Study Reveals Just How Common Behavior Problems Are

Analysis of 13,000 Finnish pet dogs offers insights into behavior
By Karen B. London PhD, March 2020

If your dog exhibits behavior problems, she is in good company. A recent study of over 13,000 pet dogs in Finland found that nearly three-quarters of dogs have a behavioral issue. The study almost certainly underrepresents the percentage of dogs with a behavior problem because this study focused on just seven of them: noise sensitivity, fearfulness, compulsion, fear of surfaces or heights, inattention/impulsivity, separation related behavior and aggression. It did not investigate destructive chewing, jumping up, digging, counter surfing and many other behaviors that are common and considered problematic to the people in their lives. Additionally, because the data came from guardian surveys, assessing its reliability is challenging. It is notoriously difficult to collect accurate information from surveys.

The purpose of the study Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs was to explore how common these issues are, how they are related to one another and the extent of breed differences with regard to them. A key finding is that behavior problems are exceedingly common. Noise sensitivity was especially prevalent, with nearly a third of dogs showing fear of fireworks, thunder or gunshots. Over a quarter of the dogs were fearful of fireworks alone.

Another important finding of the study was that some behavior problems co-occur. It is common for the same dogs to show signs of compulsion, hyperactivity/inattention and separation related behavior. Dogs who were aggressive were over 3.2 times more likely to be fearful, and those who exhibited separation related behavior were 2.8 times more likely to be fearful.

Finally, the research reveals large differences between breeds in the prevalence of every behavior investigated. For example, less than half of one percent of Labrador Retrievers were aggressive to strangers, but over ten percent of Miniature Schnauzers had this issue. However, only about ten percent of the Miniature Schnauzers showed impulsivity and hyperactivity compared to over 20 percent of German Shepherd Dogs.

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All behavior problems can negatively affect dogs’ quality of life and also increase the chances that they will be relinquished or euthanized. It only makes sense to consider behavior in any selective breeding plan, as the authors of this study assert, because doing so could improve both the welfare of our dogs and our relationships with them.

In many ways, this study is confirming what we already know about behavior problems in dogs—a lot of dogs have behavioral issues that are anxiety-related, some such traits are correlated, there are breed differences which suggests a genetic component, a lot of aggression is based in fear and breeding with behavior in mind would be wise.

photo by bullcitydogs/Flickr

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.