Since companionship is the most common reason for owning a dog in the Western world [1
], the quality of the owner–dog relationship is of great importance as this relationship will influence the owner’s satisfaction with their dog. Dog ownership is associated with increased physical activity, reduced stress levels, companionship, social support, and increased social interactions with people [3
], although not all beneficial effects have been replicated. Although less well described, there are also negative consequences of dog ownership, such as the detrimental effect of a pet’s death on owner wellbeing [4
], the development of allergies and asthma [5
], and an increased risk of dog bites, especially among children [7
The consequences of an unrealistic perspective on dog ownership benefits can affect the human–dog relationship in a negative manner. Underestimation of the necessary investments, such as daily walking, increased responsibility, and obedience training [8
], can result in behavioral issues for the dog (e.g., difficulties in training, soiling, and aggressive behavior [9
]). Unwanted (problematic) behaviors will negatively influence this relationship [1
] and are one of the most commonly mentioned reasons for the relinquishment of dogs to shelters (together with insufficient veterinary services, unmet expectations, and a lack of participation in obedience classes [12
]). When expectations are skewed towards the positive aspects of dog-ownership and investments (both financially and time-wise) are underestimated, a mismatch between expectations and reality is likely to occur. As previously shown, the likelihood of an owner’s satisfaction with a dog increases when the needs and expectations of the owner are compatible with the behavior of the dog [13
Expectations are influenced by experience and knowledge about dog behaviors and needs. One would assume that previous dog owners can rely on their previous experiences when considering the acquisition of a new dog. Previous research [15
] explored the association between prior animal experience and animal-care knowledge before adoption and showed that people with more knowledge about animal care, health, behavior, training, and costs had more realistic expectations about dog ownership than people with less knowledge. A large cross-sectional Australian study showed that previous or current dog owners had reduced odds of expecting challenges (such as responsibility and training) and greater odds of expecting benefits than first-time dog owners [8
]. These results are contrary to those of O’Conner and colleagues [15
], who showed that the ownership experience is related to a higher awareness of the efforts required to take care of a dog. Thus, previous dog ownership does not automatically result in realistic expectations; it is possible that people who experienced a relationship with a dog in the past will be overly optimistic, while first-time owners might be overly cautious.
Although the owner–dog relationship is influenced by both canine and human characteristics [16
], research suggests that the owner plays a very important part in the affective state and subsequent behavior of the dog [17
]. The behaviors of owners toward their dogs are influenced by multiple factors [18
], such as the owner’s attitudes and beliefs about dogs, previous experiences with dogs, perceptions of society and peers, and biased views on personal knowledge and skills, as well as self-efficacy, which may change over time. Understanding people’s attitudes and behaviors towards animals is challenging and complex but of great importance if we seek to prevent problems. It is, therefore, important to study the development of the owner–dog relationship over time, starting before the acquisition of a dog. To understand the psychology of this relationship’s development, the owner’s perceptions (e.g., advantages and disadvantages) needs to be understood since these perceptions influence owners’ feelings and behaviors towards their dogs. Perceptions are based on experience, learning from others, and comparing oneself to others, and can be conceptualized as social cognitive determinants [19
There are several different types of social cognitive determinants. Firstly, people have social cognitive perceptions related to the punishments and rewards contingent on owning a dog. In this study, we assess the perceived advantages that people expect and experience from their dog, such as companionship, social support, or feeling safe. In addition, we assess the perceived commitment to the dog, which represents the quality and, therefore, the gratification derived from the relationship. These reward-related social cognitive determinants result in the general tendency to “approach” the dog, to feel positive about the dog and the relationship, and to invest in the relationship. Besides expectations of rewards, we assess the perceived disadvantages that comprise the expected drawbacks that follow from this relationship, such as financial or time investments. These punishment-related social cognitive determinants yield the general tendency to “avoid” the dog, to feel negative about the dog and the relationship, and to minimize investments.
Secondly, people have social cognitive perceptions of their perceived ability to develop a satisfactory relationship with a dog, which will provide them with advantages and help them cope with the disadvantages. When people feel they are able to master the necessary skills for dog ownership, they will persevere and invest more into the relationship. People can estimate their ability to handle a dog and prevent problems based on their own experience (enactive learning), which we refer to as self-efficacy. This implies that people with little experience must use proof from other domains in their life, such as how well they can handle relationships in general, or by observing other people interact with a dog (vicarious learning). Another way of estimating one’s own ability is by making social comparisons [22
], which are highly important in the process of self-evaluation [23
]. In social comparisons, people compare their own ability with the abilities of other specific people (e.g., their neighbors) or in a more generalized manner (e.g., a constructed mental image of dog-owners in general). An overestimation of abilities can be functional when it support one’s confidence [24
], which may lead to greater perseverance and investment, such as greater patience towards the dog’s behavior or consistency while training the dog.
Inspired by the Health Action Process Approach theory [25
], we propose a two-phase model for the establishment of the owner–dog relationship (see Figure 1
). In the first phase, the social cognitive determinants comprise expectations about the dog and the relationship with the dog and culminate in a decision to acquire the dog. In the second phase, this relationship is actually experienced, which may lead to an adjustment of the earlier social cognitive expectations. The present longitudinal design makes it possible to explore to how these social cognitive determinants change over time, from before acquiring the dog (motivational phase) to owning the dog for six months (from T0 to T1—the early experience phase) and from six months to another twelve months (from T1 to T2—the extended experience phase).
Experiencing an actual relation with a dog might change the owners’ social cognitive determinants. Experiencing reality can adjust one’s expectations from the motivational phase in two ways: Those who are (overly) cautious might be pleasantly surprised, and those who were (overly) optimistic might be disappointed. In addition, social cognitive factors can influence the behavior of the owner towards the dog. For example, when people have low self-efficacy, meaning that they are uncertain about how to train and take care of the dog, they may behave inconsistently towards the dog (e.g., not reinforcing commands). When they perceive the weak advantages and strong disadvantages of the dog, they may diverge in their communication, avoid the dog, and become less sensitive to the welfare needs of the dog.
Moreover, in the experience phase, owner perceptions may change due to evaluations of the relationship with their dog. Dog owners’ perceptions of their investments relative to their experienced benefits may lead to certain levels of (dis)satisfaction with the dog and to a sense of how difficult it is to own the dog. In addition, canine behavioral problems may manifest (or disappear) over time. These three factors (satisfaction, perceived costs, and canine behavioral problems), are, therefore, monitored over time. We expect that the transitions over time will be different between unexperienced and experienced dog owners, since the latter can rely on their previous or current experiences with dogs.
In a previous study [26
] that was based on the same two-phase model of owner–dog relationship establishment (Figure 1
), we explored prospective owner behavior in the motivational phase and examined how social cognitive determinants are involved in preparing and actually deciding to acquire a(nother) dog. We showed that the quality of the decision-making process (indicated by the social cognitive determinants) influences the desirable (satisfaction) and undesirable outcomes (perceived costs and problematic behaviors) in the experience phase. We showed that greater self-efficacy before the acquisition of a dog is significantly related to fewer canine behavioral problems and greater satisfaction with the dog both six and eighteen months later. In addition, expecting relatively more disadvantages was significantly related to higher perceived costs and less satisfaction with the dog after six months.
The aim of the present study is to explore how perceptions of dog ownership and (un)desirable consequences change over time, both for experienced and unexperienced owners. Data from three waves of longitudinal data (baseline (T0) and two follow-ups at six (T1) and eighteen (T2) months after acquiring the dog) were analyzed. Social cognitive measures (self-efficacy, perceived (dis)advantages, social comparison, optimism, and commitment) were measured three times (once in the motivational phase and twice in the experience phase), while problematic behaviors of the dog, satisfaction with the dog, and perceived costs of dog ownership were measured twice (in the experience phase).
To prevent problems, it is important have insight into how the owner–dog relationship develops over time. In the present study, we assumed that the foundations of this relationship are already present in the motivational stage before the dog is acquired. Once the dog is present, the actual experiences with the dog determine (to a large extent) the nature of the relationship in the experience phase.
Perceptions of one’s abilities and skills to take care of a dog, about one’s self and others, and one’s expectations of the advantages and disadvantages of dog ownership influence how owners perceive and experience their (prospective) relationships with dogs. Our aim was to explore how social cognitive determinants change when the dream of having a dog becomes a reality. We expected that this transition would develop differently between unexperienced and experienced dog owners since the latter group could rely on their actual experience with dogs.
Our expectations were true for all five social cognitive factors: Self-efficacy, social comparison, commitment, and perception of (dis)advantages. We showed that unexperienced owners, before acquisition of their dog, displayed lower levels of self-efficacy and social comparisons, perceived fewer advantages, expected less commitment, and perceived more disadvantages before acquisition of the dog compared to experienced dog owners. However, after six months of living with the dog, the perceptions of first time dog owners were similar to those of experienced owners. For owners who already owned a dog (and thus acquired another dog), their perceptions hardly changed.
Our results suggest that first time owners are cautious and uncertain. They may “play it safe” by not expecting too much from the dog and not underestimating the burden of dog ownership. Once they experience the relationship with their dog for six months, they have knowledge of the actual advantages, commitment, disadvantages, and their ability to handle the dog. Experienced dog owners do not seem to adjust their perceptions much; their experiences aligns with their expectations.
Among experienced dog owners, both self-efficacy and social comparisons were relatively high before acquisition of the dog. However, for experienced owners, these social comparisons declined significantly in the first six months (this was most pronounced in previous owners). This suggests that experienced owners exaggerated their skills and adjusted their estimations when they experienced life with their new dog. Possibly, experienced owners’ high social comparisons facilitated their decision to acquire another dog, despite their experience that dogs require various investments and that life with a dog “is not always about roses”.
Concerning expectations of (dis)advantages, our results agree with those of Powell et al. [8
], who also showed that previous owners perceive more advantages and fewer disadvantages of dog ownership compare to unexperienced owners. However, they proposed an alternative explanation for these results: Experienced (previous/current) dog owners exhibit a bias when considering a dog because of their (unconscious) selective recall of positive experiences from previous or current ownership. Although this interpretation cannot be ruled out, our longitudinal design reveals that the high advantage and low disadvantage scores of experienced owners came true in the experience phase. Thus, experienced owners did not have to adjust their optimistic expectations, as those expectations were realistic, and unexperienced owners were cautious.
Commitment before dog acquisition was significantly lower among first time dog owners but increased significantly in the first six months of living with the dog. After eighteen months, the majority of owners showed high levels of commitment to their dog. In this study, commitment was seen as an indication of the “reward” of the dog–owner relationship. Strong commitment implies a strong motivation to invest in this relationship; it helps one endure walks in the rain and other less pleasant consequences of dog ownership. Commitment is related to emotional attachment [2
], which is in turn related to ownership satisfaction [11
]. In our sample, a moderate relationship between commitment and satisfaction with the dog was observed (T1: r = 0.37, T2: r = 0.42). As recently shown in [37
], the beneficial effects of dog ownership are mediated by the positive effects of shared activities, such as walking or playing. Herwijnen et al. [36
] found no evidence that shared activities increased relationship satisfaction. They did find, however, that a high perception of costs (MDORS subscale) was associated with aggression and/or disobedience by the dog and hence with decreased satisfaction with the dog. More research is needed to understand which factors are involved in ownership satisfaction, since this factor may provide strategies to improve the relationship between humans and dogs.
Mondelli et al. [38
] showed that experienced dog owners were more likely to return a dog to an animal shelter because of behavioral problems, which suggests that experienced owners are less tolerant of misbehavior. Their experience may also make such owners more realistic, understanding, for example, that certain behavioral problems cannot be solved by themselves. We found a significant decline in canine behavioral problems among current dog owners, which might be explained by their ability to adequately adjust problematic behavior or by corrections from the other dogs present in the household [39
]. Earlier cross-sectional research showed that first time dog owners report a higher prevalence of problematic behaviors, such as fear, over-excitability, and owner-directed aggression [40
]. We found no differences in the number of reported behavioral problems between experienced and unexperienced owners, and a post-hoc analysis of separate behavioral problems did not support the aforementioned findings. Differences between previous studies and ours might be due to the nature of the samples. A recent study by Dinwoodie et al. [43
] examined canine behavioral problems in an international sample of over 4000 owners and showed that the median number of reported behavioral problems per dog was 2 (ranging from 0 to 12). In our sample, the median was 1.7 for T1 and 1.6 for T2 (range 0 to 14), which suggests a lower prevalence of behavioral problems in our sample.
Changes in social cognitive determinants were assessed at three points in time, and our findings show that most changes occurred in the first six months of dog ownership. Since the perceived costs and satisfaction did not change between six and eighteen months of dog ownership, the perception of the costs of and satisfaction with the dog were also presumably stable after six months. The present cohort was comprised of dog-owners who kept their dogs, which might explain why limited evaluations of this relationship were observed.
In sum, the results of the present study show that changes in beliefs mainly occur in the first months of dog ownership (in the early experience phase) and do not change notably in the following year (the extended experience phase). Moreover, concerning perceived costs, satisfaction with the dog, and canine behavioral problems, hardly any changes occurred during the extended experience phase. Our results suggest that after six months of living with a dog, a more or less stable relationship is formed.
Limitations of the Study
Our study is subject to several limitations. Our sample was not entirely representative of the population of dog owners in the Netherlands [44
]. First, while most dogs in the Netherlands are owned by families with children, only one third of our respondents were part of a family with children. Second, although most dogs are mongrels, almost three quarters of our respondents owned purebred dogs. Moreover, highly educated women were over-represented in our sample. This is common in animal-related research, partly due to the general tendency of women to have a more positive attitude towards animals than men [45
]. In addition, people with low or intermediate levels of education were under-represented in our sample. Fourth, as is common in studies on human–animal relationships, this research unintentionally focused on highly engaged pet owners, which may have biased our results. Fifth, it might be possible that some participants dropped out because they were disappointed with the dog or their relationship with it and thus discarded the dog. We have no detailed knowledge about this possibility.
Not all measures had good internal consistency. The alpha of the satisfaction scale was especially questionable [27
] at T1 (α = 0.46). The internal consistency of this scale at T2 was 0.73. The post hoc and correlation between both measurements was moderate (r = 0.46). Although it is possible that the uneven internal consistency of the satisfaction scale reflected the owners’ different interpretations of the items at T1 and T2 (which would explain the different alpha results), our findings must be interpreted with care.
Notably, our theoretical model does not exactly reflect our data assessment. Our theoretical model consists of two stages: The motivational phase (in which the decision to acquire a dog unfolds) and the experience phase (where people actually experience their new dog). The motivation phase ends exactly at the moment the dog is acquired. However, we did not collect our data immediately at this moment. Although we did this on purpose (since the first months of dog ownership are still a period of instability, where beliefs and attitudes might change back and forth), this delay could be considered a limitation of our study design.
A last aspect that needs to be considered when interpreting the present findings is that the sample recruitment method may have influenced the results. Our aim to hear from “people planning to acquire a dog within one year” may have led to the exclusion of people who would have scored negatively in advantages, social norms, and self-efficacy regarding dogs, as well as those with little preparation activity. This may have led to less variance and, consequently, less covariance between variables.