Research assessing the behavior of dog breeds common in Finland has found that a significant proportion of our canine best friends live with some form of anxiety.
According to recent statistical reports, as many as 89.7 million dogs provided companionship to their human friends in the United States in 2017, the latest year for which data are available.
Dogs are some of the most popular pets around the world, and no wonder. Anecdotally, they are loyal, loving friends and a constant source of boundless affection and good fun.
Yet, much like humans, our canine pals can also face troubles such as stress and anxiety.
In fact, according to a new study from the University of Helsinki in Finland, dogs are particularly prone to a wide range of anxiety-like traits.
In the recent study, first author Milla Salonen and her colleagues analyzed the behaviors that 13,715 pet dogs from Finland — belonging to 264 different breeds — exhibited. Their findings appear in Scientific Reports.
The researchers asked the dogs’ owners to fill in questionnaires surveying behaviors that related to seven anxiety-related traits. These were noise sensitivity, general fear, fear of surfaces, impulsivity or lack of attention, compulsive behaviors, aggression, and behaviors relating to separation anxiety.
By looking at the survey data, the investigators found that 72.5% of the dogs expressed anxiety-like behaviors, according to their owners.
Of the total number of dogs, 32% had noise sensitivity, meaning that they were frightened of at least one noise. Among noise-sensitive dogs, the most common fear was that of sounds associated with fireworks — this fear had a “prevalence of 26%,” the researchers write.
General fearfulness affected 29% of the dogs in the study. “Specifically, 17% of dogs showed fear of other dogs, 15% fear of strangers, and 11% fear of novel situations,” the authors write.
The least common anxious behaviors, according to the surveys, were separation-related behaviors, which affected 5% of dogs, and aggression, which owners reported in 14% of dogs.
Some anxiety-like behaviors, the researchers also found, seem to become more pronounced as dogs age. These include noise sensitivity — especially being frightened of thunder — as well as fear of heights and anxiety around walking on certain types of surfaces, such as metal grids.
However, judging by their owners’ reports, younger dogs were more likely to have problematic behaviors relating to separation anxiety, such as urinating on the floor or damaging furniture.
Younger dogs also appeared to be more likely than older canines to be impulsive.
There were also differences between the two biological sexes, with males being more likely to show aggression and signs of impulsivity and females having a higher tendency to display fear.
Different dog breeds were also likely to display different types of anxiety-related behaviors.
The researchers stated that — much in accordance with what previous studies have suggested — Lagotto Romagnolos, Wheaten terriers, and mixed breed dogs had the highest prevalence of noise sensitivity, while miniature schnauzers and Staffordshire bull terriers were less sensitive to noises.
Spanish water dogs, Shetland sheepdogs, and mixed breed dogs were the canines in which fearfulness was most common. More specifically, fear of surfaces and fear of heights were most prevalent in rough collie and mixed breed dogs.
Large breeds and small breeds also differed in terms of anxiety-like behaviors. For example, among the miniature schnauzers in this study, 10.6% showed aggression toward strangers, compared with only 0.4% of Labrador retrievers.
But why are such anxious behaviors so common in dogs? The researchers cannot say for sure, but they hypothesize that the dogs’ genetic makeup may have something to do with their predisposition to different types of anxiety.
“Behavior has a major genetic component,” they write, adding that “[s]ome genomic areas and loci are associated with problematic behavior, including compulsion, fear, and noise sensitivity.”
Yet they note that environmental factors, such as the training that dogs receive, most likely interact with genetic predispositions, leading to or suppressing certain behaviors.
“As anxiety can impair welfare, and problematic behavior may be an indication of poor welfare, efforts should be made to decrease the prevalence of these canine anxieties,” the researchers point out in their study paper. They go on to suggest that:
“Breeding policies may help to improve dog welfare, as could changes in the living environment.”