All dog breeds have unwanted behavior, such as noise sensitivity, aggressiveness and separation anxiety, but differences in frequency between breeds are great. Various unwanted behavior traits often occur simultaneously, as indicated by a study recently completed by Professor Hannes Lohi’s research group from the University of Helsinki.
Unwanted behavior occurs in many Finnish pet dogs.
“In the dataset of nearly 14,000 dogs that we have compiled, one of the largest in the world, unwanted behavior occurred in 73% of the dogs. One such behavior trait is noise sensitivity, found in one-third of the dogs,” Professor Hannes Lohi says.
Lohi’s research group investigated the prevalence of seven unwanted behavior traits: noise sensitivity, including thunder, fireworks and shots; fearfulness of humans, other dogs and unfamiliar locations; fear of surfaces and heights; inattention and impulsivity; compulsive behavior; aggressiveness; and separation anxiety. In addition to noise sensitivity, fearfulness and fear of surfaces and heights were very common traits.
As in dogs, so in humans
The study also looked into the link between individual traits. As observed in prior studies, fearfulness and aggressive behavior are often comorbid. Some of the findings were new and surprising.
“We discovered an interesting connection between impulsivity, compulsive behavior and separation anxiety. In humans, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often occurs together with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but this is the first time the same has been seen in dogs,” says doctoral candidate Milla Salonen.
The behavior research carried out by the group has another goal: to understand what underlies human mental health problems. Physiologically and behaviorally, dogs are similar to human beings. Furthermore, unwanted behavior is natural in dogs who also share the same complex social environment with humans.
“With the help of this project and data, we will continue investigating how good a model species the dog is in research focused on human mental health problems. Our previous genetic research pointed to the same genomic areas in fearfulness and noise sensitivity,” Professor Lohi says.
Breed-specific and significant differences in behavior
The prevalence of unwanted behavior traits was compared between the 15 breeds with the most responses received in the related survey, with significant differences identified between breeds.
“The problems appear to be quite breed-specific. For example, in Border Collies we observed more compulsive staring and light/shadow chasing, behaviors that occurred more rarely in all other breeds,” Lohi says.
Differences in the prevalence of behavior traits between individual breeds were manifold.
“One of the biggest differences among the breeds was identified in fearfulness of unfamiliar people, in which there was an 18-fold difference between the most timid breed and the bravest breed, the Spanish Water Dog and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier,” Salonen explains.
Behavioral research aims to increase canine welfare. Many unwanted behavior traits, such as fearfulness and noise sensitivity, can cause intense stress in dogs. Behavioral problems may result in the owner giving up the dog.
“Our findings indicate that unwanted behavior seems to be inherited, which means that, through careful breeding that relies on suitable behavior indicators, the prevalence of such behavior traits could be decreased. This would improve the quality of life of not only the dogs, but their owners too,” Professor Lohi states.
Salonen et al. (2020) Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs. Scientific Reports. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-59837-z
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