He can sense your fear

He’d be all over Don Knotts.

A new study by researchers at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom indicates that anxious people are more likely to be bitten by dogs than relaxed people.

It’s the first study to suggest that dog attacks can be linked to people’s personalities.

The researchers conducted a mail-in survey of more than nearly 700 people in 385 household in the town of Cheshire, England.

They also asked respondents to fill out a 10-item personality test. The test measured the “Big Five” personality traits: extroversion, conscientiousness, openness to new experiences, agreeableness, and neuroticism (also called emotional stability).

Of nearly 700 respondents, almost a quarter said that they had been bitten. Of those bitten, men were almost twice as likely to report a bite as women, and a little over half of respondents—just under 55%—had never met the dog who bit them before.

But perhaps the most compelling finding was an apparent link between dog bites and respondents who scored lowest for emotional stability on the personality test. The more emotionally unstable a person was, the more likely they were to have been bitten by a dog.

Does this mean that anxious people are at greater risk of getting bitten by a dog?

Not necessarily.

Carri Westgarth, PhD, a researcher at the University of Liverpool and lead author of the study, cautioned that it’s too soon to draw any definite conclusions, noting that, “we only found an association,” not definitive proof, of a link between anxiety and dog bites.

Nevertheless, Westgarth has her theories, and she shared them with NEWStat via email. “It is more plausible to me that people with different personality types behave differently around dogs. Dogs may find certain human behaviours threatening and stressful and respond with aggression,” she wrote.

Westgarth added, “There is also some suggestion that nervous and anxious people are more likely to have nervous dogs, whether that is through acquiring dogs with similar personalities, or through effects of their behavior on each other.”

In other words, anxious people are more likely to have anxious dogs, who are more likely to bite anxious people, who are more likely to have anxious dogs, etc.

What about the old cliché that dogs can smell fear? “Some people have suggested that it could be related to dogs smelling and reacting to fear,” Westgarth acknowledged. “But our study did not measure fear or anxiety around dogs, it measured personality types in general, so I don’t think that explanation stands up in this case.”

Westgarth concedes that further studies need to be done. “We really do not know what is driving this association at this stage, and the finding also needs confirmation in other studies to know whether it was a one-off.”

The research is personal for Westgarth. “I have been bitten at least five times that I can remember,” she said. “I also suffered a bite to the face as a toddler from one of our family dogs and still have the scar on my forehead to prove it!”

That kind of begs the question, what’s Westgarth’s personality type?

“I’m . . . prone to a bit of anxiety,” Westgarth admits. “But thinking about that further, my personality may have drawn me to a career with animals, which is the source of a few of my dog bites.”

Photo credit: (c) iStock/BrianAJackson

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