While many dogs are trained to help ease consumers’ worries, a new study is exploring how dog owners can help their pets feel less worried in new situations.
Researchers from the University of Helsinki found two key factors that could help dogs warm up more easily in new places: physical activity and social connection. When dogs are more active and have more socialization with other dogs, the team found that they’re more likely to be better behaved and exhibit fewer fear-related behaviors.
“Our prior research on the environmental effects of social fear observed the same phenomena where urban dogs were more fearful than their rural counterparts,” said researcher Hannes Lohi. “Indeed, it is interesting that human mental health problems occur more frequently in the city than in rural areas. The ways in which our environment shapes us and our best friend is definitely an interesting topic for further research.”
Easing dogs’ stress
To understand what steps dog owners can take to better acclimate their pets to new surroundings, the researchers surveyed over 14,000 dog owners. They answered questions about their dogs’ behaviors, including sensitivity to sounds, separation anxiety, and general fears, among several others. The owners also provided information about their dogs’ breed, size, and how often they socialized with other dogs.
The researchers learned that certain factors could help dogs become more comfortable and less fearful in certain situations. Higher levels of physical activity and greater socialization with other dogs proved to be beneficial ways to ease fears and anxiety.
“Physical exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on the mood in both dogs and humans,” said researcher Emma Hakanen. “As social animals, dogs enjoy doing things with their owners. At the same time, people do not necessarily wish to subject fearful dogs to training situations that are stressful for them. This can also make owners less inclined to train with their dog.”
The researchers learned that without such interventions, dogs are more likely to be skittish in any new setting and could exhibit strong fear responses to certain textured surfaces or sounds. However, the more time spent around other dogs, the better the dogs were able to adapt to social situations.
Is fear genetic?
Another key aspect of this study was looking at the various dogs by type to determine if fear-related instincts are more common in specific breeds. The researchers learned that certain types of dogs could be more prone to certain fears in their genetic make-up.
However, the researchers say dog owners shouldn’t feel discouraged because these findings provide clear, tangible ways to help ease dogs’ fears.
“The breed-specific differences support the idea that fearfulness is inherited,” said Lohi. “In other words, breeding choices matter, even without knowing the exact mechanisms of inheritance. However, this study offers dog owners tools and support for previous notions related to improving the well-being of their dogs. Diverse socialization in puppyhood and an active lifestyle can significantly reduce social and non-social fearfulness.”