Your Dog’s Anxiety Could Be Due To His Genes

Most dog owners won’t be surprised to learn that noise sensitivity is the most common source of anxiety in dogs, followed by fear of other dogs, fear of strangers and new situations. This is the result of a Finnish study which was published in the March 5, 2020 issue of Scientific Reports looking at some 13,700 responses from dog owners representing 264 breeds.

But the most interesting observation from this study was that anxieties were more prevalent in certain breeds and less so in others. For example, Spanish water dogs, Shetland dogs and mixed breeds were the most fearful. And a good percentage of miniature Schnauzers were fearful and aggressive toward strangers but these traits were absent in Labrador retrievers. These findings suggested to the researchers that dog anxiety has a genetic component.

Older research studies back up this conclusion. For example, there is part of a German shepherds’ DNA which codes for a gene that is associated with sociability. But, this very same part of the dog’s DNA is also associated with being more sensitive to noise. So the researchers suggest that by breeding for dogs who are more social, we have inadvertently also bred dogs who are more sensitive to noise. 

However, some dog behaviorists and researchers say to take a cautious approach to these results, as the study was based entirely on owners self-report. And the lead researcher himself, Hannes Lohi, a canine geneticist at the University of Helsinki, cautions about over interpreting the results. As he points out, dogs who come from shelters have been in places that are sources of high anxiety, so their anxiousness might be more attributable to environment than to genes. 

In any case, the research does show that taking breed into account before they get a dog, owners can plan for a dog which will do best in the environment in which they will be placed. 

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By Ellen Britt

Dr. Ellen Britt has loved dogs since she was a child. She is particularly fond of the Northern breeds, especially Alaskan Malamutes. Ellen worked as a PA in Emergency and Occupational Medicine for two decades and holds a doctorate (Ed.D.) in biology.

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