Why Some Dogs Have Trouble Paying Attention

Their age, gender, breed, and environment all can play a part.

Dog On Grassy Field
Kaylyn Smith / EyeEm / Getty Images


You’re on a nice, leisurely walk with your pup when a squirrel scampers up a nearby tree. Then there’s a fascinating smell on a tree trunk. Then a barking dog calls from across the street. Your pet’s attention zips around like a ricocheting ping-pong ball.

It might seem like almost every dog has trouble focusing—almost like human attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

Researchers at the University of Helsinki recently examined hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention in more than 11,000 Finnish pet dogs. They found that the dog’s age and gender, as well as exposure to other dogs, played a part.

The study was part of a larger research project on canine anxiety-like traits.

“We wanted to collect a large behavioural data of dogs to better understand behaviour problems that are common in our companion dogs. We studied seven traits: noise sensitivity, fearfulness, fear of surfaces and heights, inattention/impulsivity, compulsive behaviour, separation-related behaviour, and aggression,” study author Sini Sulkama, a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, tells Treehugger.

Their goal was to identify demographic, environmental, and behavioral risk factors that could influence these anxiety-related traits in dogs.

“In this specific study, a better understanding of canine hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention could more efficiently help to prevent and manage abnormal levels of hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention in dogs and could also benefit human ADHD research,” Sulkama says.

For the study, owners filled out an online survey about their dogs’ behavior, answering how true statements are like: “It's easy to attract its attention, but it loses its interest soon” or “It fidgets all the time.”

Owners also answered questions about their dogs’ age, breed, gender, and lifestyle factors like how many hours the pet spends alone daily, urban environmental score, daily exercise, and whether it is their first dog.

Their analysis showed that hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention were more common in young dogs and male dogs. They also found some major differences among breeds.

“Selective breeding in dogs has influenced their breed-typical behaviour and different traits are favoured in different breeds,” Sulkama says.

“Some breeds are bred to be more active than others. For example, in some working dog breeds, such as border collie, high activity, impulsivity and attention are favoured. These dogs usually have better trainability and working ability due to higher attention spans and reactivity. On the contrary, these traits are not favoured in breeds which are preferred as pet dogs, since less active and impulsive dogs are more easy companions in a less active way of life.”

Interestingly, researchers discovered that the owner’s experience with dogs also had an impact. They found that hyperactivity and impulsivity are more common in dogs that aren’t their owners’ first dogs.

“We can only speculate about the possible relationship between these factors, but one possible explanation is that people try to choose easy individuals from less active breeds, like companion dog breeds as their first dogs,” says Sulkama, “whereas more active and challenging dogs can be chosen after gaining more experience with dogs.”

They also calculated the urban environmental score for each dog. That describes how the land is used around the dog's current home, breaking it down into artificial surfaces, agricultural areas, forests, and semi-natural areas.

The results were published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

When Focus Matters

Although it might seem like most dogs are easily distracted to some extent, studies suggest that about 15% of dogs display high levels of hyperactivity and impulsivity and 20% show high levels of inattention.

“Activity, impulsivity and concentration are traits that vary significantly between individuals in dogs. As behavioural traits, all of them belong to the normal personality continuum observed across species,” says Sulkama. “However, excessive activity or impulsivity are considered abnormal and can lead to difficulties with dogs.”

That’s why these findings might be helpful. Researchers say they can make it easier to identify and treat canine hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention and may benefit ADHD research.

They can also be helpful when choosing to add a dog to the family. You might want to adopt a pet with the characteristics of a breed that matches your lifestyle.

“For example, if someone wants a dog with lower activity, it could be better not to choose a dog from working dog breeds,” Sulkama suggests.

“As for better trainability, this trait usually goes hand in hand with high attention and high reactivity. It is always important to look carefully at one’s lifestyle and find out how an active breed fits best.”

View Article Sources
  1. Sulkama, Sini, et al. "Canine Hyperactivity, Impulsivity, and Inattention Share Similar Demographic Risk Factors and Behavioural Comorbidities with Human ADHD." Translational Psychiatry, vol. 11, no. 1, 2021. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1038/s41398-021-01626-x

  2. study author Sini Sulkama, a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki

  3. Salonen, Milla, et al. "Prevalence, Comorbidity, and Breed Differences in Canine Anxiety in 13,700 Finnish Pet Dogs." Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1038/s41598-020-59837-z