We know more and more about the health and behaviour of dogs

Researchers at the University of Helsinki study canine health, hereditary diseases and behaviour.

Dogs are the most common pet in Finland along with cats, and for many of us they are man's best friend. Dog diseases may be linked to human diseases, enabling researchers to use the findings as models for corresponding human diseases. In spring 2023, researchers have published the following dog studies, among others. 

Startle response may be a sign of a serious nerve disease

Professor Hennes Lohi’s research group and its cooperation partners identified anew gene variant in dogs to cause a neurological disorder known as hyperekplexia. It induces exaggerated startle responses to unexpected sounds, contact or other sudden stimuli. The study reveals similarities and differences between species affected by the diseases.

A mutation in the GLRA1 gene was found underlying the disease. A protein which the gene produces is an important part of the glycine receptor in the central nervous system, through which the neurotransmitter glycine regulates neurone function between the brain and muscles.

“The discovered variant is very harmful, and likely inhibits the functioning of the entire glycine receptor. In fact, the disease was very severe and rapidly progressing in the dogs studied, and the puppies had to be euthanised before adulthood,” says Marjo Hytönen, Docent in molecular genetics. 

Mutations in the GLRA1 gene are known to cause hyperekplexia also in humans, making dogs carrying the disease a natural disease model for humans. 

Read the original press release here.

Dogs can also suffer from sleep apnoea

The University of Helsinki Lung Insight research group investigated breathing during sleep in dogs using a neckband system developed originally for diagnosing human sleep apnoea.

“Previous methods for investigating sleep apnoea have required dogs to sleep either while connected to all sorts of equipment or within a certain type of box in a lab. This has made research challenging and limited our knowledge of dog sleep apnoea,” explains DVM, Doctoral Researcher Iida Niinikoski of the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

The group measured breathing during sleep using the screening device in the dogs’ home environment. Brachycephalic dogs recorded a much higher number of sleep-disordered breathing events than dogs with longer snouts. The short-nosed dogs also snored more than their long-nosed counterparts.

Next, the research group will explore factors predisposing dogs to sleep apnoea.

Read the original press release here

Dog breed defines personality

While the breed of the dog is the most important factor related to personality, other relevant elements include age and the social environment. According to researchers from the University of Helsinki, both the breeder and the dog owner have an important role in the development of canine personality.

“This study provides a topical update on the effect of the breed on the dog’s personality, since in an American study published last year that effect was considered to be very minor. While the breed is the most important factor underlying personality, many genetic and non-genetic factors have a complex effect on personality,” points out Professor Hannes Lohi from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

The study investigated the link between various factors to seven personality traits: insecurity, training focus, aggressiveness/dominance, energy, dog sociability, human sociability, and perseverance.

Of the environmental factors investigated in the study, socialisation in puppyhood was the most significant. A large number of socialisation experiences in puppyhood (between seven weeks and four months of age) were associated with the traits of lower insecurity and aggressiveness/dominance, as well as with higher training focus, and human and dog sociability.

Read the original press release here.

Upcoming and ongoing canine research


PAWWS – People and Animal Wellbeing at Work and in Society research is creating a deeper understanding and new knowledge of multi-species well-being at work and animal participation in human-animal work. PAWWS develops multidisciplinary collaboration between animal organisation research, veterinary medicine and social and health sciences to promote human and animal well-being at work in a new and integrated way. Empirically, researchers focus on human-dog working relationships in organisations, such as service, scent detection, therapy, pain and cancer dogs in the workplace.

Read the original press release here. (only in Finnish)

Genetic research in dogs

The Canine Genetics Research Unit, led by Professor Lohi, is preparing publications on canine genetic heart enlargement, blindness, deafness and Charcot-Marie-Tooth nerve defect, among others.