Dogs Are Surprisingly Stressed and Anxious, Study Finds

© Image: Josh Plueger/U.S. Air Force

By George Dvorsky, Gizmodo

Nearly three out of four dogs exhibit some kind of serious behavioral problem related to anxiety, according to a survey involving nearly 14,000 pet dogs. Many of these problems varied according to breed, pointing to the need for improved owner awareness and better breeding practices.

Research published today in Scientific Reports shows that 72.5 percent of dogs display anxiety behaviors, such as sensitivity to noise and a fear of strangers. Dogs, this research suggests, are more stressed than we likely realize.

That said, the severity of these undesirable behaviors varied from breed to breed. Owners wanting to improve their dogs’ quality of life, therefore, should be aware of these differences and accommodate their pets accordingly, advise the authors of the new research, led by Hannes Lohi from the University of Helsinki. Breeders should also be aware of these breed-specific behavioral issues and adopt better breeding practices, they said.

The new research involved 13,715 dogs from 264 breeds, including 200 mix-breed dogs. The most reported anxiety-related issue had to do with noise sensitivity, but other problems included things like aggression and separation anxiety. The new findings show that Labrador retrievers, for example, are significantly less aggressive toward strangers than miniature schnauzers, who ranked at the top of this category. Noise sensitivity and fearfulness also varied according to breed. 

© Image: M. Salonen et al., 2020   Chart showing the prevalence of behavioral traits across all dogs studied.

Finnish dog owners, through an online questionnaire, were asked to assess their pets according to seven anxiety-related traits: sensitivity to noise (such as fireworks or thunder), fear (namely, fear of other dogs, strangers, or new situations), fear of certain surfaces and heights (such as walking on metal grids or shiny floors or walking down stairs), inattention and impulsivity, compulsive behavior, aggression, and separation anxiety. The researchers then compiled a large dataset, classifying the dogs as being either “low trait” or “high trait” depending on the severity and frequency of the reported behaviors.

When doing scientific research, self-reported surveys (or in this case owner-reported surveys) are often viewed with a critical eye. Dog owners, it’s fair to say, aren’t always the most objective sources of information when it comes to their pets. That said, Milla Salonen, the first author of the new study and a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, said dog owners are actually pretty good at evaluating their animals. 

© Image: Living in Monrovia/Flickr   As a breed, miniature schnauzers tended to be the most aggressive toward strangers.

“Owners are the most familiar with their dogs, and their answers in questionnaires are based on their cumulative experience of their dog’s behavior, which is beneficial for behavior research,” Salonen told Gizmodo.

Previous studies, including this team’s own validation study from 2014, suggest questionnaires “measure dog behavior accurately and that dog personality questionnaires are as reliable or even slightly more reliable than human personality questionnaires,” said Salonen.

Breaking down the numbers, 32 percent of all dogs were fearful of a specific noise, with one in four dogs having serious issues with fireworks. Nearly 30 percent of dogs had some sort of fear, whether it be fear of other dogs (17 percent), fear of strangers (15 percent), or fear of new situations (11 percent). Aggression was documented in 14 percent of all dogs and separation anxiety in 5 percent.

Interestingly, noise sensitivity actually gets worse as dogs get older, especially the fear of thunder. The same could be said for the fear of heights and certain surfaces (a former Siberian husky of mine had a terrible fear of sewer grates, for example, which got worse over time). Not surprisingly, younger dogs tended to be more inattentive, hyperactive, and compulsive compared to older dogs, frequently damaging belongings or urinating when left alone. 

© Image: M. Salonen et al., 2020   Breed differences for two selected categories, fear of thunder and fear of strangers.

The most common breeds reported in the survey, in which data from 200 or more dogs were acquired, were used to assess differences among the breeds. In some cases these differences were trivial, but in other cases quite pronounced.

For example, only 15.3 percent of border collies were reported to be fearful of heights, compared to the 38.7 percent of rough collies. Border collies, on the other hand, were more inclined to stare and pounce on light or shadows, which isn’t seen very often in other breeds. Other large differences included the fear of strangers—Staffordshire bull terriers (1.5 percent, the lowest) and Spanish water dogs (27.5 percent, the highest)—and aggression toward strangers—Labrador retrievers (0.4 percent, the lowest) and miniature schnauzers (10.6 percent, the highest). Lagotto romanos, wheaten terriers, and mixed breeds were the most sensitive to noise.

Some of these percentages are relatively low, and breeds shouldn’t be painted with a broad brush based on these results. Our family has a miniature schnauzer, for example, who is absolutely adoring of strangers, so she’s indicative of the 89.4 percent of miniature schnauzers who don’t display problematic aggression towards strangers. That said, she is fearful of other dogs, which is consistent with the research. 

© Image: M. Salonen et al., 2020   Radar charts showing behaviors of two breeds, the border collie and miniature schnauzer.

The researchers were also able to link these problematic behaviors to others, an exercise that could improve our understanding of similar psychological health problems in humans.

“Possibly the most surprising discovery was a strong comorbidity, in other words, correlation, between hyperactivity/impulsivity, inattention, compulsive behavior and separation anxiety,” Salonen told Gizmodo. “Comorbidity in behavior traits has been little studied in dogs, and the association between these traits has not been examined before. In human psychiatry, on the other hand, ADHD and obsessive-compulsive disorder are highly comorbid.”

This result, she said, suggests dogs might be suitable research subjects for ADHD and OCD.

The strong link between hyperactivity/inattention, separation-related behavior, and compulsion is something dogs owners need to be aware of. Future research from this team will explore the demographic and environmental factors behind these problems in more detail, but Salonen said it’s possible that providing dogs with more exercise and allowing them to participate in activities such as obedience and agility training might help to alleviate these undesirable behaviors.

Given the genetic nature of these behaviors, it’s also important that breeders be aware of these latest findings. As possible remedies, breeders could do a better job selecting individuals for breeding and making sure puppies are socialized to people, including strangers, according to Salonen.

Prospective dog owners—especially those who are thinking about buying a so-called purebred dog for the first time—should also be aware of this research.

“It is important to think about how much you will exercise and do any activities with the dog. If you want a dog only as a companion and will not exercise heavily or for long periods of time, it is not advisable to get a working dog, that is, a dog with high energy level,” said Salonen. “Instead, it’s best to get a breed that suits your lifestyle—although all dogs need to be exercised at least a bit. Additionally, you should select the puppy and litter carefully. If your dog’s parents are fearful, for example, it is likely that your dog will be too. Finally, if you get a puppy, you should continue the socialization process the breeder has hopefully already started.”

Smart advice. Owning a dog is hard work, but it’s certainly well worth the effort.

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