Nobody's calling your dog old. I repeat. Nobody. A young dog with a graying front-end can certainly be a whippersnapper. But when a new study identifies a relationship between premature muzzle graying and dog anxiety and impulsivity, it’s worth a closer look.
First, meet premature graying. The four hundred dogs participating in the study were put into one of four different categories based on the grayness of their muzzle: No gray, Frontal gray, Half gray, or Full gray (all of which sound like weather reports in Seattle). Don't worry; dogs are not humans and did not take offense. Dogs whose "degree of grayness" could not be determined—like white and pale colored dogs—were not included in the study. The researchers include Camille King of the Canine Education Center, Thomas Smith of Norther Illinois University, Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, and Peter Borchelt, of Animal Behavior Consultant.
Here are the differing levels of grayness:
Next, dog guardians completed a questionnaire about their dog. To prevent bias, they were told it was a study about dog lifestyle, so in addition to the questions of interest—about dog fear, anxiety, and impulsiveness—the questionnaire also had distractor questions. Good job, sneaky researchers. (The dogs still have no idea what the study was about.)
After comparing the grayness scores to the survey, two main findings stood out: First, dogs with more gray on their muzzles displayed more fear, anxiety, and impulsiveness. For example, guardians of these dogs might have described the dog as typically fearful, prone to shed or lose hair in new places, destructive when left alone at home, cowering or not interacting with groups of people, and not calm and relaxed after extensive exercise.
Second, there was a relationship between increased muzzle grayness and dog fear of particular stimuli. Dogs who displayed fear toward loud noises, unfamiliar animals, and unfamiliar people more more likely to have a gray front end. Two other potentially fear-inducing stimuli examined in the survey—thunderstorms and unfamiliar places—did not predict muzzle grayness.
In humans, no single factor predicts premature graying. It can be related to genetics, disease, physiological stress, and even emotional stress. The current dog study by King and colleagues finds that premature graying could link up with anxiety, impulsivity, or fear issues, which are not fabulous if you are a dog. For one thing, fear and anxiety don't feel good and are associated with a physiological stress response, which is valuable for actual fear-inducing events—like if a bear is chasing you—but crummy if activated in response to normal, every day things, like loud noises or unfamiliar people. Additionally, a recent retrospective study by Nancy Dreschel found that dogs with a fear of strangers tended to have shortened lifespans. Dreschel also identified a relationship between fear and skin disorders. She concludes, “There is evidence to suggest that the stress of living with fear or anxiety disorders can have negative effects on health and lifespan in the domestic dog.”
Research into premature graying in dogs is in its infancy. Even in the current study, the majority of the dogs were identified as having no gray or frontal gray, and only about 20% of the 400 dogs were identified as half gray or full gray. At the same time, dog fear and anxiety is not new. Fear and anxiety should not be ignored.
More at 'Dog Spies' on fear and anxiety:
Second Chance Dogs: Part Love, Part Learning [Video]. The documentary is now available on Netflix.
Patricia McConnell on addressing fear and anxiety in companion dogs
Ilana Reisner, It Makes No Sense to Punish a Fearful Dog
Dogwise offers numerous books on fear and anxiety