Phenotypic determination of noise reactivity in 3 breeds of working dogs: A cautionary tale of age, breed, behavioral assessment, and genetics

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Noise reactivity is a common problem for dogs and may progress to true phobia. Survey studies report that some type of noise reaction occurs in up to half of all pet dogs throughout their lifetimes, indicating that noise reactivity and/or phobia is a welfare issue. Familial aggregations of affected dogs have been reported, and increased prevalence in certain breeds has been suggested. Reactivity to noise can severely compromise function in both pet and working dogs. Noise reactivity may be comorbid with many anxiety disorders for both canines and humans and is postulated to effect information processing in associated human, rodent, and dog conditions. Any putative effect of noise on information processing becomes a concern for problem solving and other aspects of cognition that are important to working dogs. Accordingly, we sought to phenotype 3 breeds of herding dogs commonly used for work as detection dogs, police and/or patrol dogs, search and rescue dogs, and/or service dogs: Australian shepherds (AUS), border collies (BOC), and German shepherds (GSD). We analyzed demographic information and behavioral responses to noises (guns, storms, and fireworks) known to provoke fearful or phobic responses for 59 AUS, 81 BOC, and 58 GSD, who were also included in a genetic analysis. Behaviors were compared using a metric constructed from information on type, frequency, and intensity of response, and the Anxiety Intensity Rank (AIR) score. Reactivity to noise was found to segregate in some family lines for the dogs in this study, although individuals expressed considerable variation in noise response. Such variation may be time and exposure dependent and presents a phenotyping challenge. In this study, the presence and intensity of reactivity as represented by AIR scores varied by breed but only slightly with age. The BOC studied were older, and BOC and AUS were more severely affected (higher AIR scores) than were GSD. Source and/or purpose of dog may also affect severity of affliction. Determination of crisp and accurate phenotypes is essential for understanding underlying genetic contributions. For noise reactivity and/or phobia, accurate phenotypes include age of onset and specific behavioral characterization. Standardized and objective assessments are essential for assessment of progression and comorbidity. Our data imply that accurate phenotypic assessment is possible at a relatively early age, providing for both humane treatment and accurate phenotyping that facilitates good genotyping.

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