A Very Anxious Boy

Scientists reveal the real reason why your dog is acting strange

This is not cute.

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Does your pup dart under the bed the moment you turn on the vacuum? Or go ballistic every time the doorbell rings? What about the zoomies?

These anxious behaviors aren't just a personality quirk — instead they may be signs of a very real, and very common, problem.

Dogs can't tell us what is troubling them, but dog owners often trade tales about their pets' whacky behaviors and what they might mean. Now, scientists think they know — and the answer isn't cute.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Helsinki in Finland surveyed the owners of 13,000 pups across 14 breeds, as well as mixed dogs.

The researchers asked dog owners whether their fur babies showed signs of seven different anxiety-related behaviors, including noise sensitivity, fearfulness, fear of surfaces and heights, inattention or impulsivity, compulsion, separation-related behavior, and aggression.

The survey results reveal some surprising trends:

  • More than 72 percent of dogs showed problematic behaviors, including aggression and fearfulness.
  • Noise was the most common source of anxiety — 32 percent of dogs were triggered by at least one noise.
  • 26 percent of the dogs were afraid of fireworks, specifically.
  • 29 percent of dogs had fear-driven anxiety. Of these:
  • 17 percent of the dogs were scared of other dogs.
  • 15 percent of the dogs were afraid of strangers.
  • 11 percent of the dogs were scared of new situations.

The survey results were published on Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Dog anxiety varies by age, breed, and sex

While anxiety was a common problem, the dogs showed some differences depending on their sex and age. Female dogs tended to be more fearful, while male dogs showed higher rates of aggression, hyperactivity, and acting impulsively.

Male dogs were also more likely to show separation-related anxiety behaviors.

Dogs like this Lagotto Romano may be among the breeds most sensitive to noise, a new study suggests.Shutterstock

Older dogs were more likely to be sensitive to sounds — particularly thunder. They were also more likely to have a fear of heights and surfaces (think: walking over a sewer grate).

Younger dogs, by comparison, were more likely to be hyper, and more likely to damage or pee on items when left alone. They were also more into chasing their tails. If you’ve ever owned a puppy, that may be no surprise.

Dogs also varied according to breed:

  • Most sensitive to noise: Lagotto Romano, Wheaten terrier, mixed breeds
  • Most fearful: Spanish water dogs, Shetland dogs, mixed breeds
  • Most often aggressive toward strangers: Miniature schnauzers (10 percent)
  • Least often aggressive toward strangers: Labrador retrievers (<1 percent)

But while different dogs tended to different behaviors, the underlying cause, anxiety, remains the same. Because of the way anxiety manifests in behavior, some owners can feel like they have no other option but to give their dogs away, or even put them down.

That is the impetus behind the new study, the researchers say. Uunderstanding the root causes of anxiety could enable scientists to develop treatments to combat its ill-effects in dogs.

Shining light on potential sources of fear and anxiety may in turn reveal the genetics and biology that influence canine fear and anxiety, the researchers say. This information is useful to breeders and for developing good breeding guidelines. But more research is needed to get at the underlying mechanisms of anxiety in dogs.

In the short-term, recognizing behaviors that signal anxiety in your dog and identifying what triggers them can help dog owners make changes to their homes that make life easier — and quieter — for everyone.

Abstract: Behaviour problems and anxieties in dogs decrease their quality of life and may lead to relinquishment or euthanasia. Considering the large number of pet dogs and the commonness of these problematic behaviours, a better understanding of the epidemiology and related molecular and environmental factors is needed. We have here studied the prevalence, comorbidity, and breed specificity of seven canine anxiety-like traits: noise sensitivity, fearfulness, fear of surfaces and heights, inattention/ impulsivity, compulsion, separation related behaviour and aggression with an online behaviour questionnaire answered by dog owners. Our results show that noise sensitivity is the most common anxiety-related trait with a prevalence of 32% in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs. Due to the high prevalence of noise sensitivity and fear, they were the most common comorbidities. However, when comparing the relative risk, the largest risk ratios were seen between hyperactivity/inattention, separation related behaviour and compulsion, and between fear and aggression. Furthermore, dog breeds showed large differences in prevalence of all anxiety-related traits, suggesting a strong genetic contribution. As a result, selective breeding focusing on behaviour may reduce the prevalence of canine anxieties. Anxious animals may suffer from chronic stress and thus, modified breeding policies could improve the welfare of our companion dogs.
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