By Dr. Sheryl L. Walker
A review of a recent paper on the prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in Finnish pet dogs
With a background in behavior analysis and animal sheltering, and currently working toward my Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) certification, I personally found the research in Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs by Salonen et al. (2020) intriguing. Right off the bat, the first sentence in the Abstract packs a punch, especially if you have spent any time in an animal shelter: “Behavior problems and anxieties in dogs decrease their quality of life and may lead to relinquishment or euthanasia.” Having spent over 14 years working professionally with animals, I can say with confidence that this is absolutely true. A plethora of research exists in human psychology showing that unmanaged anxiety can decrease quality of life. Similarly, although not studied as in depth, research also exists showing anxiety in animals can also decrease their quality of life. In my opinion, there are several stakeholders (e.g., animal shelter personnel, veterinary behaviorists, dog trainers, certified applied animal behaviorists, breeders) who can benefit from the knowledge outlined in this article.
In this study based in Finland, the convenience sample size of 13,715 questionnaires representing 264 breeds was used to assess prevalence, comorbidity, age, and sex differences of anxiety-based behavioral problems. A subset of those represented 14 breeds (plus mixed breed) with a minimum sample size of 200 individuals per breed, accounting for 35% of all dogs in the entire data set. Owners were asked to rate their dogs’ behavior on several anxiety-based traits. “Noise sensitivity” was split into fear of thunder, fireworks, and gunshots. “Fear” was split into fear of strangers, other dogs, and novel situations. “Fear of surfaces and heights” was split into walking on different surfaces (e.g., metal grid, shiny floors, moving from one surface to another) and difficulty in high places (e.g., walking next to glass railings, climbing metal stairs, walking over narrow bridges). “Compulsive behaviors” was assessed by looking at the occurrences of tail chasing, fly snapping, and light chasing, among others. “Aggression” was rated as the likelihood of the dog growling, snapping, or biting when a stranger tries to pet the dog, or when the owner tries to take a resource from the dog.
Noise sensitivity was the most common anxiety trait with 32% of dogs being fearful of at least one noise, of which fear of fireworks was the most common subtrait with a prevalence of 26%: “The prevalence of noise sensitivity increased with age, especially fear of thunder.” (Salonen et al., 2020). Anecdotally, I see this with both of my dogs. My German shepherd/rottweiler, Luigi, has always been noise sensitive to fireworks and gun shots, but never thunder until he was about 8 years old (he is now 11). As referenced in this article, “pacing and excessive drinking were often performed by mixed breed dogs and German shepherds.” (Salonen et al., 2020). Luigi will pace, excessively pant (which leads to excessive and intense drinking of water), and occasionally shake; these behaviors are significantly decreased with Trazodone* and a safe space in a bathroom with the lights off and the fan on as white noise. My beagle, Spud, whom I recently had to humanely euthanize at age 12.5 due to hemangiosarcoma, never minded thunderstorms until he was about 10 years old. He would be glued to my side and shake; his shaking was significantly decreased with Trazodone and good quality cuddles, under a blanket, with medium pressure.
In this study, the most common comorbidity (i.e., simultaneous presence) was fear, especially in dogs displaying aggressive and separation related behaviors: “Dogs displaying separation related behavior were 4.1 times more often hyperactive/impulsive and 3.4 times more often inattentive than dogs not displaying separation related behaviors.” (Salonen et al., 2020). Over 50% of dogs who were fearful of one noise were fearful of several noises. Comorbidities are good for all dog professionals to be aware of, whether you are a veterinary behaviorist who is treating one specific condition, or a dog trainer who builds training plans for a fearful dog, for example.
Several breed-specific findings were worthy of discussion, in my opinion: “10.6% of miniature schnauzers were aggressive toward strangers, whereas only 0.4% of Labrador retrievers showed aggression. Similarly, 9.5% of Staffordshire bull terriers were reported to display tail chasing, but none of the lagotto Romagnolo dogs chased their tails.” (Salonen et al., 2020). Also, over 30% of lagotto Romagnolos and fewer than 10% of Labrador retrievers displayed fear of thunder; almost 30% of Spanish water dogs and very few Staffordshire bull terriers displayed fear of strangers; and almost 40% of rough collies showed fear of surfaces and heights, whereas less than 20% of border collies did (Salonen et al., 2020).
There are limitations of questionnaire-based research results, just as there are limitations of the generalizability of research in general. Questionnaire-based research is not observational research, so the results are purely based on guardians interpreting their own dog’s behavior with no operational definitions of what each behavior is. This is a convenience-based sample, and the results may not be completely representative of all dogs in Finland, let alone in different regions of the world. Also, not all dogs within each breed will be at risk for certain problematic behaviors.
Real World Applications
For all of us who share our lives with animals in one capacity or another, personally or professionally, we not only understand how critical quality of life is, but also how critical our roles can be when assessing and making decisions about quality of life. In the study’s Introduction, Salonen et al. (2020) state: “Problematic behaviors can be a threat to dog welfare. Anxious dogs may be more vulnerable to diseases and show decreased lifespan. Satisfaction with the dog’s behavior may increase attachment to the dog and problematic behaviors, especially aggressiveness, destructiveness, fearfulness, and hyperactivity are a common reason for relinquishment to shelters.”
Shelter personnel are no strangers to assessing quality of life, as they have to make life-or-death decisions every day, taking into account the intake or background information from the relinquisher, behavioral health, physical health, shelter population and capacity for care, and adoptability of that dog and whether a typical community member would be able to appropriately care for a dog with said problematic behaviors. Shelter personnel also have to assess each dog’s quality of life during his or her length of stay, depending on resources available (e.g., in-kennel enrichment, walks outside, playgroups, off leash time in a physically secured area). Are dogs more vulnerable to anxiety when staying in a shelter? Absolutely. Shelters can be scary with the lack of predictability in the environment. And by being aware of breeds and mixes who are prone to anxiety and educating themselves on dog body language and behavioral indicators of pain and anxiety, shelter personnel can help make a dog’s stay in the shelter less stressful.
Anxiety can also be managed with the help of psychopharmacology. For example, canine compulsive disorder (CCD), an anxiety-based analogue of obsessive-compulsive disorder, is diagnosed by a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. The frequency and intensity of compulsive behaviors (e.g., tail chasing, fly snapping, light chasing, surface licking, pacing, staring, excessive drinking, self-biting) are both important factors, as well as how easily you can distract a dog away from these behaviors. Salonen et al.’s study (2020), I believe can help veterinary behaviorists understand what breeds are most at risk for CCD and prepare them to have conversations with their clients regarding the possible use of psychopharmacological anxiolytics. Veterinary behaviorists can also develop behavior modification (B-Mod) plans to help patients manage their anxiety in conjunction with the use of anxiolytics.
Meanwhile, dog trainers and certified applied animal behaviorists may collaborate with veterinary behaviorists on implementing B-Mod plans. Noise sensitivity was the most common anxiety trait with one third of dogs being fearful of at least one noise. Systematic desensitization, whereby a dog is exposed to the fear-inducing noise or stimulus, but at a level that does not induce fear or a reaction (aka under threshold), is a powerful tool when it comes to changing emotional reactions to stimuli. It is commonly used in tandem with counter conditioning to create a positive emotional response to the problematic stimulus. These methods can be used the modify the behaviors mentioned in this article (e.g., noise sensitivity, fear of surfaces and heights, inattention/impulsivity, separation related behavior, aggression) and can help dogs with these issues adjust to life easier. It is also imperative that we, as professionals, not only understand canine body language, but we also educate others on how to interpret how and what a dog is communicating with us. Teaching a “Drop It” or “Trade Game” at an early age can help with preventing resource-related aggression by retrieving non-permissible items that a puppy has taken in exchange for something more reinforcing.
Salonen et al. (2020) have previously published research mapping “two loci for generalized fear and noise sensitivity” and “a genomic region associated with noise sensitivity in German shepherd dogs contain[ing] the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR).” Those who have an understanding of genetics and genomics, such as qualified breeders, can make such a huge impact on future generations of dogs, especially those breeds who are predisposed to behavioral problems such as anxiety. State Salonen et al. (2020): “Dog breeds showed large differences in prevalence of all anxiety-related traits, suggesting a strong genetic contribution. As a result, selective breeding focused on behavior may reduce the prevalence of canine anxieties.” Salonen et al. (2020) also state that “some genomic areas and loci are associated with problematic behavior [which] may be influenced by many environmental factors, including, for example, maternal care, owner experience, training, and exercise.” In my opinion then it is critical to educate breeders about responsible and healthy breeding practices, indicators of good welfare, and positive reinforcement and force-free training of the studs and bitches, especially during pregnancy, as maternal stress is positively correlated with the health of her offspring.
Path to Success
The Puppy Culture program (developed by Jane Killion) sets puppies on a path of success by incorporating a variety of early neurological stimulation techniques along with teaching skills such as leash walking, recall, potty training, crate training, and safe early socialization during the puppy’s first 12 weeks of life. I believe that this program, along with the Puppy Start Right program (developed by Dr. Kenneth Martin and his wife Debbie Martin), should be mandatory for all breeders and new human puppy guardians to implement. The study by Salonen et al. (2020) discusses stimuli that often induce fear in dogs: thunder, fireworks, gunshots, strangers, other dogs, novel situations, different surfaces, heights, stairs where you can or cannot see between steps, narrow bridges. All of these are wonderful starting points for a good quality socialization program. Teaching puppies how to encounter novel stimuli will not only teach puppies how to be confident throughout their life stages, but it also builds a foundation on which to build further life skills.
* Trazodone (brand name Desyrel®, Oleptro®) is a serotonin antagonist/reuptake inhibitor (SARI) antidepressant that is used to treat behavioral disorders, especially anxiety- or phobia-related in dogs (e.g., separation anxiety, noise phobia such as fireworks or thunderstorms, veterinary visits, hospitalization, and travel). It is frequently used as a supplemental therapy in pets that do not respond to conventional therapies. – Gollakner, R. (n.d.). Trazodone. Available at: https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/trazodone
Study Article Reference
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 10:2962. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7058607
Puppy Culture: https://shoppuppyculture.com/pages/puppy-culture-1
Puppy Start Right: https://karenpryoracademy.com/courses/puppy-start-right/
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, July 2020, pp.40-42. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.
About the Author
Sheryl L. Walker Ph.D holds a master’s degree in behavior analysis and a Ph.D. in animal behavior and sheltering. She also operates WAGS: Wonderful Animal Guidance Services in Lafayette, Indiana, specializing in puppies. She is currently working toward her Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) certification, and her current research interests are puppy socialization and training.