The many fears of pet dogs

If you think your pet’s personal problems are down to your dog’s breed, then new Finnish research has a bone to pick with you.

A comprehensive survey of 13,700 pet dogs covering more than 260 breeds found that anxieties and behavioural problems are common across all dog breeds, albeit with some more prone to certain behaviours.

“In total, 72.5% of dogs had some kind of highly problematic behaviour,” reports Hannes Lohi, from the University of Helsinki in Finland, and colleagues in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

This finding comes from an owner-reported survey that examined seven anxiety-like traits and problematic behaviours.

Noise sensitivity, to fireworks in particular, was identified as the most common canine problem, appearing in a third of furry participants.

Fear was the second most common problem, including fear of other dogs, fear of strangers and fear of novel situations. Separation-related behaviour and aggression were the least common traits with prevalence between 5% and 14%.

Noise sensitivity, especially a fear of thunder, increased with age, as did a fear of heights and surfaces.

Younger dogs were more likely to destroy things or urinate when home alone. They also displayed higher rates of inattention, hyperactivity, tail chasing and self-biting.

Noise sensitivity, fear of surfaces and compulsive behaviours occurred irrespective of gender; however, the researchers identified some differences in behaviour between male and female dogs.

“Male dogs had a higher prevalence of aggressiveness, separation-related behaviour, inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity,” they write. “In contrast, female dogs had a higher prevalence of fearfulness.” 

The researchers did find some differences between breeds.

Lagotto Romano, Wheaten Terrier and mixed breeds were the most noise-sensitive while Spanish Water Dogs, Shetland Dogs and mixed breeds were the most fearful.

One in ten Miniature Schnauzers were aggressive towards strangers, compared to less than one in 100 Labrador Retrievers.

While fear is a natural survival mechanism, prolonged anxiety can become pathological – and the study confirms and extends other evidence of widespread fearful behaviours in dogs.

These are the product of complex interactions between genetic and environmental influences and can be exacerbated by poor maternal care and inadequate owner experience, training and exercise.

The researchers underscore the importance of making efforts to decrease the prevalence of these conditions, which threaten dog welfare and burden shelters.

“There are around 77 million dogs in the United States and 85 million in Europe, and therefore these behaviour problems can affect millions of animals,” they write.

“Behaviour problems and anxieties in dogs decrease their quality of life and may lead to relinquishment or euthanasia. Breeding policies may help to improve dog welfare, as could changes in the living environment.”

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