Why Do Some Dogs Fear Strange Dogs and Unfamiliar Humans?
"Inadequate socialisation, inactivity, and urban living" make dogs fearful.
Posted Jul 16, 2020
An essay by Psychology Today writer Dr. Zazie Todd called "The Factors Involved in Dogs’ Fear of Strangers and Unfamiliar Dogs" caught my attention because yesterday someone asked me if I knew of any systematic studies on this very topic. I couldn't recall anything that focused specifically on these important behavioral problems in companion dogs—often the very reason dogs are given up or euthanized—with a large dataset, so Todd's essay came in at the right time. She was writing on a recent essay published in Scientific Reports by University of Helsinki researcher Dr. Jenni Puurunen and her colleagues titled "Inadequate socialisation, inactivity, and urban living environment are associated with social fearfulness in pet dogs." Both pieces are pretty easy to read and are available online, so here are a few highlights that will be of interest to numerous people who share their lives with dogs.1
Puurunen collected data on almost 6,000 companion dogs varying in age from 2 months to 17 years using a behavioral survey completed by their humans to assess how dogs responded to unfamiliar dogs and humans. The results of logistic regression analyses used to study how different variables were associated are presented in Figure 1.2
The researchers summarize their study as follows: "... fearful dogs were less socialised during puppyhood, small in body size, females and neutered, and participated less frequently in training and other activities. We also found a novel association between the living environment of the dog and social fearfulness, as dogs living in a more urban environment were more likely afraid of dogs and strangers." There also were differences among breeds. The strongest relationship between fear of strange dogs and strange humans was for puppies between the ages of 7 to 16 weeks of age who had received less socialization.
It's important to note that the methods used in this study involved looking at correlations among different variables, so cause-and-effect relationships weren't detailed. Nonetheless, the data agree with the results of other studies and the dataset is extremely large, making the results more robust. It's also essential to factor in individual differences among dogs and it would be important to detail exceptions to the overall findings—why don't some urban dogs show excess fear-related behavior and why do some rural dogs show heightened fear. I hope future studies will focus on these important exceptions.
Extra socialization is icing on the cake for young dogs
These important findings reminded me of a study that showed that giving puppies extra socialization and more varied experiences make significant positive differences in their lives. (See "Teach the Puppies Well: Let Them Enjoy Their Childhood.") It's well known that being properly socialized to other dogs and to humans is essential for puppies. The time when this is most important is called the sensitive period, and classic research by Drs. John Paul Scott and John Fuller showed that as few as two 20-minute periods of social contact a week was enough to produce socialized dogs. However, this is the bare minimum and the more the better. Dogs who are born and reared in many research or breeding facilities don't get properly socialized, and there can be serious lifelong consequences even for dogs who are re-homed after they're used and very often extremely abused.
The present study and some others clearly show that "more is better," and that puppies benefit from the extra socialization in terms of their resiliency and quality of life. Companion animals need much more than we often give them and they want and need much more than they usually get from us. The positive effects of extra socialization show that we can always do more for the dogs for whom we are caretakers, and it's a win-win for all. Research shows that numerous companion dogs are more highly stressed than we realize in a human-dominated world, and it's beneficial for them to develop as much resilience as possible as they try to adapt to our varying and busy lifestyles. Along these lines, Todd notes, "A Finnish study finds that 72.5% of pet dogs show at least one form of canine anxiety, and better breeding practices could help."
I was somewhat surprised by the learning that urban living played a role in producing fear-related behavior problems. The researchers noted that dogs living in more urban environments were less active and received less training and showed higher probabilities of being afraid of dogs and strangers. They learned that dogs getting less than one hour of exercise per day were more likely to be fearful than dogs exercising more than three hours a day. Furthermore, dogs who were exercised one to two hours per day were also more likely to be fearful when compared with dogs exercising more than three hours a day. Gilded cages aren't necessarily the panacea for a good life.
As I mentioned above, many dogs have to work very hard to adapt to human environs, and the researchers noted that urban environments can be more hectic and stressful than rural environments and predispose dogs to behavioral problems. For a book Jessica Pierce and I just completed called Dogs Gone Wild, we wondered how dogs living in different locales would fare as and when humans disappeared. Learning that urban dogs show more fear-related behavior than rural dogs is very interesting, and I wonder how this might factor into how dogs from different environs would do without us. But, that's another story.
I look forward to further studies and discussions of how what we can do to make life easier for companion dogs living in all different sorts of habitats. I'm a fan of giving dogs and other animals all we can, and I hope the results of this study will be shared widely. There's nothing wrong with doing more for the nonhumans who depend on us for their very lives. We are their lifelines and why not give them the best lives possible. So, let's do all we can and then some, and even "get down and dirty" with our companions if they like to as well, and show them that we really care about them and how much we love them and want them to enjoy themselves as much as possible in a human-dominated world. I can't think of any situation when more wouldn't be better—a win-win for all.
Study graphic above is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
1) The abstract for "Inadequate socialisation, inactivity, and urban living environment are associated with social fearfulness in pet dogs" reads: Problematic behaviours are severe welfare issues for one of the world’s most popular pets, the domestic dog. One of the most prevalent behavioural problem that causes distress to dogs is social fearfulness, meaning fear of conspecifics or unfamiliar people. To identify demographic and environmental factors associated with fear of dogs and strangers, logistic regression was utilised with a large dataset of 6,000 pet dogs collected through an owner-filled behavioural survey. Social fearfulness was associated with several factors, including urban environment, poor socialisation during puppyhood, infrequent participation in training and other activities, small body size, female sex, and neutering. In addition, we identified several breed differences, suggesting a genetic contribution to social fearfulness. These findings highlight the role of inadequate socialisation, inactivity, and urban living environmental in fear-related behavioural problems in dogs. Improvements in the management and breeding practices of dogs could, therefore, enhance the welfare of man’s best friend.
2) "Logistic regression is the appropriate regression analysis to conduct when the dependent variable is dichotomous (binary). Like all regression analyses, the logistic regression is a predictive analysis. Logistic regression is used to describe data and to explain the relationship between one dependent binary variable and one or more nominal, ordinal, interval or ratio-level independent variables."
Bekoff, Marc. Giving Puppies Extra Socialization Is Beneficial for Them.
_____. "I'm a Mess About My Dogs and Coronavirus—How Will They Do?" (This essay includes a discussion of how dogs will do as when humans disappear.) I wrote these essays as a follow up to science writer Markham Heid's essay titled "How Dogs Would Fare Without Us" that appeared in a special issue of Time magazine called How Dogs Think: Inside the Canine Mind. His essay isn't available online and I summarize it and the futuristic views of a number of canid/carnivore experts in "As Dogs Go Wild in a World Without Us, How Might They Cope?"
_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018.
_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California. 2019.
Pierce, Jessica. Beyond Humans: Dog Utopia or Dog Dystopia? (An interesting comment about this essay reads, "Thank you for your post. I believe dogs stand to gain more than they would lose from the disappearance of humans not only because, as you mentioned, the 'gain' list is longer than the 'lose' list, but also because most of the items on the 'lose' list are replaceable. For example, nutritious food, water and shelter can be found in nature, friendship can be found in the pack, and toys would not be needed if the dog is not forced to spend all day at home.")
Puurunen, J., Hakanen, E., Salonen, M. K., Mikkola, S., Sulkama, S., Araujo, C., & Lohi, H. Inadequate socialisation, inactivity, and urban living environment are associated with social fearfulness in pet dogs. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-10, 2020.
Vaterlaws-Whiteside, Helen and Amandine Hartmann. Improving puppy behavior using a new standardized socialization program. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 197, 55-61, 2017.