Most Dogs Show Anxiety-Related Behaviors, Study Finds

A survey of nearly 14,000 dogs showcases how genetics can prompt stress and anxiety in canines, too

A study of nearly 14,000 pet dogs finds that nearly a third are afraid of specific noises, like fireworks or thunder Amit Karkare / Pixabay

Bred to be humans’ closest companions, dogs are perhaps best known for their cheerful demeanor and happy-go-lucky grins. But the results of a recent survey suggest that anxious behaviors may be more widespread amongst the world’s most popular pets than previously thought.

The findings, published last week in Scientific Reports, evaluated nearly 14,000 dogs—the largest-ever study on canine temperaments—and showed that nearly three-quarters of the pets showed at least one anxiety-related behavior, with some variation across breeds. A better understanding of these differences could help pet owners and vets better care for their pups, and perhaps even reduce the number of animals that end up in shelters or optioned for euthanasia, reports Michael Price at Science magazine.

A quick glance at any pet owner’s forum will reveal that discussions on dog personalities certainly aren’t new. Around the world, mutts get into all sorts of emotional scrapes when they encounter strangers, unfamiliar situations or loud and unpleasant noises. But anecdotes are no substitute for reliable scientific data, study author Hannes Lohi, a canine geneticist at the University of Helsinki, tells Science.

To suss out the specifics on dog anxiety, Lohi and her colleagues leveraged the power of social media, reaching out to the owners of 13,715 dogs of 264 breeds. Each person rated seven aspects of their pet’s behavior: noise sensitivity, general fear, fear of heights and surfaces, inattention, compulsive behaviors, aggression and separation anxiety.

Of the dogs surveyed, 72.5 percent reported exhibited at least one anxiety-related behavior. The most common issue was noise sensitivity—especially to things like fireworks or thunder—affecting nearly a third of the dogs in the study. And certain subgroups of canines seemed to be at higher risk of certain behaviors: For instance, older dogs and breeds like Lagotto Romagnolos and wheaten terriers were especially likely to be wary of loud noises, while Spanish water dogs and Shetland sheepdogs had especially high levels of fear. Mixed breed dogs seemed apt to show both behaviors. (Though of course, the news wasn’t all bad: Labrador retrievers, for example, were especially unlikely to be fearful or aggressive.)

Some behaviors also tended to cluster with others, the researchers found. Dogs that with separation anxiety, for instance, also tended to be compulsive and hyperactive. Speaking with George Dvorsky at Gizmodo, study author Milla Salonen, a veterinary scientist at University of Helsinki in Finland, says that if this link pans out, keeping canines active and well-trained might stave off some of these anxiety-related issues—though more research is needed to confirm the connection.

Though owners aren’t always objective about their dogs, previous research suggests these types of surveys are fairly accurate representations, Salonen tells Gizmodo. “Dog personality questionnaires are as reliable or even slightly more reliable than human personality questionnaires,” she says.

Additionally, the “sheer volume of the sample” profiled in the study “may help hedge against bias,” Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist at the University of California, Davis, who wasn’t involved with the work, tells Science.

Dog breeds are the product of millennia of careful selection by humans, who purposefully bred animals with certain traits—both physical and behavioral—to each other. The clustering of behaviors by breed suggests a genetic, and thus inheritable, component to anxiety, as is the case in humans, Lohi tells Science.

That said, a dog’s experiences will certainly affect its behaviors as well, and breeds shouldn’t be unilaterally stereotyped. Speaking with Science, Lohi also cautions against overinterpreting the results, stressing that the survey’s participants only reported on whether or not a specific behavior was present in their pets, without any indication of severity.

Ultimately, the study underscores the complex inner lives of dogs—paralleling, perhaps, the people that helped shape them in the first place.

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