Dog breeders urged to act over high levels of anxiety in pets

Dog breeders need to take action to improve canine mental health, scientists have said, after research found almost three-quarters of pet dogs have highly problematic anxiety-related behaviour.

While physical problems such as breathing difficulties and other health concerns relating to squashed-nosed breeds have become a hot topic, the study suggests breeders also need to focus on dogs’ behaviour.

“Behavioural problems are the leading cause for the relinquishment or euthanasia of the dogs,” said Prof Hannes Lohi, a co-author of the study from the University of Helsinki.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is based on a survey of owners of more than 13,700 pet dogs in Finland, spanning 264 breeds and ranging from young pups to elderly hounds.

It examined the frequency of seven anxiety-related traits, including noise sensitivity, fear, aggression, separation problems and compulsive behaviour, as well as sub-traits within these categories, such as tail-chasing. For each, dogs were classified as having low, medium or high levels of problems.

It found that 72.5% of dogs had highly problematic behaviour in at least one of the seven categories, and many had multiple problems. Almost a third of dogs showed high sensitivity to noise, with fireworks a particular problem, while 29% of dogs were said to be highly fearful and 14% showed highly problematic aggression.

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“We observed some differences such as male dogs being more often aggressive and impulsive, while female dogs were more fearful,” said Lohi.

There were also differences by age: for example, high noise sensitivity was more common among older dogs, while destructive behaviour when alone – classed as a type of separation issue – was more common in young dogs.

The team also looked at particular breeds, finding that while dogs of any breed could have any of the anxiety problems, particular traits were more common in certain types of dog.

“As a result, selective breeding focusing on behaviour may reduce the prevalence of canine anxieties,” the authors said.

Miniature schnauzers, for example, had high levels of aggression both towards strangers and family members, and a fear of strangers, while nearly 10% of Staffordshire bull terriers chased their tail.

Perhaps surprisingly, the team found that mixed breeds were more likely to show many of the various traits than purebred dogs – although the researchers say that may be because many of the former were probably rescue animals that potentially had had a difficult start in life and a lack of socialisation.

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The study has limitations: it is not clear if the trends would hold in other countries, and the team only looked at the frequency of behaviours and not their severity. It may also be that owners of dogs with behaviour problems may have been more likely to complete the questionnaire, although the researchers say their study was advertised to all owners and the findings chime with other research.

Dr Rowena Packer, an expert in animal behaviour and welfare from the Royal Veterinary College, said a dog’s genetics and their environment each contributed to the way they act.

“The way that both breeders and owners interact with dogs is hugely important in raising mentally healthy dogs,” she said. “This includes appropriate socialisation to people and other animals and habituation to day-to-day experiences as puppies, and positive, force-free training throughout life.”

Packer noted that when it comes to heritable traits, too often the emphasis is on looks over behaviour. She said that because genetics and early environment set up dogs for the rest of their lives, breeders must do more to produce behaviourally healthy dogs.

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“Some of the behavioural problems highlighted in this study can lead to a lifetime of misery for affected dogs and an emotional and financial burden on their owners,” she said. “Tackling these problems through selection of behaviourally sound breeding stock, along with educating owners on appropriate interactions, environment and training for dogs, should be a high priority for all dog lovers.”