There’s an old story that Winston Churchill, with his pugnacious glare and jowly face, greatly resembled his pet bulldog. Love that story, and ole Winston certainly looked like a two-legged bulldog, didn’t he? Unfortunately, that is just a story. Though some member-or-other of his family did own a bulldog, Mr. Churchill’s own personal pet was a poodle.
Maybe the Prime Minister and his poodle are the exception that proves the rule? We certainly have all noticed how many people do resemble the family dog. I don’t know if the illustrations in the picture here are the real owners with their pets; I suspect these are staged shots. However, there has been some research on this subject. The studies show a greater-than-chance correlation between owner of dogs with upstanding vs. hanging-down ears and owners who wear their hair shorter-than or pulled behind their ears vs. hanging down over them! Though I could site many examples of how owners and dogs resemble each other physically, what I really notice is how often dogs resemble their owners in temperament!
Scientists mostly agree these days that personality is influenced by both nature and nurture. Obviously, some puppies are shy and others outgoing right from day one, so your pet has some “pre-programming.” However, most dog trainers will tell you that what the owner feels travels “right down the leash” and creates a similar state in their dog. So, a nervous dog will most often have a nervous owner.
Dogs really do imitate their owners in this way. Dogs are very good at adapting to circumstances and looking to people for cues of how to behave. Though dogs and wolves share practically the same DNA and wolves have better problem-solving skills, studies show dogs far outpace wolves in any test which involves reading humans and working with them. In fact, dogs are the ONLY animal capable of something that seems very simple to us: following a pointing finger. Wolves can’t. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, can’t! But the domestic dog has been selectively bred for some 40,000 years plus to be our best friends and follow our cues.
So, whether we bring a puppy or an adult dog into the family, this is a new situation — a new “pack” — for the dog. The dog will look to the humans as the established member(s) of the pack for clues of how to behave; what is dangerous, what is good, what is frightening, etc. We don’t have to say anything. Dogs can hear the human heartbeat speed up and respiration quicken. They can smell the biological changes in our bodies that come with anger and fear. So, it isn’t really surprising that a dog living in a household of humans who are “on edge” all the time will learn to view the world as full of suspicious things and situations and be nervous, too!
So, does that mean I think my dog Kita “caught” all her neuroses (she’s afraid of the refrigerator, and thunder), suspicions (she assumes anyone new is up to no good), and anxieties (she can’t bear to be left alone for long) from me? No, I don’t hold myself responsible for ALL of her hangups; she came with a lot of them full-blown! However, before Kita came into my life, I wouldn’t have said I was a nervous, suspicious or anxious person. Watching how my reactions make Kita’s natural tendencies worse, I have identified that I need to consciously relax and be calm to help her. Just taking deep, slow breaths helps both of us. So does deliberately speaking in a low-pitched, low-volume, slow manner. Whenever I see Kita getting out of control, I realize that my own control is slipping and know I need to stop reacting and start being pro-actively calm. Dogs may not be our furry twins, but they are furry mirrors!