Your dog’s anxiety might be inherited by his genes

Peter is “squirelly”. It’s very easy to arouse him, he is  suspicious of people, very afraid of strangers, unfamiliar situations in the streets, loud noises – many things that are common in our modern human world. He is also not into humans at all, he doesn’t need them, he doesn’t like them. He doesn’t like to be pet, most of the time not even by us.

Peter suffers from anxiety. And I suffer with him. To find out how I can help him, I have tried to find out what causes anxiety with dogs and how to ease it. I want to share with you all the insights I gained and create a series of articles about anxiety.

There are many possible root causes, and I found this one during my studies of animal psychology: The anxiety of some dogs might be inherited by their genes.

The Arkansas Line of Nervous Pointer Dogs

During the 1960s and 1970s, scientists at the University of Arkansas started to investigate on canine behavioral problems. In the Dykman laboratory (named after Dr. Roscoe Dykman, leading scientist) a team of scientists (psychiatrists and psychologists) acquired an English Pointer called Annie. Annie was so fearful that she could neither be used to hunt nor was a good pet dog. She panicked every time she was approached by humans. Annie (also known as “Appalachian Annie”) was the mother of a line of so-called “Nervous Pointers”, a breed of very fearful pointers that should help them to gain more insights in anxiety and neurosis.

Stanley Coren describes one of those dogs in his book “How Dogs Think”:

Stanley Coren

How Dogs Think

“These poor creatures are truly fearful dogs. I got to visit one of them named April. She was in a large kennel where she and her littermates were being studied. When I entered the kennel the dog first acted startled, but unlike a normally startled dog who will dash away and try to hide, April just froze in place. Her pupils dilated, the muscles around her jaw tightened, and the muscles on her sleek flanks constricted to such a degree that she began to tremble. Her front legs were widespread, her back somewhat arched, and her tail was tucked well under her body in the perfect example of canine panic. Having been around many frightened dogs before, I used all of the techniques that usually work to calm a dog. Frozen in fear, April did not move when I gently stroked her head and silky ears. Even after I left her and ducked around the corner to observe her while staying out of sight, she remained immobile. It was several minutes before she slowly turned her head to check out her kennel and probably to verify that I had really gone. A blood sample taken immediately after this interaction verified that she had high levels of cortisol in her system. This is a hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to major stresses.”

He also describes that most of her littermates behaved like normal happy English Pointers, as they have been the result of mating two dogs that both had normal and nervous parents. Interestingly, the nervous dogs demonstrated severe timidity and fearfulness towards humans but not towards other dogs!

The dogs have been developed though selective breeding. As not all of Aprils siblings suffered from fearfulness, this kind of anxiety is probably inherited recessive. That means that to get a dog with the fearful personality traits, both parents have to have the genes for fearfulness AND the genome of the dog must inherit both the recessive fearful genes of both parents.

Cross-fostering didn’t help those shy puppies to become friendly dogs. The scientists took some of them immediately after birth and put them to a friendly mother, but the shy puppies stayed fearful. The other way round, by putting a puppy from the friendly group to a shy mother, the friendly puppy stayed friendly. They even found out that socializing training made the friendly puppies even more friendly, but didn’t work out with the shy puppies.

The scientists have also been trying pharmacological intervention, and found out that short-term treatment with anti-panic medication had some positive short-term effects, but not on the long run.

Those researches proof that anxiety and fearfulness can be inherited by the genes.

The shy Siberian huskies from Cornell University

Gregory Acland of Cornell University has created a line of shy Siberian husky mixes. A breeder donated a very handsome but incredibly shy Siberian husky to Acland’s research project. This dog was named Earl.

Earl could be comfortable with his owner, but was painfully fearful around strangers and didn’t want to have any social contacts. Again, selective breeding was used to find out if this shyness was caused by genes. Earl was mated with a female beagle, and one of his shy daughters was mated with another beagle. In this 2nd generation, two extremely shy males were born. This is the proof that this shyness can be inherited. Further breeding showed that descendants had different levels of shyness, so that we can assume that several genes cause this shyness.

The fearfulness of those dogs has been different to the one of the Nervous Pointers from Arkansas. Instead of catatonic freezing, the shy Siberian huskies showed extreme submission when being approached.

Stanley Coren describes them in “How Dogs Think”:

Stanley Coren

How Dogs Think
“When I met one such shy Siberian husky, whose name was Cinder, he immediately skittered to the back of the kennel, turning his head away to avoid any eye contact and to avoid any suggestion of challenge. This is much like the behavior of a very submissive dog when threatened by a dominant one. Even though I moved very slowly with soft, high-pitched, reassuring words, the dog still avoided me. He slicked his ears down and lowered his head when I reached for him, and then tried to hide in the corner of the kennel, pushing backward against the wall, head still turned away, but now a nervous stream of saliva began to dribble from a mouth that appeared to be tightly clenched. He was obviously frightened and unhappy but not frozen into immobility the way that April had been.”

When those shy husky mixes knew a human very well, they slightly became a bit more approachable, but stayed very shy with all other humans.

What does that mean for us and our dogs?

One very impressive insight in fearful huskies and pointers was their reaction to being given a small amount of lactate, a harmless acidic solution: It triggered a state of uncontrolled anxiety. This is important, because the same happens with humans that have certain panic disorders. This suggests that a similar neurochemistry is at work in dogs and human beings.

We can assume that both humans and dogs can suffer from anxiety disorder. As this is an official diagnosis within human medicine and psychology, the same should be true for canines. So if your dog is very shy, fearful and anxious, see a vet and/or a behavioral psychologist for dogs to find out what best to do.

I often see people that force their dogs to move through panic situations so that they can get used to it. Sometimes this “desensibilization” works, but much more often it  makes everything worse.

In further articles, I will share with you the assumes reasons for those anxieties from an evolutionary point of view and which measures we have been trying to ease Peter’s fear.