Finn study is third in six months to refute the saw that “It’s all in how you raise them.”
HELSINKI, Finland––For the third time in six months a major new study of the heritability of dog behavior, published by a leading peer-reviewed scientific journal, has refuted the shibboleth of pit bull advocacy that “It’s all in how you raise them,” helping to establish instead that canine behavioral traits are strongly breed-specific.
The importance of breed-specific traits in dog behavior is emphasized by the most recent study, “Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs,” even though the study modus operandi, based on dog owner interviews gathered online, gave dog owners unfettered opportunity to try to whitewash breed reputations by lying without risk of exposure.
Indirectly endorses breed-specific legislation
“Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs” appeared in the March 5, 2020 edition of Scientific Reports, an online multidisciplinary, open access journal produced since 2011 by the publishers of Nature.
“Dog breeds showed large differences in prevalence of all anxiety-related traits, suggesting a strong genetic contribution,” the Finn researchers concluded. “As a result, selective breeding focusing on behavior may reduce the prevalence of canine anxieties. Anxious animals may suffer from chronic stress and thus, modified breeding policies could improve the welfare of our companion dogs.”
Translation: there is a sound humane basis for breed-specific legislation to stop, or at least slow the growth of, the population of pit bulls, not just in the U.S. but in Finland and other nations as well.
Methodology may have led to understated findings
But the eight Finn co-authors––Milla Salonen, Sini Sulkama, Salla Mikkola, Jenni Puurunen, Emma Hakanen, Katriina Tiira, César Araujo, and Hannes Lohi––avoid any more specific discussion of what they may mean by “modified breeding policies,” and indirectly acknowledge that their methodology may have markedly understated the extent to which pit bulls, represented by a cohort of 200 owner-identified Staffordshire bull terriers, exhibit breed-specific dangerous behavior.
As a whole, the Finn team largely replicated the approach and findings of “Highly heritable and functionally relevant breed differences in dog behavior,” published on October 2, 2019 by Proceedings of the Royal Society.
“High levels of among-breed heritability”
In “Highly heritable and functionally relevant breed differences in dog behavior,”, co-authors Evan L. MacLean of the University of Arizona, Noah Snyder-Mackler of the University of Washington, Bridgett M. von Holdt of Princeton University, and James A. Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania “integrated behavioral data from more than 14,000 dogs from 101 breeds with breed-averaged genotypic data from over 100,000 loci in the dog genome,” their Royal Society paper reported.
“We found high levels of among-breed heritability for 14 behavioral traits,” concluded MacLean, Snyder-Mackler, von Holdt and Serpell.
Their paper followed by just one month the September 2, 2019 Journal of Neuroscience publication of “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds,” by Harvard University evolutionary neuroscientist Erin Hecht, which pointed strongly in the same directions.
“13,715 responses in 264 dog breeds”
Opened the Finn team, “We have here studied the prevalence, comorbidity, and breed specificity of seven canine anxiety-like traits: noise sensitivity, fearfulness, fear of surfaces and heights, inattention/impulsivity, compulsion, separation-related behavior, and aggression, with an online behavior questionnaire answered by dog owners.”
Altogether, the Finn researchers “collected 13,715 responses in 264 dog breeds,” they reported.
15 breed-specific cohorts
Among the dogs were 15 breed-specific cohorts of at least 200 dogs each, representing mixed breeds plus Bernese mountain dog, border collie, Finnish Lapponian dog, German shepherd, Labrador retriever, Lagotto Romagnolo, Lapponian herder, miniature schnauzer, rough collie, Shetland sheepdog, smooth collie, soft-coated wheaten terrier, Spanish water dog and Staffordshire bull terrier.
“These breeds and mixed breed dogs made up 35% of all dogs in the data,” the Finn team said, meaning that 65% of the dogs were of miscellaneous other breeds.
“In total, 72.5% of dogs had some kind of highly problematic behavior,” the Finn researchers found.
“Many dogs exhibited co-morbidities”
“Many dogs exhibited co-morbidities between different anxiety-related traits,” the Finn team added, meaning that two or more anxiety-related traits tended to be reported together by the dogs’ owners.
“Most common comorbidity was fear, especially in aggressive and hyperactive/impulsive dogs,” the dog owner-reported data showed, “and the second most common was noise sensitivity, especially in fearful dogs.
“Aggressive dogs were 3.2 times more often fearful,” the Finn researchers discovered, “and dogs showing separation related behavior were 2.8 times more likely fearful.”
“The prevalence of aggression was 14%”
Overall, the Finn team found, “The prevalence of aggression was 14%, with both aggression toward human family members and toward strangers occurring in 6% of dogs.
“Male dogs had a higher prevalence of aggressiveness, separation-related behavior, inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity,” according to the owner reports of dog behavior.
“In contrast, female dogs had a higher prevalence of fearfulness.”
Based on the owner reports, “We discovered that dogs were seldom aggressive toward both family members and strangers,” the Finn team assessed, concluding that “It seems that aggression toward strangers and family members are genetically distinct traits.”
Fearful dogs are more aggressive
This might be because aggression toward strangers tends to be an anticipatory defensive behavior, whereas aggression toward a family member is more often associated with displaying dominance.
“Fearful dogs were 3.2 times more often aggressive than non-fearful dogs,” the Finn researchers continued. “This indicates that aggression is commonly motivated by fear.”
“Fear was most common in Spanish water dogs, Shetland sheepdogs and mixed breeds. In contrast, Labrador retrievers were seldom fearful. These results are in agreement with previous studies,” the Finn researchers said, “ranking mixed breed dogs high in fearfulness and Labrador retrievers and Staffordshire bull terriers low in fearfulness.
“Compulsive behavior was most often reported by owners of German shepherds, mixed breed dogs and Staffordshire bull terriers,” the Finn researchers added.
But different breeds were said to exhibit distinctly different compulsions.
“For example,” wrote the Finn study authors, “Staffordshire bull terriers had a high prevalence of tail chasing, with nearly 10% of them chasing their tails,” according to the owner reports.
The Finn researchers paradoxically rated Staffordshire bull terriers [pit bulls] below average in showing aggressive tendencies, based on the owner reports, even though pit bulls were far above average in displaying other traits that the Finn researchers found are generally associated with aggression.
“Might lick you to death”
This may be due to under-reporting of aggressive behavior by pit bull owners, a common tendency established by other research.
Pit bull owners, for instance, notoriously often deny after fatal and disfiguring attacks that their dogs ever before showed aggression, even though animal control records, police reports, and neighbor testimony typically establish long prior histories of aggression toward both humans and other animals.
Running Google and NewsLibrary searches of the phrase “might lick you to death,” commonly used by dog owners to deny their dogs’ dangerous tendencies, ANIMALS 24-7 found 32% and 26% of the usage, respectively, applied specifically to denial of dangerous pit bull behavior, even though pit bulls are under 6% of the U.S. dog population.
Problem of definition
But an equal or larger problem in the Finn assessment of pit bull behavior may have been how the questions pertaining to aggression were asked and scored.
Explained the Finn researchers, “The aggression trait in the questionnaire consisted of two subtraits: aggression toward strangers and toward family members,” excluding from consideration both aggressive responses toward other dogs in specific and other animals in general.
“The respondents were asked to score the likelihood of their dog growling and trying to snap/bite from 1 (never) to 5 (always or almost always) when a stranger tries to pet the dog in its home or outside, and when the owner handles the dog or tries to take a resource (food, bone, or toy) from the dog,” the Finn team continued.
Most dangerous dogs would not be classed “aggressive”
“If the dog tried to snap or bite at least sometimes (3) or it growled at least often (4), it was categorized as a high aggression dog in each subtrait. The dogs that never showed aggression in any of these situations constituted the low group.”
This approach would tend to find dogs who give frequent and self-evident warning signals before biting or attacking less aggressive than dogs who give few warning signals or none, but often kill or disfigure someone when abruptly detonating.
If pit bull owners are to be believed even half the time when they report that their dogs have not shown aggression previous to a fatal or disfiguring attack, a third or more of all fatal or disfiguring pit bull attacks occur on the first occasion that the pit bull is aggressive.
A third of dogs are afraid of noise
“Our results show that noise sensitivity is the most common anxiety-related trait with a prevalence of 32% in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs,” the Finn researchers wrote. “Due to the high prevalence of noise sensitivity and fear, they were the most common co-morbidities. However, when comparing the relative risk, the largest risk ratios were seen between hyperactivity/inattention, separation related behavior and compulsion, and between fear and aggression.”
Staffordshire bull terriers, the Finn team found, were much less noise-sensitive than most other dogs, according to owner reports, “but showed high levels of compulsive behavior, hyperactivity, and inattention.”
An uncontrolled variable appears to have been the extent to which various breeds of dog are exposed to loud noises in utero and as puppies.
For example, pit bull owners and breeders may be much more inclined to play loud heavy metal music than the owners of the dog breeds found to be the most noise-sensitive.
The most noise-sensitive dogs included the Lagotto Romagnolo, a rare breed originally used as a water retriever, later mostly used to hunt truffles; wheaten terriers; and dogs of unidentified mixed breed, who may be most typical of “natural dogs,” not bred for specific traits desired by humans.
“Large breed differences were observed in all behavioral traits,” the Finn team emphasized. “We observed large behavioral differences between breeds. Our findings on breed differences indicate that canine anxieties likely have a genetic basis.”