Pups & the city: Urban dogs more fearful than their rural counterparts, study finds

HELSINKI — For as ferocious and fearless as some dogs tend to be, others are much more skittish. Certain dogs avoid unknown people, animals, and sounds with all their might. Now, a new study conducted at the University of Helsinki finds that dogs living in urban environments are generally more fearful on a social level than pups raised in rural locations.

The research team analyzed a dataset of nearly 6,000 dogs across a variety of breeds. Besides other contributing factors, such as the amount of social situations a puppy experiences from a young age, living environment was picked out as a major deciding factor when it comes to a dog’s level of fearfulness.

“This has not actually been previously investigated in dogs. 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,” says Jenni Puurunen, a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Helsinki, in a release.

Small dogs, as well as neutered females, exhibit fearful tendencies more frequently as well. A lack of adequate exercise or activity was also linked to fearful habits. More skittish dogs didn’t get outside nearly as often as other canines, and the owners of fearful dogs took their pets for training sessions or other activities much less often.

The study’s authors, however, are unsure if fearful dogs don’t get out more because they are afraid, or if they’re afraid because they don’t get out as often.

“Activity and stimuli have already been found to have a positive effect on behaviour, in both dogs and humans. 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,” Lohi adds.

It’s also important to mention that there were notable differences found between breeds. Spanish Water Dogs and Shetland Sheepdogs, for whatever reason, seem to be fearful most often. Wheaten Terriers, on the other hand, were among the bravest of studied breeds. Cairn Terriers and Pembroke Welsh Corgis only displayed small levels of fear towards other dogs.

“Differences between breeds support the notion that genes have an effect on fearfulness, as well as on many other mental health problems. 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 socialisation in puppyhood, an active lifestyle and carefully made breeding choices can significantly decrease social fearfulness,” Lohi concludes.

The study is published in Scientific Reports.

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John Anderer

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