What's Behind an Epidemic of Canine Fear and Anxiety?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

canine fear and anxiety

Story at-a-glance -

  • Fear and anxiety in dogs has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., and is a serious welfare issue that impacts both the human-animal bond and dog relinquishment statistics
  • A large-scale study conducted in Finland revealed that almost three-quarters of dogs display unwanted behaviors rooted in fear and anxiety
  • Noise sensitivity and fearfulness are the number one and two most common undesirable behaviors; study results also suggest that certain behavior traits are linked, and that unwanted behaviors may have a genetic predisposition
  • Genetics may play an as-yet-undetermined role in dogs’ behavior, but environment plays an arguably more important role, and is the only variable pet parents can influence
  • If your dog has a troublesome behavior problem you can’t seem to resolve, as soon as possible, seek help from a carefully selected professional dog trainer

If it seems the dog in your family, and perhaps other dogs you know, are more “nervous” than dogs once were, it isn’t your imagination. The truth is that fear and anxiety in dogs is a serious welfare issue these days, and according to some experts, the science that proves it suggests breeders should be paying more attention to selecting non-fearful animals for mating purposes.1

Noise Sensitivity Tops the List of Behavior Problems

A 2020 study from the University of Helsinki in Finland concluded that anxieties and behavior problems in dogs are commonplace, with noise sensitivity topping the list.2 The researchers examined data collected on 13,700 family dogs in Finland 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

The research team examined the prevalence of seven undesirable 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

73% of Dogs Display Noise Sensitivity and/or Fearfulness

The study results showed that unwanted behavior occurred in an astonishing 73% of dogs.

  • Noise sensitivity proved to be 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 likely 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 researchers 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.

The researchers also looked at links between individual behaviors. As in past studies, they found that fearful dogs are also often aggressive, however, some 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

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

"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

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The Role of Genetics in Unwanted Behavior

The research team compared the frequency of behavior traits among the 14 breeds and mixed breeds above and discovered 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.

The researchers make the point that many unwanted behaviors, such as fearfulness and noise sensitivity, can cause such intense stress in dogs that owners may relinquish them.

"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.

In my experience, while genetics play some role — as yet undetermined — in the development of unwanted behaviors in dogs, there are many other factors involved that have much more to do with “nurture” than nature. Genetic predispositions for certain behaviors can be shaped by human reactions to expressed behaviors, so the experiences an animal has (and the way in which we respond to them) influences whether the behavior improves or worsens.

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 U.S., given the current thriving puppy mill market.

The number of poorly bred puppies being churned out to satisfy the North American puppy market far outweighs 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.

One of the most impactful determining factors of a dog’s overall ability to cope with stress throughout life is how much early puppy socialization they received from day 1-64, prior to their owners even taking their puppy home. Puppy mills don’t provide the critical neonatal sensory and handling experiences needed for healthy experiential development, which contributes to many dogs having lifelong fear and anxiety.

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.

Choosing a Dog Trainer

It goes without saying that helping your dog shape (or reshape) his behavior starts with finding an experienced training professional who is right for both you and your furry family member. 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:

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.

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 can be predictably disastrous.

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.

References — It’s also 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