Fear Factors For Companion Canines
Fear and anxiety are leading issues in companion dog welfare. Unfortunately, guardians of dogs with fear-related behavioral issues can find them challenging to overcome or deal with. While many people will try to work with their dogs to help them feel better, some may end up giving them up for adoption or leaving them in shelters where they may be euthanized.
There are two main types of fear: social and non-social. While social fear is triggered by the presence of other dogs or new people, non-social fear can be provoked by things like new objects or loud noises. Reactions to the two types of fear also vary. For example, dogs may bark or lower their tails when experiencing social fear, but dogs afraid of a new situation will typically pant or make it clear that they wish to leave the situation.
Both nature (genetic factors) and nurture (environmental factors such as socialization and the company of other dogs) affect non-social fearfulness in canines.
In this study, researchers set out to identify environmental and demographic factors that were associated with non-social fearfulness in dogs. An online questionnaire was advertised through various dog breed organizations, as well as on Facebook. Participants were guardians of companion dogs who lived in Finland.
The first section of the survey requested background information on the dogs, such as their age, breed, sex, and spay/neuter status. Responses to some questions were grouped into categories: for example, body sizes were categorized into small, medium, and large, based on the average height of each dog’s breed. Other types of information that were categorized into groups included: the size of the human family living with the dog, the amount of time the dog spent exercising each day, and the frequency of engagement in structured physical activities such as agility and obedience training.
Several questions asked participants about socialization during the dogs’ puppy years. These responses were added together to give each dog a socialization score, which represented the dog’s overall amount of puppyhood socialization.
Participants were also asked to provide their home address, which was used to assign a score to the landscape surrounding the dog’s home. The score indicated whether the area was more urban, or more rural.
In the second section of the survey, questions solicited information on behavioral signs of fear and anxiety, with a focus on three types of non-social fear: 1) sensitivity to noise (specifically, fear of fireworks and fear of thunder), 2) fear of novel situations, and 3) fear of surfaces and heights.
Participants were asked whether their dogs displayed any of these three types of fear. If they answered yes, they were asked to select the best estimate of how often they displayed the fear. From there, all responses within each fear category were divided into dogs with a high amount of that particular kind of fear, and dogs displaying a low amount of that fear. These groups were assigned as follows:
- Low fear group: dogs that never showed a particular kind of fear
- High fear group: dogs that displayed a particular kind of fear at least often (40-60% of the time for fears of thunder, fireworks, and new situations, or a score of 3 out of 4 for fears of surfaces and heights)
Finally, the researchers performed statistical analyses to determine whether particular demographic and environmental factors from the background section of the survey were linked to high or low amounts of each type of non-social fear.
Dogs who participated in structured physical activities or training more often were significantly less likely to experience all three types of non-social fear. Notably, dogs getting between one and three hours of daily exercise were less likely to be fearful of thunder than dogs getting more than three hours.
In addition, dogs who received more socialization as puppies were less likely to experience all types of non-social fear, except a fear of surfaces and heights. Socialization in this study included travelling, meeting new dogs, and meeting new people. Similarly, being the only dog in the home increased the probability of all types of non-social fear except a fear of new situations.
Neutered or spayed dogs were more likely to show fear towards thunder, fireworks, and new situations. Intact males were less fearful of new situations than intact females, but no difference was observed between neutered males and females.
Fear of both fireworks and thunder increased with age until 10 years of age, and then declined. A similar trend was observed for fear of new situations, with fear peaking at 5 years of age instead.
Large dogs were less likely to be frightened by thunder, surfaces, and heights, compared to small dogs. Cairn Terriers were consistently among the most fearful breeds towards fireworks, thunder, surfaces, and heights, and Rough Collies were among the most fearful towards thunder, surfaces, and heights.
Living in a more urban environment was associated with heightened fear of new situations, surfaces, and heights. A larger human family size also increased the likelihood of fear towards new situations. If the dog’s guardian had never looked after a dog before, fears of fireworks, surfaces, and heights were more likely.
Interestingly, the researchers found that general fearfulness (both social and non-social) increased the likelihood of fear towards surfaces and heights, which is similar in humans.
This study surveyed an impressively large cohort of dogs (~13,000), and is one of the first to look at a fear of surfaces and heights in particular. It should be noted, however, that all data were self-reported, and that not all factors may hold up outside of Finland. For instance, the authors point out that their questions regarding socialization were targeted towards the critical puppyhood phase in Finland (7 weeks to 4 months of age), based on when dogs tend to be rehomed in that country.
Encouragingly, factors not determined by genetics were associated with non-social fear, particularly engagement in training activities and puppyhood socialization. Both factors are great targets for education programs, to help humans prevent and manage non-social fear in their companions. In addition, differences based on less modifiable factors, such as age and breed, can help to prioritize those dogs most vulnerable to various types of non-social fear.