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Fearful Great Danes provide new insights to genetic causes of fear

Date: May 29, 2020

Source: University of Helsinki

Summary: Researchers have identified a new genomic region and anxiety-related candidate genes associated with fearfulness in dogs. Findings support their hypothesis that fearfulness and anxiety are hereditary traits in dogs, and there may be shared factors underlying anxiety in both humans and dogs.

The identified genomic region includes several candidate genes associated with brain development and function as well as anxiety, whose further analysis may reveal new neural mechanisms related to fear.

For the purposes of the study, carried out by Professor Hannes Lohi's research group and published in the Translational Psychiatry journal, data from a total of 120 Great Danes was collected. The Great Dane breed is among the largest dog breeds in the world.

The project was launched after a number of Great Dane owners approached the research group to tell them about their dogs' disturbing fearfulness towards unfamiliar human beings in particular.

"Fear in itself produces a natural and vital reaction, but excessive fear can be disturbing and results in behavioural disorders. Especially in the case of large dogs, strongly expressed fearfulness is often problematic, as it makes it more difficult to handle and control the dog," says Riika Sarviaho, PhD from the University of Helsinki.

In dogs, behavioural disorders associated with anxiety and fearfulness include generalised anxiety disorder and a range of phobias. Fear can be evidenced, for example, as the dog's attempt to flee from situations they experience as frightening. At its worst, fear can manifest as aggression, which may result in attacks against other dogs or humans.

"Previous studies have suggested that canine anxiety and fearfulness could correspond with anxiety disorder in humans. In fact, investigating fearfulness in dogs may also shed more light on human anxiety disorders and help [us] understand their genetic background," Professor Lohi explains the broader goal of the study.

A new genomic region underlying fearfulness

The study utilised a citizen science approach as the dog owners contributed by completing a behavioural survey concerning their dogs, in which the dogs received scores according to the intensity of fear. Through genetic research, a genomic region associated with fearfulness was identified in chromosome 11. The analysis was repeated by taking into consideration the socialisation carried out in puppyhood, or the familiarisation of the dogs with new people, dogs and situations. The re-analysis reinforced the original finding.

"In the case of behavioural studies, it's important to keep in mind that, in addition to genes, the environment has a significant impact on the occurrence of specific traits. For dogs, the socialisation of puppies has been found to be an important environmental factor that strongly impacts fearfulness. In this study, the aim was to exclude the effect of puppyhood socialisation and, thus, observe solely the genetic predisposition to fearfulness," says Sarviaho.

The genomic region was studied in more detail also with the help of whole genome sequencing, but, so far, the researchers have not succeeded in identifying in it a specific gene variant that predisposes to fearfulness.

"Although no actual risk variant was identified, the genomic region itself is interesting, as it contains a number of genes previously associated in various study models with neural development and function, as well as anxiety. For example, the MAPK9 gene has been linked with brain development and synaptic plasticity as well as anxiety, while RACK1 has been associated with neural development and N4BP3 with neurological diseases," says Professor Lohi.

Link between accelerated puppyhood growth and timidity?

A genomic region in humans corresponding with the one now associated with canine fearfulness is linked to a rare syndrome, which causes both neurological symptoms and, among other things, accelerated growth in childhood.

"Research on the topic is only at the early stages and findings have to be carefully interpreted, but it's interesting to note, when focusing on a particularly large dog breed, that the genomic region associated with fearfulness appears to have a neurological role as well as one related to growth," Sarviaho adds.

So far, gene discoveries in canine behavioural research have remained fairly rare, and the genomic region now identified has not previously been linked with fearfulness. Lohi's research group has previously described two genomic regions associated with canine generalised fear and sensitivity to sound. The genetic research findings support the hypothesis that fearfulness and anxiety are inherited traits. To be able to identify more detailed risk factors and confirm the relevance of the findings, the study should be repeated with a more extensive dataset.


Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Helsinki. Original written by Hannes Lohi, Comms Viikki. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. R. Sarviaho, O. Hakosalo, K. Tiira, S. Sulkama, J. E. Niskanen, M. K. Hytönen, M. J. Sillanpää, H. Lohi. A novel genomic region on chromosome 11 associated with fearfulness in dogs. Translational Psychiatry, 2020; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41398-020-0849-z

Cite This Page:

University of Helsinki. "Fearful Great Danes provide new insights to genetic causes of fear." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 May 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200529150627.htm>.
Comments (6)
    • I am interested in buying a revenge hoodie for my pet. Tell me where I can buy a good one.

      • I am not a Scientist and I appreciate all the work Scientists do but I have a bit of a beef with this study.

        First, I’ve owned dogs for 47+ years and the past 27+ years those dogs have all been Great Danes.

        My response is based on what I’ve discovered over these years of owning dogs.

        The study of this kind is Extremely difficult to do because you have the human factor involved.

        The dogs studied were not raised all the same and nor do we know how they truly grew up. All we have is a human’s word to that respect; how the dog was raised. Unfortunately, people lie. People fabricate. People boast and sometimes add a little hyperbole. People exaggerate and people will almost always never say anything that makes themselves look bad.

        How a dog or a human for that matter grows up has almost everything to do with the fear and anxiety levels they will experience in their life. Can fear and anxiety be reduced and even dissolved, yes. Can fear and anxiety be built into our genes, yes.

        The genes in our bodies and those of dogs are yes, handed down to us from our parents and in that gift is little bits of them and the whole gene line. When one is born with blue eyes and one parent has blue eyes, people will say they were inherited from the blue eyed parent and they probably were. But dig deeper into the intangible things like fear and anxiety, you have so many outside factors that could add to, change, or even resign any inheritance.

        To not take into consideration the dogs socialization as a puppy… is going to automatically put a big doubt in most dog owners when reading about a study like this. Because our outside world affects our inside world where our genes reside.

        Science itself has put that theory to test multiple time with the outcome being as said… environment, external stimuli, other lives… humans, dogs, etc… affect our genes not to mention chemicals, pollution, etc. and our insides too… food, quality of water, etc.

        That’s the problem in my opinion with this Study. It’s just not worth the time and energy to do unless done in a controlled environment but even that takes out the genuine in the result because it’s controlled.

        With all that being said, yes, some dogs tend to be more fearful than others and even specific breeds can gain a reputation for such a thing… and the same can be said about people minus the specific breed of course.

        A lot of children are born fearless and are either taught to be fearful or have experiences that cause fear. A good parent, in my opinion, would help their child to deal with fear, maybe even help remove fear that is unnecessary and find a healthy balance for the child to grow up and be capable of coping with their fear(s) throughout their life.

        Some children just outgrow some of their fear(s)… like the boogeyman under the bed, etc.

        While others are fearful no matter how much they have been helped.

        All that goes even with children who do not receive guidance and yet they find away or not to come to terms with fear.

        Like every human is a unique living being so are dogs. This may seem like a far reach because we are talking genes here! Genes we are born with. Genes that one has with fear are genes with fear! Again, yes and no… there might be some controversy on whether genes change or are turned on or off and even more on what can cause them to change/turn on or off but that really is insignificant in the facts of life. We don’t need a study done in a scientific setting when we have hundreds of years of examples of all types of animals, including humans to show us what apparently now needs to be studied.

        Do we really need a Scientist to tell us that some specific breeds come with fear and anxiety in their genes? It’s a well known fact that Great Danes are usually unaggressive and most will shy away from things like fights. We call them the Gentle Giants for a reason. I’ve met a lot of Great Danes outside my own and for the most part this is true and for the most part the owners LIKE THEM THAT WAY! They are big, strong dogs and if they wanted to they could drag you around like a rag doll when on leash… but they don’t! Yes, training them on leash is a big factor but nonetheless they don’t do a lot of things that they are capable of doing due to their size and strength. They are powerful creatures and I’d hate to see mine turn on another dog. Unless he was face to face with an equal there would be little chance for the other side.

        A very long time ago, according to history… Great Danes we’re bred to hunt wild boar. If you have never been face to face with a wild boar… you may have no idea how insanely defiant and big they are. I happened to come across one, one day after moving deep out into the country. I knew they had been coming around from the damage they left in their path of rooting and their pig prints in the dirt. So, I hear a noise down by the pond and I’m sure it’s a boar so I head on down with my Great Dane, I get about 15 feet from the pond and I see the boar. It’s just having a hay day tearing through the bushes and destroying everything in its path. I see it, it sees me and stops and turns and looks directly at me in the eye. It was like a bull getting ready to charge the bull fighter, I look down to my dog who was right by my side but he’s not there. I turn to look for him and he’s running towards the house. He simultaneously looks back at me and sees I haven’t moved. He looks at me like he’s saying, “C’mon, don’t you see that very large and mean creature!” I was shocked but I had a boar that appeared to be ready to charge me so I looked back at the boar and sure enough here he came towards me. Must not be any fear in his genes because he wanted me off his turf and he was willing to fight me over it. I yelled at it, no response. I had a big tug toy rope in my hands, I swung it toward him all they while yelling at it. No response. He just slowly and methodically continued walking towards me with his head hung low like he was going to plunge his head into me when he reached my location. I decided this was a fight I would definitely loose so I then slowly walked backwards and when I did after about 10-12 steps, he stopped and watched me cowardly walk up the hill out of his territory. My dog already at the front door waiting to bolt inside.

        There was a time in history that this behavior from a Great Dane would be considered bad, real bad, unacceptable! They were to go after these wild pigs and they did! The whole reason Great Danes ears were cropped was because the boar would rip them off their heads.

        Somewhere in the sands of time or what some like to call evolution; the Great Dane lost its fight and really now that’s a good thing. Perhaps, in the evolving out the fight the evolution went a tad bit far and some Danes are scared of their own shadow. But just like a good parent a good dog owner will work with this pup and help it cope for the world can be a scarcely place for dogs and humans alike. These dogs go on to live happy and secure lives. Then there are other owners who do nothing and maybe even encourage the pups fear for many reasons but maybe one of the saddest is that isn’t it so cute and/or funny how such a big dog can be scared of such a little thing.

        Thats my two cents. Am I wrong? Am I right? I’m not perfect or an Expert either so take what you can and leave the rest. I’d appreciate any comments, feedback, constructive criticism. Thanks

        • @IHeartGreatDanes This is a well thought out and written discourse on the state of the today with a bit of history thrown in. Your points are well made, and I agree with your position. I will challenge you to add something to the discourse. What are your thoughts on the transition from a working dog catching hogs or chasing other critters to strutting around a show ring or chilling at home.?

          Could it be that the change in function (not working) to the more sedentary lifestyle of pet and show have contributed to the lack of the prey drive and instilled some fearfulness.

          Thanks again for your very enlightened post.

          • It's amazing poor selection has done this to Danes, imagine how brave and stable they had to be in the past when they were working boarhounds? Selecting for size for it's own sake made them turn a blind eye to fearful traits in dogs they liked the size of, and this is the result.

            • So true. There are also other breeds that suffered the same treatment. It is usually the fault of breed clubs that influence judges to select dogs the appears to be where to money is. If it sells breed it and so it goes.

              Terrible situation the Danes are in

            • I'll take it a step further. The responsibility also lies with the so called breeders. I'll give you an example why I aay that. I have Presa. There's a breeder in Canada that has them. He advertise them as being very large and breeds hus dogs to be excessively large. Since the is no standard for how heavy they can be it is within standard. But they had a stud. He couldn't jump in the back of a pickup. He was their main stud. That's not a dog IMO that is functional for anything. He's huge and most people will avoid your yard if he's present. Either the hips are bad or it was just too heavy. He contacted me once looking for a large female to add to his program. I made some excuse as to why she wasn't available.

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