Owners may overlook dogs’ fearfulness

Dog-expressions_2511743bPet owners may misread or not understand the extent of dogs’ fearful responses to loud noises, according to U.K. researchers who found that although one-quarter of owners reported their pets were afraid of loud noises, half in more detailed interviews reported behaviors associated with such fears. Breed and age were among the factors that appeared to play a role in dogs’ fearful behaviors, and the researchers noted early life experiences are also important. ScienceDaily (2/18)

A study has gained new insight into domestic dogs’ fear responses to noises. The behavioural response by dogs to noises can be extreme in nature, distressing for owners and a welfare issue for dogs.

The research by academics from the School of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Bristol, and funded by the RSPCA, is published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The study provides an important insight into dogs’ fear of noises, and could improve our understanding of behavioural signs of fear or anxiety.

In the study two approaches were taken to investigate the occurrence of, and risk factors for, these behaviours: a postal survey of dog owners to investigate general demographic factors and a structured interview of a sub-set of owners to gather more detailed information.

Almost half of the owners who were interviewed reported that their dog showed at least one behavioural sign typical of fear when exposed to noises such as fireworks, thunder and gunshots, even though only a quarter had reported their dog as ‘fearful’ of noises.

This suggests that whilst they are aware of their pet’s behavioural response when exposed to a loud noise, owners do not necessarily recognise this as being indicative of fear or anxiety. This has relevance both for awareness of compromised welfare, and the methodology for surveying such behaviour.

The most commonly reported behavioural signs were vocalising, trembling/shaking, hiding, vocalising and seeking people. It is thought trembling and shaking are more often reported by owners than other behaviours because they are similar to fearful behaviours in humans.

Other behavioural signs, such as decreased activity or salivation, may not be as easily recognised by owners as signs of fear, and may be under-reported. Also, signs of urination, salivation and destruction may make owners disappointed or angry, and this may influence their interpretation that such behaviours are associated with fearfulness.

Responses to fireworks were the most common, but fear responses to loud noises such as fireworks, gunshots and thunder appear to commonly co-occur, suggesting generalisation between salient stimuli.

The risk factors for owner-reported fear of noises included breed, although 12 breeds or breed types were less likely to show fear responses to noises than cross-breeds, including popular gundog breeds such as the Labrador, Cocker Spaniel and Springer Spaniel; age, where risk increased with age; and origin, where dogs living with the owner who bred them had a reduced risk compared to dogs purchased from the breeder by a second owner, supporting the view that an early environment that is very similar to the environment experienced in adulthood is advantageous.

The researchers suggest a dog’s early life experience is an important factor in the development of fear responses to specific loud noises.

Dr Rachel Casey, European Specialist in Veterinary Behavioural Medicine and Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Bristol University, said: “Our results suggest that the characteristics of dogs, their early environment, and exposure to specific loud noises are involved in the development of fear responses to noises. Interestingly, less than a third of owners sought professional advice about treatment for their pet’s response to noises.”

Disappointingly, less than a third of owners currently seek professional advice about treatment for their pet’s fear. The researchers recommend there is a need for veterinary surgeons to increase awareness among the general dog owning public that treatment is both available and effective in dealing with fears of loud noises, and to direct them towards appropriate sources of help.



One Response to “Owners may overlook dogs’ fearfulness”

  1. I have a 6 year old male yorkie that has a mental disorder. His vet has tested him for everything possible and my dog (Tyler) has great heath. His main issue is his mental situation. After reading your article, I felt my experience might fit quite well with your statements. Tyler had a terrible beginning. I purchased him from a questionable breeder in Kentucky when he was 7 months old. I was unaware of his situation until I drove from Virginia to pick him up and saw his living conditions. He had never been outside the house and was kept in a small wire cage and removed only to have his cage cleaned from his bathroom usage. When I first met him, the lady had taken him out of his cage and Tyler went wild. He jumped and ran around like a wild animal. Once I got him into the car and started home, I realized his life for the first 7 months were abusive for him. He still suffers and is getting worse as time passes by. He trembles/shakes most of the day, runs around in circles with a stuffed toy (his binky) in his mouth, hides at noises or uncertain situations I have three other small dogs and Tyler displays bully behaviors toward them and he is very anti-social around them. The other dogs spend most of their time away from Tyler because he tries to fight and bite them so much. Tyler is very aggressive toward me, his human mother, he bites me so badly he draws blood most of the time. There are times when I can not get him to relax his bite before he causes too much damage to me. Usually three or four nights per week, he will wake up from a solid sleep with violent outburst of bitting and attacking at my face. He has to be muzzled for baths, haircuts or any other dog maintenance that is required of him. He is full of fear, depression and anxiety. We tried Tyler on prozac last summer but if was not really effective but since he has started to attack people outside when we walk we placed him back on the prozac about three months ago but not much of a change again. Tyler has a very delicate and pleasant life. He is loved my many people and I hate to see his life decreasing so badly. He is never punished for his actions but instead I try to handle the situations because I understand he has a mental disability. I have began to deal with his violence in a new method and have been able to stop him most times before he bites me too badly. I am afraid that one night he will wake up in a rage before I hear him and attack my face before I can stop him.
    I think he is a good example of OCD, my vet and I consider him my emotional disturbed dog. But he is loved dearly.
    Thank you,
    Alice Johnson

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