Most pet dogs are fearful or anxious, study shows

A Finnish study finds that 72.5% of pet dogs show at least one form of canine anxiety, and better breeding practices could help.

Photo:  Lindsay Helms/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Fear and anxiety in pet dogs is a serious welfare issue, according to new research published in Scientific Reports by Milla Salonen (University of Helsinki) and colleagues. The results suggest that those who breed dogs should pay more attention to breeding from non-fearful animals.

The study is a survey of the owners of 13,700 pet dogs in Finland. Given the large sample size, the scientists were able to get data from over 200 dogs of each of 14 breeds plus mixed-breed dogs, allowing comparisons between breeds.

The most common form of canine anxiety is noise sensitivity (32%). Of these, the most common is fear of fireworks, reported as affecting 26% of dogs. This is similar to other research, although it’s worth noting that in one study, once the question was changed to reflect specific behavioural signs such as trembling and shaking, twice as many people said their dog was afraid of loud noises (Blackwell et al 2013). Prevention exercises and training can both help with dogs’ fear of fireworks

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The second most common form of canine anxiety is fear (29%), including fear of other dogs (17%), fear of strangers (15%), and fear of novel experiences (11%). This was followed by fear of surfaces and heights (e.g. metal stairs or glass railings), which affects 23.5% of dogs. Other anxieties included inattention (20%), compulsive behaviours (16%), and hyperactivity/impulsivity (15%).

Aggression was reported in 14% of dogs, either towards family members or strangers, with 6% of dogs reported as showing separation-related behaviours.

Most pet dogs are fearful or anxious, study shows
Reproduced from Salonen et al (2020) under Creative Commons licence

The study also looked at comorbidities – how often these types of anxiety appeared in the same dog. The most common comorbidities were fear and noise sensitivities.

There were some age and sex differences. For example, older dogs were more likely to show noise sensitivities, aggression, and fear of surfaces, whereas younger dogs had greater rates of destruction or urinating when alone, tail chasing, self-biting, and hyperactivity and inattention. These results tie in with other research that shows changes in dogs’ personality with age and that the risks of particular behaviour problems occur at different ages in guide dogs. For older dogs, I wonder if in some cases pain is a contributing factor, but that was beyond the scope of this study.

The comparisons of breeds showed a number of differences. For example, Border Collies most often showed compulsive behaviours (in particular staring and fly snapping), while Miniature Schnauzers were often reported as aggressive to family members and strangers and afraid of strangers.

Interestingly, even though differences were found between breeds, these differences do not fall nicely into classification by breed groups.

Mixed breed dogs were more often rated as fearful and showing separation-related behaviour. The scientists write,
“It is possible that the high prevalence of separation distress and other anxieties in the mixed breed dogs is caused by a poor early life environment and adverse experiences in life, as many mixed breed dogs in our data are likely rescues.”
Take a look at the radar charts for examples for four breeds. (If you’re interested, charts for all breeds are in the paper, and you can also see breed differences in C-BARQ results from an earlier study by different researchers here).

Most pet dogs are fearful or anxious, study shows
Reproduced from Salonen et al (2020) under Creative Commons licence

The scientists write,
“Our findings on breed differences indicate that canine anxieties likely have a genetic basis. In previous studies, many behavioural traits have been indeed shown to have small to moderate heritabilities and recently we mapped two loci for generalized fear and noise sensitivity. Therefore, it could be possible to decrease the prevalence of canine anxieties by selecting non-anxious animals for breeding.”
They also note that some canine anxieties are correlated together. And although this study has a very large sample size, it is not a representative sample, and it is also possible the results may not apply to other countries.

Genetics aren’t the only factor that may affect dog behaviour; the socialization of puppies is tremendously important. But these results suggest that it would help dogs if breeders only bred from less-anxious individuals.

If your dog is fearful or anxious, check out how can I tell if my dog is afraid and what is desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training. You will also find lots of tips on how to care for your dog in my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.

If you want to know more about this particular study, the article is open access, and you can see the radar charts for all of the breeds studied in the supplemental materials.


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

References
Blackwell, E.J.,, Bradshaw, J.W.S.,, & Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noise in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear-related behaviour Applied Animal Behaviour Science : 10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004
Salonen, M., Sulkama, S., Mikkola, S., Puurunen, J., Hakanen, E., Tiira, K., Araujo, C., & Lohi, H. (2020). Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-11. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-59837-z#Abs1

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