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New Study Finds Link Between Lifestyle, Breed and Fearfulness in Dogs

Isabelle Perlman

A study out of the University of Helsinki, published late last month, found that common behavioral problems among dogs (like noise sensitivity, fear of new situations, and fear of slippery surfaces and heights) are related to factors like environment, lifestyle, and breed.

This study, published in Scientific Reports, includes data from almost 14,000 dogs. First, the authors found that physical activity and training resulted in less fearful behavior. Just like humans, exercise has a positive effect on a dog’s mood. Dogs are social animals by nature, and they like to do things with their owners (hence the reason they’re always standing by the door, wagging their tail whenever you're about to leave). At the same time, “people do not necessarily wish to subject fearful dogs to training situations that are stressful for them,” points out Emma Hakanen, co-author of the study. Some owners are less inclined to train with their dog for that reason, when in reality, better training can result in better behavior. 

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Puppies are like babies,” and this study shows further proof of that. Authors also found that if puppies experience insufficient introduction to different situations and new environments, they are more likely to be fearful when it comes to new places, loud noises, and different surfaces, like slippery areas, transparent stairs, and metal grilles/grates. In addition, they found that the company of other dogs reduces the likelihood of non-social fear. 

Interestingly, they also discovered that fear of fireworks and surfaces was found more often in first-time dog owners, and differences were seen between rural and urban dogs. Dogs in urban areas were observed as more likely to show non-social fear than dogs in rural areas. The authors suggest this is due to urban areas being more hectic and densely-populated, which can lead to increased stress in dogs and thus more fearful behavior. 

The study concluded that there were significant differences among breeds, with Cairn Terriers as the most fearful breeds and Chinese Crested Dogs as the least fearful. Further differences were seen in the types, and extent, of non-social fears experienced by dogs of the same breed. For example, fearfulness of surfaces was common in Lapponian Herders, Miniature Schnauzers, Chihuahuas and Labrador Retrievers, while noise sensitivity was less common. 

Professor Lohi presents an overview and explains why this is important by saying, “The breed-specific differences support the idea that fearfulness is inherited. In other words, breeding choices matter, even without knowing the exact mechanisms of inheritance. However, this study offers dog owners tools and support for previous notions related to improving the wellbeing of their dogs. Diverse socialisation in puppyhood and an active lifestyle can significantly reduce social and non-social fearfulness.”

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