“I don’t know what the problem is, but dogs are always trying to bite me,” said the man talking to me, who appeared to be in his mid-20s.
“For example,” he continued, “just last Tuesday, I was hurrying down the street because I was running behind for a luncheon appointment. I was just passing by a woman who was walking a dog. Without any warning, the dog charged over and bit my leg. Fortunately, it didn’t cause any bleeding. The woman apologized, saying that she’s had this dog for 2 1/2 years, and he’s never shown any aggression to anybody else — he just singled me out, it seems. Can you explain what’s going on?”
During the time that this man was speaking, a little of my clinical psychology training kicked in, and I found myself observing his body language. As he spoke, he rubbed his cheek and then ran his hand through his hair. All the while, he was tensely shifting his weight from one foot to the other. I recognized that these are some of the various nonverbal signs of anxiety and distress, and if they are typical behaviors for this person, they could be a sign of “neuroticism.”
It is highly likely that the reason I reached this conclusion was because I had just finished reading an article published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. It was written by a team of researchers headed by Carri Westgarth from the University of Liverpool.
Linking Dog Attacks to Victim Personality
This study was trying to get information about how common dog bites were, and whether there were specific characteristics of the bite victim that made it more or less likely that a person would be attacked.
This is not an easy task because many dog bites, such as the one that was just described to me, do not require medical attention and usually are not reported. So the researchers targeted a single community of 1,280 households in Cheshire in the United Kingdom, and they managed to gather data from 694 residents.
The investigators did find some personal characteristics that were important. Confirming the results of previous studies, they found that children younger than 16 years of age were at the highest risk and accounted for 44 percent of all of the dog bites. They also report that men were nearly twice as likely to have been bitten as women.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first study that tried to link dog attacks to the personalities of the bite victims, and they found that one aspect of personality was important. This was the dimension that is sometimes referred to as “stable versus unstable,” but is more commonly referred to as the personality characteristic of neuroticism. Researchers often refer to neuroticism as a tendency toward negative emotionality or negative feelings, in general.
It is almost as though the person who is high on neuroticism moves through the world surrounded by a faint cloud of insecurity, fear, self-consciousness, and anxiety. If that’s not bad enough, recent research seems to show that individuals who are high on neuroticism also suffer from a variety of mental and physical problems to a much greater degree than their more stable counterparts. These problems include psychological issues such as drug and alcohol dependencies and various forms of anxiety and panic disorders.
Neuroticism Linked to Likelihood of Bites
This study seems to add to the life burden of the neurotic person since it shows that individuals who were higher on neuroticism were 22 percent more likely to have been bitten by a dog than were individuals who were more emotionally stable. This is an important finding because it is the first to link a person’s personality to the probability that they will be bitten by a dog.
The research team was at a loss to explain why people high on neuroticism were more prone to be singled out for attacks by dogs. Looking at the man uneasily standing in front of me, however, I thought I had an idea. He was displaying a huge number of signals frequently showing his anxiety, such as fidgeting, folding his arms in front as if he were hugging himself to provide security, and rubbing his hands — all typical of people high in neuroticism.
It was easy for me to see these signs of stress and anxiety, and since dogs are masters of reading body language, perhaps they notice them, as well.
Why Does Body Language Matter?
When most people see a person showing behaviors that indicate insecurity and fearfulness, it tends to make them slightly uncomfortable (something called emotional contagion). Perhaps dogs feel the same way, only without our clinical insight, their discomfort urges them to action. In their less sophisticated minds, they might reason that the most effective way to keep this slightly disturbing individual away from themselves is with a warning snap or a bite.
Thus the person high on the personality dimension of neuroticism may become a target of canine aggression.