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Gray dog

Humans go gray at a young age due to a variety of influences, including genetics, disease and stress. Many parents swear that their kids are to blame, but puppies are probably not the reason for premature grayness in canines. The recent study “Anxiety and impulsivity: Factors associated with premature graying in dogs” suggests that a dog’s tendency to go gray may be correlated with multiple issues, many of them emotional in nature.

For the study, 400 1-4 year-old dogs were photographed from the front and side so that the degree of graying on their muzzle could be assessed. They were scored 0 = no gray, 1 = frontal gray, 2 = half gray and 3 = full gray. Dogs were only included in the study if it was possible to determine how gray their muzzles were. (The 43 dogs who were white or had merle coloring were excluded.)

The owners of the dogs filled out a 42-question survey. Data on anxious behaviors, impulsive behaviors, fears, size, age, sex, number of dogs and cats in the household, time spent unsupervised outdoors, whether they were spayed or neutered, medical issues and participation in organized sports or activities were collected. The people who evaluated the photographs had no knowledge of the questionnaires, which prevented accidental bias in their judgments of the degree of graying.

The survey was designed so that the owners were unaware of the study’s purpose. (They were told it was a study involving dog lifestyle.) In addition to questions probing the factors of interest, there were 'distractor' questions to prevent people from biasing their answers based on what they thought researchers were investigating. Distractor questions included “Does your dog have hind limb dew claws?”

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Researchers found an association between graying on the muzzle with anxious behaviors and with impulsive behaviors, as well as with fears of loud noises, unfamiliar people and unfamiliar dogs. The extent of grayness was positively correlated with age, and female dogs were more gray than male dogs. They found no link between premature grayness and size, being spayed or neutered, medical problems, reactions to thunderstorms, fear of unfamiliar places, number of dogs or cats in the household, time spent outside unsupervised or being involved in organized activities.

The increased understanding of premature graying provided by this research opens up possibilities for helping dogs. Being anxious or fearful or struggling with impulse control is hard on dogs, and it is beneficial for them to receive help to overcome these challenges. Premature graying can tip people off to the possibility that a problem may be present, making intervention more likely to happen and to happen sooner. If behaviorists, veterinarians, trainers and other dog professionals know that a gray muzzle in a young dog may indicate that he or she dealing with certain issues, perhaps they will perform a more thorough assessment, or refer the dog to other specialists for further evaluation.

Overall, the information revealed in this study can be used to make life better and easier for dogs.

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Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, and an Adjunct Faculty in NAU’s Department of Biological Sciences. This article is based on a piece that originally appeared on The Bark Magazine’s blog.

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