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Understanding the Roots of Dog Behavioral Problems

What are some of the risk factors for anxiety and aggression?

Jessica Pierce
Source: Jessica Pierce

Two of the most serious behavioral “problems” exhibited by domestic dogs living in human homes are aggression and anxiety.* These two categories of behavioral problems account for the vast number of visits to a behavioral clinic, and they are significant risk factors for compromised well-being in dogs, for compromised dog-human relationships, and for relinquishment of dogs to shelters. Behavioral pathologies are a sign that our dogs are suffering psychologically, and further work in understanding what conditions (genetic, environmental, social) cause dogs to develop these problems will be good for them and good for those of us who want to share a home with a dog and who want to do our best to make our dogs happy.

And there really does seem to be a problem. By some estimates, about 40 percent of the population of dogs (and, incidentally, cats) have been labeled with behavioral problems. Other researchers place the numbers even higher: a U.S. study suggests that 87 percent of dogs have behavioral problems, and in Australia and the U.K., the figure 80 percent has been tossed around.† Research into the complex epidemiology of canine behavioral problems is shedding light on how and why these problems can develop. A paper called “Factors associated with dog behavior problems referred to a behavior clinic,” coming out later this month in Journal of Veterinary Behavior adds some interesting bits of the puzzle.

Researchers Simona Cannas, Zita Talamonti, Silvia Mazzola, Michela Minero, Anna Picciolini, and Clara Palestrini looked at 355 dogs who were referred to a behavioral clinic in Northern Italy. Each dog was seen by the same veterinary behaviorist, who filled out an extensive history questionnaire for each patient. The researchers were looking for statistical associations between behavioral problems and various factors such as size, age, sex, onset of behavior problems, dog’s resting place (where the dog sleeps), mounting behaviors involving humans, and human-canine family composition.

Here are some of the interesting things they found:

  • Small and medium dogs tended to be anxious, not aggressive.
  • Male dogs were mainly aggressive; female dogs were mainly anxious.
  • Dogs adopted from pet shops were all anxious.
  • Anxiety problems began to manifest almost right away (within one week of adoption), while aggression problems emerged several months down the line.
  • Resting place and diagnosis seemed to be statistically related: of those dogs whose history was examined, 20 percent shared the bed with their humans. 78 percent of these dogs were anxious.
  • Anxious and aggressive dogs both showed mounting behavior directed toward people and this behavior was twice as common among anxious dogs as aggressive ones.
  • Finally, and importantly, both anxious and aggressive dogs improved after behavior treatment. Aggressive dogs were much more likely to improve than anxious dogs. And anxious dogs were significantly more prone to surrender than aggressive dogs.

As the researchers point out, the dogs referred to a behavioral clinic represent a particular group, and so the results of this research cannot be generalized to other situations (such as dogs who were never referred to a clinic; dogs in a shelter setting; etc.). More research is needed on other groups of dogs in other living contexts.

Although dogs are remarkably well-adapted to living with humans in human environments, we must also acknowledge that human environments can be stressful for dogs. We don’t always allow our dogs to “be dogs,” and despite their best efforts to integrate into human homes and families, it isn’t always easy work for dogs. We have a chance to improve their well-being by understanding the factors that put them at risk for psychological distress, which may manifest as behaviors we find difficult. This study makes an important contribution to better understanding what dogs need from us.

* I put “problems” in scare quotes here because the language we use to talk about dog behavioral issues tends to place the blame on the dog, and to suggest that the dog is being “bad,” when what may be happening is that dogs are having a hard time adapting to the demands of the human home environments. Certain dogs seem to have a particularly hard time adapting to certain kinds of home environments and certain kinds of people, and these dogs often wind up developing behavioral pathologies. Blaming the dog doesn’t help him or us.

† These figures are for dogs who “exhibit undesirable behaviors.” This catch-all category really needs unpacking, to differentiate between behaviors that are undesirable to owners but which don’t indicate any psychological burden on the dog—and are really just dogs being dogs—and those behaviors, such as anxiety-related obsessive-compulsive behaviors or profound noise phobias, which indicate compromised well-being on the part of the dogs.


Cannas, S., Talamonti, Z., Mazzola, S., Minero, M., Picciolini, A., Palestrini, C., Factors associated with dog behavior problems referred to a behavior clinic, Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2018), doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2017.12.004.