One Third of Dogs Have a Behaviour Issue, Study Shows

Pets

The most common problems are fear, especially fear of loud noises, and not doing what the guardian wants, such as not coming when called.

Photo: Mikkel Bendix/Pexels

By Zazie Todd PhD

New research published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior shows that if your dog has a behaviour issue, you’re not alone. 

Importantly, the study is based on a representative sample of dog guardians in Denmark, which means the results are an accurate insight into all dogs there. The findings suggest that we need to pay more attention to behaviour issues in dogs.

Dr. Iben Meyer (Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, University of Copenhagen), first author of the study, told me,

“The estimated prevalence of owner reported behaviour problems in dogs was much higher than what is found in veterinary records from primary veterinary practice. This points to a need for veterinarians to focus more on screening for behaviour related problems and to provide a space for the owner where such issues can be raised.”

One third (34%) of dogs have some kind of behaviour problem. The most common issues were related to fear and to disobedience, which included jumping up, barking, and not coming when called. Aggression was reported less often in this study than in other studies. When aggression did occur, it was typically not towards people, but towards other dogs. Meyer says,

“Although problems with aggressive behaviour in dogs are very hard to live with, they are not the most prevalent problems experienced by dog owners. And for those owners who do experience problematic aggression in their dog, aggression towards conspecifics, rather than towards humans, is the most prevalent problem. So, perhaps we need to focus even more on how to prevent fear in dogs, and how to help our dogs to develop social behaviors that promote successful interactions with other dogs.”

The scientists found some interesting associations, including that when people train their dog more often, the dog is less likely to have issues with aggression and less likely to be disobedient. Although this is a correlation, it seems very likely that training would reduce the frequency of these issues. However, unlike in previous research, there was no link between regular activities with the dog and lower levels of fear, with the exception of attendance at dog training classes which was protective. Older dogs were more likely to be obedient, which could reflect training levels or that people and their dogs have learned to live together better.

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Another interesting finding is that dogs who were given more time off-leash were less likely to be aggressive to other dogs than those who had less time off-leash. In this case it’s more difficult to assess the causal direction, as it could be that time off-leash gives dogs opportunities to socialize with other dogs, but it could also be that dogs who are not friendly to other dogs are less likely to be allowed off-leash. 

This result was specific to time off-leash, whereas previous research has found a similar connection but with overall walk time instead. This suggests that more research is needed into how dogs behave off-leash and the potential benefits for them. Being off-leash gives dogs more choice and also gives them more freedom to engage in species-specific behaviours, something which is considered important for good animal welfare.

The study also found a link between fear and aggression in dogs and medical issues such as pain. Meyer told me, 

“There’s an increasing awareness about this connection between physical and mental health, and it is something that both professionals and owners need to be very aware of when we encounter problematic behaviour in our companion animals.”

There was also a link with living situation, as dogs who live in apartments were more likely to have behaviour issues than those who live in a house or farm. It wasn’t a rural/urban divide, and it’s not known if being in an apartment means dogs are more likely to be afraid of noises they hear from nearby apartments, or if different kinds of people live in apartments (and therefore treat their dogs differently).

Most research on behaviour problems in dogs has used a convenience sample which, although very useful, can introduce some bias. For example, surveys of people who take their dog to the vet for a behaviour issue will likely get people with more serious issues, otherwise they would not have gone to the vet in the first place. Meanwhile, questionnaires circulated on the internet are more likely to be completed by the kind of person who is interested enough in dogs to follow social media pages about dog behaviour.

In this new Danish study, 11% of people reported problems with their dog not being obedient. Fear of noises was put at 10%, which is lower than found in other studies (including one which suggests many dog guardians miss the signs). Aggression and fear of other dogs were reported in 8% and 7% of dogs, respectively, while aggression towards unfamiliar people was reported in 3% of dogs and towards the guardian in less than 1% of dogs.

Just over 5,000 people took part in the study, aged between 18 and 89. If they had more than one dog, they answered the questions for the dog whose name came first alphabetically.

This is only the second scientific study to use a representative sample to investigate dog behaviour in this way. The previous one in Victoria, Australia, found higher levels of behaviour issues, including 49% of dogs with fear of loud noises, 35% barking too much, and 30% with separation anxiety (Howell et al 2016). In the UK, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals publishes an annual Paw Report based on a representative sample of pet guardians. Their 2023 Paw Report is just out and shows that jumping up is the most common behaviour issue there (28%) followed by barking (24%), with 13% showing signs of fear.  

Previous research has shown that there is potential for veterinarians to increase the behaviour support they offer and to work together with reward-based dog trainers (Shalvey et al 2019). The American Animal Hospital Association has canine and feline behaviour management guidelines for vets that include a questionnaire that can be used to screen for behaviour issues in dogs.  

The high prevalence of behaviour issues in this study shows that we need to pay more attention to them, as they can reflect poor welfare for the dog, cause stress for the guardian, and negatively affect the human-animal bond.  

If your dog has a behaviour issue, it’s better to seek help sooner rather than later (see how to choose a dog trainer) and to train using reward-based methods. For any sudden behaviour change, see your vet in case of medical issues. If your dog is fearful, check out my post on 8 tips to help fearful dogs feel safe.  You’ll also find plenty of tips in my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—and look out for my book on how to help anxious, fearful, and reactive dogs, coming next year!  

Do you have any issues with your dog’s behaviour?

Useful links:

References

Howell, T. J., Mornement, K., & Bennett, P. C. (2016). Pet dog management practices among a representative sample of owners in Victoria, Australia. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 12, 4-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.12.005

Meyer, I., Forkman, B., Lund, T.B. & Sandøe, P. (2023) Behavior problems in dogs—an assessment of prevalence and risk factors based on responses from a representative sample of Danish owners. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 69-70:24-31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2023.11.002

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