Comorbidity. It sounds a bit morbid.

I read an interesting research paper, today: “Prevalence, comorbidity, and behavioral variation in canine anxiety” (Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2016). It looks at three major forms of canine anxiety —  general fearfulness (i.e., of strangers or new places), noise sensitivity, and separation anxiety — to see if a dog who experiences one is likely (or not) to experience the other. Stanley Coren refers to it as the “Spooky Dog Syndrome.”

The paper found (among other things) that dogs who suffer from noise sensitivity are also more prone to fear strangers: to show defensive fear if a stranger approaches. (Lyra does this more often than I like.) Quite apart from being unhealthy for the dog — to experience fear at this level, repeatedly — it’s a worry for owners. A fearful dog (the report confirms) is likelier to bite. (The phrase “no shit, Sherlock” comes to mind, but it’s good to have intuition backed by science 🙂 )

I did not need a paper to tell me that Lyra suffers from both sound sensitivity and general fearfulness. (I don’t believe she suffers from separation anxiety, but she is not entirely relaxed in my absence, either; she tends not to eat when alone, and will run to her little store of biscuits or bone as soon as I come in the door, and eat them in my company.)

However, I did find the paper helpful — insofar as it confirms an intuition. I made errors in Lyra’s first months which likely made her sound sensitivity (with buses and garbage trucks, especially) worse; I was so alarmed by the idea of a socialization window that “crashes down” at 16 weeks that I took her on a bus, and showed her a garbage truck, before she was ready. (I had no idea how small the baby steps should be). On the other hand, I believe I handled her introduction to people very carefully. For the first 5 or 6 months, she had many good experiences with people of different ages (including children), races, sizes, etc. She seemed happy with most people, even children; she loved going to the vet’s office. By 8 months, though, she’d developed a new set of fears — mostly around strangers and handling. So when people say that a dog who fears strangers was not well socialized, I feel both puzzled and indignant — puzzled, because I think “Surely the process can’t be so delicate? How did dogs ever make it this far?” Indignant? Well, of course! (If you’ve ever been told that you “ruined” a much-loved child, you’ll know what I mean).

It makes sense to me that some dogs have fearful personalities; that a single, bland exposure, of no consequence to one dog, might terrify another. The authors of the paper posit “common genetic risk factors”, and suggest that a fearful personality pre-exists the specific disorder. Another study (Nature, 2016) points to the factor of maternal care: “the level of maternal care has a profound effect on behavioural development in dogs” (Foyer, P. et al. Levels of maternal care in dogs affect adult offspring temperament. Sci. Rep. 6, 19253; doi: 10.1038/srep19253 [2016]).

I have a spooky dog. There’s no doubt about it. I got enough from Genetics 101 (thank you, University of Guelph) to know that genes are not dictators. Lyra can move up and down the charts of fearfulness (if never off the chart). Maternal care? I can’t assess, either way.  I can only assess if our work makes a difference to her.

Today, for instance, she went to the door to go outside. Just as I opened the door, a garbage truck came onto our street. Months ago, she’d have bolted downstairs and hid under the bed. Today, she rushed outside and looked for her ball. She played — with ears back at times, and the occasional stop and listen — but play nonetheless. And when the sound got loud and I gave her cheese, she ate it. I.e., she was not shut down. She was not happy about the sound — but she was okay. (I no longer hate Fridays; they have shifted in my mind to “inconvenient.” That is progress.) On the other hand, she seems to have slid backwards a little with people. I have no idea why.

I wonder what all of this means to prognosis. Does it help to explain why some shelter dogs — with truly awful “childhoods” — bounce back, under the right care? And why some dogs, like Lyra, seem to get PTSD and generalized fears from a sound that’s a bit too loud or sudden — once?

Yet here she is, muddy and happy. My spooky, lovely (and sometimes annoying) dog.


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