Study finds urban dogs to be more fearful than their country cousins
Dogs that are fearful of unfamiliar environments, people and other animals can often develop behavioral problems that cause them and their owners great distress. Scientists in Finland have conducted a study investigating the root causes of this canine character trait, uncovering a previously unknown link between urban living environments and social fearfulness in dogs.
The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Helsinki, who analyzed data through a behavioral survey involving nearly 6,000 pet dogs and their owners. This analysis enabled the researchers to establish relationships between different risk factors and social fearfulness in dogs, with some more surprising than others.
A lack of socialization during the puppy phase is a well-known factor in behavioral problems further down the track. This could relate to a lack of exposure to different situations, people and stimuli during the early stages of the dog’s life. One of unknown risk factors the scientists uncovered, however, was an urban living environment, with dogs raised in these areas observed to be more fearful than those raised in rural areas.
“This has not actually been previously investigated in dogs,” says Jenni Puurunen, a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Helsinki. “What we do know is that human mental health problems occur more frequently in the city than in rural areas. However, further studies are needed before any more can be said about causes pertaining to the living environment.”
Among the other interesting insights revealed by the study was that activity levels of the dog appear connected to their levels of social fearfulness. The more fearful the dog, the less the owner involved them in activities and training, though whether this is a cause of the behavior or a result of it isn’t entirely clear.
“Activity and stimuli have already been found to have a positive effect on behavior, in both dogs and humans,” says Professor Hannes Lohi from the University of Helsinki. “Of course, the lesser activity of fearful dogs can also be down to their owners wanting to avoid exposing their dogs to stressful situations. It may be that people just are not as active with fearful dogs.”
The team also found that some breeds of dog were far more fearful than others, with Spanish Water Dogs and Shetland Sheepdogs not nearly as brave as Wheaten Terriers, for example.
“Differences between breeds support the notion that genes have an effect on fearfulness, as well as on many other mental health problems,” says Lohi. “This encourages us to carry out further research especially in terms of heredity. All in all, this study provides us with tools to improve the welfare of our best friend: diverse socialization in puppyhood, an active lifestyle and carefully made breeding choices can significantly decrease social fearfulness.”
The paper was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Source: University of Helsinki
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