Animal Abuse, Training and “The Dark Triad”

MalinoisI was recently reminded of how insensitive and cruel some people could be with the account of a trainer who had muzzled and hung a dog in order to teach him to accept his toenails trimmed. Despite criminal sentences for the perpetrators, accounts of animal abuse are daily occurrence in the press. While many caring people save dogs and cats from inhumane situations, others continue harming them without remorse. As a psychologist and an animal behaviorist, I’m always interested in the effects of various training methods on both the trainer and the animal (see ‘Punishment affects both the dog and the owner’). Although most trainers, regardless of their philosophy, truly have the animal’s best interest at heart, for a small number of people, force and harsh punishment based techniques could play to a darker side of their personalities. What makes the difference between those who care and those who don’t? Could there be underlying personality traits that influence us one way or the other? Recent research on the subject has started to point to certain personality traits, defined as the ‘Dark Triad’, as linked with a higher tendency to animal cruelty.

Our personality traits define our behavioral and emotional characteristics and can be classified into 5 main groups: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (emotionality). Typical behavior falls somewhere on the spectrum of each one of those factors, but on the extremes, one group of personality traits referred to as the Dark Triad, has recently attracted significant attention from psychologists. These traits define people who seek admiration and attention (narcissism), are callous and insensitive (psychopathy) and have a tendency to manipulate others (Machivellianism). People with these personality traits will often be masters at working their way out of consequences for running over others in order to achieve their own goals. These traits can be measured on a 12 items scale, ironically called the Dirty Dozen (Jonason & Webster, 2010):

  1. I tend to manipulate others to get my way.
  2. I tend to lack remorse.
  3. I tend to want others to admire me.
  4. I tend to be unconcerned with the morality of my actions.
  5. I have used deceit or lied to get my way.
  6. I tend to be callous or insensitive.
  7. I have used flattery to get my way.
  8. I tend to seek prestige or status.
  9. I tend to be cynical.
  10. I tend to exploit others toward my own end.
  11. I tend to expect special favors from others.
  12. I want others to pay attention to me.

The items 1, 5, 7 & 10 evaluate Machivellianism; 2, 4, 6, & 9 evaluate Psychopathy and 3, 8, 11 and 12 evaluate Narcissism. Most people score between 33 and 39 and anyone scoring above 45 would be considered very high on the Dark Triad scale.

Cute pup (not mine)

If those who score the highest on this scale have a tendency to manipulate, lie and exploit others to achieve their goals, how does this correlate with their attitude towards animals? If some people can have such negative attitudes towards their own species, it’s hard to imagine that they would act differently towards animals. In an attempt to answer these questions, a team of scientists in Australia asked 205 women and 22 men to fill out a survey. These personality traits were scored while also evaluating the attitude of the subjects towards animals, with questions relating to their feelings about hunting for food or deliberate cruelty to animals (Kavanagh & al. 2013).

The results confirmed that those who scored highly on the Dark Triad had more negative attitudes towards animals and were more likely to show cruelty towards both people and animals. It also appears that younger people, but also men, have generally higher tendencies to be cruel and insensitive. Of the three personality measures, psychopathy seemed to be the most important predictor, confirming the importance of empathy in our relationship with animals. Sadly, as many as 1% of ‘normal’ people could be classified as psychopaths. This number rises to 4% amongst business leaders and CEOs (Jon Ronson, 2012, TED talk).

Narcissism, Machivellianism and psychopathy all have a genetic basis that certain environmental experiences will bring out at different degrees in the individuals with those predispositions. It seems however that psychopathy is more highly heritable and less influenced by environmental factors than the two others (Petrides & al. 2011). This does not mean however that even those who score high on the Dark Triad cannot develop feelings of empathy toward other beings. Any behavior can be increased or decreased provided that we can understand and see the effects that we have on others. It’s easy to be blind to the consequences of our behavior on others and be satisfied with the outcome when we got what we wanted and can’t see the suffering that we caused. When we’re motivated by a need for power and prestige while being insensitive to the animal’s emotions and needs, we’ll tend to justify cruelty as a necessary measure to force the animal into submission, for his own good.

Chained dog

Behavior is never set in stone, however. In my experience working with inmates, it was quite evident that once people learn how to read the signs of stress, fear and discomfort in their dogs, they can develop a drive to improve how they talk, move and generally act around them. I will always remember one young man in particular, tattooed from head to toe who had been to foster homes then prison. He dealt with drugs and prostitution all his life. In a matter of months, he changed from arrogant, defiant, angry and impatient, to soft, gentle and kind. He once shared with me that before working with the dogs, he had never felt shame. When the distress we cause in others becomes obvious, it’s difficult for most of us to maintain any harmful behavior. It’s not to say that all people can change through contact with animals, but through education and promotion of empathy, understanding and respect, we can be factors of change in the right direction.

Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.

Jon Ronson: Strange answers to the psychopath test

Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (, a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (

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2 comments on “Animal Abuse, Training and “The Dark Triad”
  1. Thank-you for passing on this well researched information.
    I too worked within the prison system here in Canada training service dogs during a 15 year period. Pawsitive Directions Canine Program with CSC rescued 57 dogs that the inmates then trained. One inmate doing time for multiple counts of assault, joined the dog program and within a month was a model trainer. She herself was assaulted within the prison and did not fight back. When I interviewed her following the attack she told me she did not fight back because “punishment does not work”. The whole group got together and made a huge banner for the wall with her words in bright colours. She finished her time and was never again charged with violence.
    I believe we will only make progress if we can educate the general public, as we are now doing with bullying within schools and communities.

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