My family’s dog Teddy, a wide-eyed, brown and white spaniel, was a nervous wreck when a thunderstorm rolled in. To calm his shaking and panting, the vet prescribed him lorazepam, a benzodiazepine marketed as Ativan that’s also used to treat anxiety in humans.
Lorazepam is just one of many drugs that dogs and humans take for similar psychiatric problems. Canine compulsive behavior resembles human obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, and impulsivity or inattention in dogs can resemble attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in us. The risk for these conditions can even be influenced by the same sets of genes. Indeed, a new study based on a survey of dog owners suggests we’re so similar to our canine companions that dogs can—and should—be used to better understand human mental health.
“Dogs are probably the closest model to humans you’re going to get,” says Karen Overall, an animal behaviorist at University of Prince Edward Island, who was not involved with the work.
Many psychologists group human personality into five “factors”: extraversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. These traits can be influenced by genetics and can affect a person’s mental health—especially neuroticism, or the tendency to feel negative emotions such as distress and sadness. Research has shown neurotic personalities are more vulnerable to depression or anxiety, whereas traits such as conscientiousness and agreeableness protect against these disorders.
Any dog owner will tell you that our canine pals have distinct personalities just like you and me. Some are bold and others are cautious; some are lazy and others are highly active.
Milla Salonen, a canine researcher at the University of Helsinki, and other researchers have proposed seven personality factors for grouping dogs: insecurity, energy, training focus, aggressiveness/dominance, human sociability, dog sociability, and perseverance. Some of these factors overlap with those in people, Salonen explains. Insecurity in dogs parallels neuroticism in humans, for example.
Twenty years ago, Overall and other experts began to suggest the dog be used as a model for human psychiatry. The same types of mental illness don’t occur naturally in rodents; researchers have to induce them.
In the new study, Salonen and her colleagues wanted to assess how a pooch’s personality might impact its behavior and how this compares with what’s seen in humans. So they devised a 63-question survey for dog owners. It asked about an animal’s health and history, fears, sensitivity to noises, separation anxiety, impulsivity and inattention, and aggression toward humans or other dogs.
Owners used a sliding scale to rate statements like “My dog barks when meeting a stranger,” “My dog hides when she hears fireworks,” or “My dog appears to be ‘sorry’ after she has done something wrong.”
The scientists sent the survey to the homes of 11,360 Finnish dogs from 52 breeds, comprising everything from mastiffs to Jack Russell terriers. They grouped the responses for each dog into the seven canine personality traits. Then they used a set of equations to assess whether dogs that tended to have the same personality traits also shared common unwanted behaviors.
The team found that in dogs, like in humans, personality closely correlates with behaviors. In particular, pups with an “insecure” personality were more likely to exhibit all of the surveyed unwanted behaviors (such as the aversion to strangers, or fear of fireworks), Salonen and her colleagues report in Translational Psychiatry.
“This is quite similar to neuroticism and anxiety in humans,” Salonen explains. Other personality traits were also implicated. Dogs with a low training focus were more likely to have impulsive behaviors such as fidgeting or abandoning tasks quickly, resembling symptoms of attention deficit disorders in humans.
It can be hard for dog owners to provide a clear-eyed assessment of their pet’s problems in survey studies, says Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist at the University of California, Davis. “How you’re asking the questions is so important,” and respondents can still misconstrue their dog’s behaviors even in the most carefully worded surveys, she says. “But this is a well-done paper with a lot of data.”
The researchers say their results could be used study the genetic basis of psychiatric disorders. Dogs are well suited for genetic research, as they’re nearly genetically identical within breed groups, Salonen says. Looking at the genes of a certain breed that is known to be more insecure or less focused might reveal genetic factors underlying anxiety or attention deficit disorders in both dogs and humans.
But the scientists acknowledge most dog owners just care about keeping their pet happy, healthy, and safe. If your dog barks a lot or is scared of strangers, “that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have serious issues,” Overall says. She suggests taking your pup to a specialist if you’re really worried about its behavior—just like we did with Teddy, who can now make it calmly through a summer storm.