New research highlights extent of problem behaviours in ‘pandemic puppies’

16 February 2024

Dog behaviours that owners consider problematic are a major welfare challenge, both for the dogs and their owners, and a common cause of relinquishment and euthanasia of young dogs1. The RVC Pandemic Puppies project follows a cohort of puppies purchased during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 before 16 weeks of age, from breeders in the UK, and offers a unique opportunity to assess various risk factors for the development of owner-reported problem behaviours. Understanding the risk factors for problem behaviour development may help inform effective advice to owners and provide enhanced prevention or mitigation in the future.

A new study, by Claire Brand and colleagues at the RVC, longitudinally followed a cohort of Pandemic Puppies to identify risk factors for 1) owner-reported problem behaviours, 2) use of aversive training methods, 3) owner expectations versus realities of behaviour and training, and 4) owners seeking professional advice for behaviour and training, as the dogs reached 21 months of age1.

A total of 1,007 owners, who were recruited to the original Pandemic Puppies study cohort, completed an online questionnaire, giving data on 985 puppies (this excludes 13 dogs that had been relinquished and 9 that had died).

What did the study find?

Almost all owners (97%) in the study reported that their dog exhibited at least one problem behaviour, up to 21 months of age. When categorised into behavioural problem groups, the most frequent problem group was control behaviours, followed by attention-seeking and fear/avoidance behaviours.

The most commonly reported problem behaviours were pulling on the lead (67%), jumping up at people (57%) and not coming back when called (52%). Separation-related behaviours were reported in a third of dogs (31%) and were more likely in dogs who showed other forms of attention-seeking behaviour, fearful behaviour and dogs with owners aged 25-34.

A high proportion of owners (82%) admitted to using aversive training techniques, the most common being physically moving the dog, followed by shouting at the dog and lead corrections, with 39% reporting using more than two aversive training aids. Owners were more likely to use aversive methods if their dog showed a range of problem behaviours, including aggression, attention-seeking, and reactivity to people or other dogs. Attending online puppy classes while their puppy was under 16 weeks of age was the only protective factor that reduced the likelihood of owners using aversive methods, demonstrating that dogs being physically present at a class (i.e. not online) was not essential to achieve behaviour improvements.

Almost all owners reported verbally praising their dogs as a training method, and many used food/treats, toys and playing.

Nearly a third of owners had underestimated how hard training their dog would be, and this was more common in first-time owners. This suggests there’s a need for setting realistic owner expectations of behaviour and training, and better support, particularly amongst first-time dog owners, before acquisition. Owners were more likely to find their dog’s behaviour worse than they had expected if they had a range of behaviour problems, including aggression, and were a larger dog (weighing >40kg).

Most owners did not seek any advice for their dog’s problem behaviours. For those that did seek advice on behaviour and training, the most common sources of advice were the owners’ own experiences of owning dogs in the past, dog trainers, books, family/friends who’d owned a dog, social media and television programmes. This is concerning as dog behaviour and training information shown on social media and TV frequently raises concerns within the behavioural community over the promotion of aversive training methods. Owners rarely sought advice from a veterinary professional.

Take home message

This study shows high prevalence of owner-reported behaviour problems and separation-related behaviours in the UK Pandemic Puppies cohort. Of particular concern is the common use of aversive training methods, which are being used by more owners than at any point documented in the last two decades1.

These results raise numerous concerns for the welfare of this population of dogs and highlights the critical need for early educational intervention with owners, such as humane training techniques (e.g. via online puppy classes), to improve the emotional health and avoid future relinquishment and/or behavioural euthanasia of these dogs.

Further resources

BSAVA library collection on socialisation

BSAVA library collection – ‘a celebration of puppies’ – covering puppy parties and behaviour, to reproduction, artificial insemination and parturition


1Brand CL et al. (2024) Impacts of Puppy Early Life Experiences, Puppy-Purchasing Practices, and Owner Characteristics on Owner-Reported Problem Behaviours in a UK Pandemic Puppies Cohort at 21 Months of Age. Animals. 14, 336.