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Are Some Dogs Born With Their Unwanted Behaviors?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

unwanted dog behaviors

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent large-scale study suggests anxieties and behavior problems in dogs are more common than not, with 73% displaying unwanted behaviors
  • Noise sensitivity was the most common undesirable behavior; fearfulness was second
  • Study results also suggest that certain behavior traits are linked, and that unwanted behaviors may have a genetic predisposition
  • While nature plays a role in dogs’ behavior, nurture (environment) certainly plays just as important a role, and is the only variable you’re in control of
  • If your dog has a frustrating behavior problem you haven’t been able to resolve, ask for help from a carefully selected professional dog trainer, the earlier the better

In case you sometimes feel like the only dog parent in the world whose precious pup is quite the handful, behaviorally speaking, rest assured you have lots and lots of company. According to the results of a recent study published in Scientific Reports,1 anxieties and behavior problems in dogs are commonplace, with noise sensitivity at the top of the list.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland. According to a university news release:

“All dog breeds have unwanted behaviour, such as noise sensitivity, aggressiveness and separation anxiety, but differences in frequency between breeds are great. Various unwanted behaviour traits often occur simultaneously, as indicated by a study recently completed by Professor Hannes Lohi’s research group from the University of Helsinki.”2

14,000 Dogs, 264 Breeds, 7 Behavior Problems

The research team examined the prevalence of the following 7 unwanted canine behaviors:

  1. Noise sensitivity (including thunder, fireworks and shots)
  2. Fearfulness of humans, other dogs and unfamiliar locations
  3. Fear of surfaces and heights
  4. Inattention and impulsivity
  5. Compulsive behavior
  6. Aggressiveness
  7. Separation anxiety

The study looked at data collected on nearly 14,000 Finnish family dogs across 264 breeds, which makes it one of the largest projects of its kind in the world. Just under 52% of the dogs were female and ages ranged from 10 weeks to nearly 18 years. Mixed breeds and the following 14 breeds made up 35% of all the dogs for which data was collected:

Bernese Mountain Dog

Miniature Schnauzer

Border Collie

Rough Collie

Finnish Lapponian Dog

Shetland Sheepdog

German Shepherd Dog

Smooth Collie

Labrador Retriever

Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier

Lagotto Romagnolo

Spanish Water Dog

Lapponian Herder

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

Majority of Dogs Suffer From Noise Sensitivity, Fearfulness

The researchers discovered that unwanted behavior occurred in an astonishing 73% of dogs.

  • Noise sensitivity was the most common anxiety, with 32% of dogs afraid of at least one noise, and 26% fearful of fireworks, specifically
  • Fear came in second, found in 29% of dogs, and included fear of other dogs (17%), fear of strangers (15%) and fear of new situations (11%)
  • Noise sensitivity — especially fear of thunder — increased with age, as did fear of heights and surfaces, such walking on metal grids or shiny floors
  • Younger dogs were more apt to damage or urinate on items when left alone, they were also more often inattentive, hyperactive or impulsive and chased their tails more than older dogs
  • Male dogs were more often aggressive and hyperactive/impulsive, whereas female dogs were more often fearful

The authors also found differences between breeds. For example, the Lagotto Romagnolo, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier and mixed breeds were the most noise sensitive. Spanish Water Dogs, Shetland Sheepdogs and mixed breeds were the most fearful. Just under 11% of Miniature Schnauzers were aggressive towards strangers, compared to 0.4% of Labrador Retrievers.

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Certain Behavior Traits Seem To Be Linked

The researchers also looked at links between individual behaviors. As in past studies, they found that dogs who are fearful are also often aggressive. New and unexpected findings were also uncovered:

"We discovered an interesting connection between impulsivity, compulsive behaviour and separation anxiety,” said study co-author and doctoral candidate Milla Salonen. “In humans, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often occurs together with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but this is the first time the same has been seen in dogs.”3

One of the goals of the University of Helsinki research team is to learn more about human mental health problems. Dogs are similar to us both physiologically and behaviorally, and we also share the same complex social environment.

"With the help of this project and data, we will continue investigating how good a model species the dog is in research focused on human mental health problems. Our previous genetic research pointed to the same genomic areas in fearfulness and noise sensitivity," lead researcher Professor Hannes Lohi said.4

Unwanted Behavior May Have A Genetic Predisposition

The research team compared the prevalence of behavior traits among the 15 breeds (including mixed breeds) named above and found significant differences between them. Border Collies, for example, engaged in more compulsive staring and light/shadow chasing — behaviors that occurred much less often in all other breeds.

"One of the biggest differences among the breeds was identified in fearfulness of unfamiliar people, in which there was an 18-fold difference between the most timid breed and the bravest breed, the Spanish Water Dog and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier," said Salonen.

In their study, the researchers make the point that many unwanted behaviors, such as fearfulness and noise sensitivity, can cause intense stress in dogs and prompt owner relinquishment.

"Our findings indicate that unwanted behaviour seems to be inherited, which means that, through careful breeding that relies on suitable behaviour indicators, the prevalence of such behaviour traits could be decreased. This would improve the quality of life of not only the dogs, but their owners too," Lohi stated.

While I agree with the University of Helsinki researchers that genetics play some role — as yet undetermined — in the development of unwanted behaviors in dogs, I know from both personal and professional experience that many other factors are also involved that have much more to do with “nurture” than nature.

Genetic predispositions for certain behaviors are shaped by human reactions to expressed behaviors, so the experiences the animal has (and how we respond to them) sets the stage for the behavior to get better or worse.

And while I’m a huge advocate of responsible dog breeding programs, I don’t see “careful breeding” based on “suitable behavior indicators” as a realistic approach to mitigating the current problem, at least in the US, given the current thriving puppy mill market.

The number of mass-produced, poorly bred puppies being churned out to satisfy the hungry North American puppy market squashes the number of small, ethical breeders responsibly screening for genetic and temperament flaws. Until we can educate puppy buyers on how to select a reputable breeder, inherited breed flaws, including possible temperament issues, will persist.

For those of you with canine family members whose behavior needs significant improvement, I recommend as a first step a veterinary checkup to ensure there isn’t an underlying health problem causing or contributing to the issue. Once you’ve cleared that hurdle, I recommend hiring a professional fear free dog trainer.

Assessing Potential Trainers

It goes without saying that helping your dog shape (or reshape) her behavior starts with finding an experienced training professional who is right for both you and your pet. That’s why it’s important to know what questions to ask and what criteria to look for when evaluating potential trainers. Things to consider:

Training method — There are a number of different training methods, some of which are punitive in nature. Scientific research and most experts agree that the most humane and effective approach is positive reinforcement behavior training.

It’s important to avoid trainers who use punishment, fear-based or pack-theory techniques, as these approaches aren’t scientifically supported and are very controversial, in terms of long-term, positive outcomes. Addressing your dog’s fear and aggression with fear-based training techniques is a recipe for irreparable disaster.

Education — Since there are no state or federal certifications for dog trainers, it’s extremely important to find one whose background includes professional training courses and certifications, and who keeps up to date on the latest industry developments.

Areas of specialization — Just because a person is a dog trainer doesn’t mean he or she has experience with every conceivable type of training situation. For example, training a puppy in basic obedience requires different skills than helping a rescue dog overcome severe separation anxiety. Depending on your dog’s individual needs, it can be very beneficial to try to find a trainer who specializes in one or more of them.

References — It’s extremely important to ask potential trainers for references, and to make contact with those clients to get their input. Do they feel using the trainer was a good investment? Are they happy with the results? If a trainer can’t or won’t provide references, it’s a big red flag. If he or she has more than one bad review and the complaints seem legitimate, it’s also a red flag.

Cost — You want to be very clear on a potential trainers’ fees so there are no surprises. To calculate how much you’ll spend in total, you’ll want to know how many sessions the trainer thinks your dog will require.

You can find directories of credentialed dog professionals at the following sites:5

No matter how careful you’ve been in vetting and selecting a trainer for your dog, if that first (or any) training session leaves you or your pet feeling uneasy, follow your instincts (and your dog’s) and continue your search for the right fit.