Canine anxiety and puppy-rearing: my November 2019 “Best of Health” article

Best of HealthEarlier this year I analysed some data collected by one of our Dachshund Breed Rescues. We wanted to see whether the massive increase in popularity of Miniature Smooth Dachshunds was feeding through into a rehoming and rescue problem. Unsurprisingly, the 2 are linked and this particular rescue charity has seen a 4-fold increase in rehoming cases from 2017 to 2019. Of those, 70% were not Kennel Club registered and that figure mirrors what we know about the market for pedigree dogs. Far more are bred outside the KC registration system than within it.

The analysis of the rescue data showed that a quarter of all cases were associated with biting or aggression. That is a worryingly high proportion, especially when compared with the findings of one of our breed surveys. In 2012, our survey asked about behaviour and temperament, and just 1% of Mini Smooths were reported as being aggressive with people (5% were aggressive with other dogs).

My suspicion is that many of these rehoming cases are a result of badly bred dogs producing puppies that are badly reared and then sold to inexperienced owners who know very little about canine behaviour and can’t cope.

Last month, I wrote about the breeding recommendations in a recently published paper “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater” (Dawson et al). Firstly, the authors recommended that breeding choices and puppy-rearing processes should be based on knowledge of good practices. Secondly, they advocated that all dogs should be independently tested for suitability before being bred from. In addition to suitability from a health point of view, they suggested behavioural testing is important to check their suitability to be good companion animals. Dogs that are themselves good companions, are more likely to produce puppies that will be good companions as well.

Fearfulness and its causes

I’ve been re-reading another paper on behaviour: “Early life experiences and exercise associated with canine anxieties” published by Hannes Lohi and Katriina Tiira in 2015. It’s an Open Access paper so you can download the full version, yourself. The study collected data from a Finnish family dog population to identify environmental factors that might be associated with canine fearfulness, noise sensitivity and separation anxiety. I was particularly interested in the findings on fearfulness, in light of the aggression/biting data found in the rescue Dachshunds. The paper notes that aggressiveness is often motivated by fear and that bite injuries from human-directed aggression are an important public health concern. In 2017/18 there were just under 8000 NHS hospital admissions for dog bites and this figure has risen by almost 5% since 2015. However, a 2017 paper (Westgarth et al) suggests that the real burden of dog bites is considerably larger than those estimated from hospital records.

While fearfulness is known to have relatively high heritability, 2 major environmental factors are also known to affect this: lack of juvenile experiences and aversive learning. In the Lohi/Tiira paper, they found that a puppy’s maternal care and the amount of socialisation had the largest effects on fearfulness. Fearful dogs had received poorer maternal care and were less well socialised compared with less fearful dogs. Additionally, fearful dogs also lived in households with fewer other dogs and with more human adults. Bitches and younger dogs also tended to be more fearful. There was also a tendency for fearful dogs to get less exercise and they were more likely to live indoors, rather than spending their time indoors and outdoors.

It’s fireworks season

In our area, the firework season seems to have spread well beyond Bonfire Night and there will inevitably be another week of loud noises as we approach the New Year. Noise sensitivity was the second issue investigated by Lohi and Tiira. They found that dogs with noise sensitivity got significantly less daily exercise than dogs with no noise sensitivity. They were also more likely to have been neutered and were likely to be their owner’s first dog. The more dogs an owner had and the more dogs they had previously owned, the later the age of onset of noise sensitivity in their current dog. Overall, the evidence suggests that more socialised dogs were less likely to be noise sensitive.

I (don’t) want to be alone

Among social media discussion groups, there seem to be endless questions about Dachshunds with separation anxiety. It’s not just Dachshunds, of course. According to Dogs Trust, surveys have shown that between 13% and 18% of owners reported separation-related issues with their dogs. One study (albeit a small sample) found 85% of the sample had behavioural and psychological signs of stress when left alone.

The Lohi/Tiira study found that separation anxiety was more common in dogs that received less exercise. Other studies (Sargisson 2014) have shown that dogs tend to develop separation-related behaviour if they are male, sourced from rescues or puppy farms, and are separated from their littermates before 8 weeks. Protective factors include ensuring a wide range of experiences outside the home with other people from 5-10 months old, stable daily routines and the avoidance of punishments. 

No surprises!

It probably comes as no surprise that the largest explanatory factors associated with fearfulness were maternal care and the amount of early socialisation (up to 3 months old). However, it is important to note that comments on maternal care in the Lohi/Tiira paper were made by the owners, not the breeders. This reflects their recollection of what they had seen when they visited the breeder before taking the puppy home. The importance of the “See Mum” message cannot be overstated and, in practice, buyers should aim to see the puppies interacting with their mother at least once before the day they take their puppy home. It’s also worth reading the Puppy Plan (Kennel Club and Dogs Trust www.thepuppyplan.com) as a week-by-week checklist of experiences that well-reared puppies should have been exposed to. 

The findings on exercise also come as no surprise to me. Our dogs love to sniff when they are out, off the lead. This is an important aspect of their mental stimulation as well as them getting physical exercise. So many of the cases of separation anxiety and destructive behaviour that I read on social media are, I’m convinced, due to the dogs simply not getting enough exercise. The authors note that exercise may work as stress resilience, particularly as the resilient effect of exercise on anxiety and depression has been recognised in people. It is known that exercise increases serotonin production in animals and people, and this acts as an antidepressant. Interestingly, the study also found that dogs with less daily exercise were more aggressive to other dogs. The amount of daily exercise may be an indicator of the overall quality of dog management. 

In conclusion, I think buyers need to be much more aware of how their potential puppy has been socialised. They also need to be much clearer on their responsibilities for socialisation and exercise. Breeders probably need to exaggerate when explaining the amount of exercise a dog will need. Otherwise, we will continue to see dogs suffering from anxiety in their new homes and growing demand for rescue and rehoming services.

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