Brock research explores how personality affects relationships between dogs and people

Puppy love can be powerful.

But Renata Roma is reminding pet owners that human relationships with dogs have just as many ups and downs as relationships between people.

With National Adopt a Shelter Pet Day coming up this weekend, the PhD candidate in Brock’s Department of Child and Youth Studies (CHYS) wants people to understand that dogs have different personalities that can change over time.

“Dogs are as complex as people, so if you want to have a dog, be prepared to have lots of enjoyable moments but also moments of distress,” says Roma. “Those moments don’t mean the relationship is not going well — it’s just part of your relationship with your dog.”

The former therapist says she grew interested in studying the interactions of dogs and people after introducing a therapy dog into her sessions working with children with autism.

She began researching the subject in earnest while completing her master’s degree and is now fast approaching her PhD dissertation defence under the supervision of Associate Professor Christine Tardif-Williams in CHYS.

“I wanted to see how dogs can positively influence people’s well-being, and if attachment or synchrony in terms of having similar or complementary personalities would help people have more well-being in a relationship with a dog,” says Roma. “But I didn’t want to look only at the positive side.”

She says that in the online discourse, where boundless love for dogs is celebrated, some challenges of human interactions with dogs are often overlooked, which may leave some people feeling unprepared for managing difficult situations.

Portrait of Renata Roma outside on a bench with her two small dogs.

Renata Roma has spent several years on a research team studying relationships between dogs and young people.

“I have my own dogs, so I know that we love them, but they can be annoying; it’s the same thing that happens with people we love,” she says. “So, I wanted to work with both aspects of the relationship, synchrony and lack of synchrony between the person and the dog.”

In a recent paper, “My ‘Perfect’ Dog: Undesired Dog Behaviours and Owners’ Coping Styles,” which Roma co-authored with Tardif-Williams, Professor Shannon Moore in CHYS and Professor Patricia Pendry of Washington State University, the research team looked at how dog owners between the ages of 17 and 25 cope with difficult situations, such as frequent barking or aggression. Their work included not only the strategies young dog owners use, but also how the difficult situations affect the relationship between the dog and the owner.

What they found was that even inexperienced dog owners coped well with challenging behaviours among their dogs, favouring positive reinforcement over punishment.

“The young people found that it’s possible to have a dog that is not perfect, that doesn’t behave well, and still have a great connection,” she says. “The participants, many of whom were Brock students, talked about their dogs as the ‘perfect fit’ and acknowledged that it is a relationship where love comes first, but there are stressful situations that need to be handled, too.”

Tardif-Williams says that Roma’s findings make “an important contribution to the emerging field of human-animal interactions.”

“Renata’s research speaks directly to the ‘pet effect,’ which is to say that pets are not always a ‘cure-all’ for human health and well-being,” she says. “Pets have their own unique characteristics, and you want to have a good fit between young people and their pets.”

Right after she defends her dissertation, Roma will move to Saskatoon to begin a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Saskatchewan to continue studying interactions between people and dogs, but among different populations and in different contexts.

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