics of aggressive dog owners occurred over time. The researchers found that three factors had changed significantly with the passage of time—and unfortunately, the changes were not for the better.

Among the owners of dogs confiscated for aggression, the more recent sample showed an increase in the proportion of individuals having suspected or established substance abuse. The percentage of reports that an aggressive dog's owner shouted at or intimidated individuals in their neighborhood was also greater in the more recent sample.

In addition, over the course of the decade, it appeared that the number of multiple biting incidents by individual dogs had increased. The evidence for this is the increase in the number of actions that had been taken by governmental agencies to try to get specific owners to control their dogs by keeping them on a short leash and muzzled in public spaces. Obviously, the imposition of these safety measures was attempted before the critical incident. It is also clear that these control measures were not being observed by owners at the time of the event which resulted in the seizure and impounding of their dog for aggressive behavior.

The authors of this recent study seem to have reached a conclusion that Barbara Woodhouse would have agreed with, namely that these "bad dogs" may well have "bad owners." They end their report by stating that "a proportion of owners of confiscated dogs, may not always be willing and/or capable to guarantee societal safety."

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Facebook/LinkedIn image: KoudelkaPhoto/Shutterstock


Herwijnen IRv, van der Borg JAM, Kapteijn CM, Arndt SS, Vinke CM (2023) Factors regarding the dog owner’s household situation, antisocial behaviours, animal views and animal treatment in a population of dogs confiscated after biting humans and/ or other animals. PLoS ONE, 18(3): e0282574.

Woodhouse B (1984) No Bad Dogs: the Woodhouse Way. Summit Books.

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