How Do We Influence Our Dogs’ Emotions?
A Swedish study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports reveals that the human-animal bond is closer than people think. Researchers found that owners can transfer long-term stress to their canine companions. While it has been previously found that stress is contagious among humans and within other animal groups, this study shows how anxiety can be exchanged between two different species.
The study examined the relationship between 58 women and their dogs, all of which were Shetland sheepdogs or border collies. The dog owners filled out questionnaires that assessed both their personalities and those of their dogs. Researchers used hair samples from both parties to determine their levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone.
The results showed that the cortisol levels in the human hair correlated with those seen in the dog hair. The tests were conducted in both winter and summer, and there was a strong synchronization both times. The scientists also found a stronger correlation among the stress levels of owners and dogs that compete in agility and obedience contests.
“When it comes to competing dogs, it could actually be that they spend more time together, and that this training could increase this emotional closeness,” said Lina Roth, an author of the study.
The study also found that humans experienced more influence over dogs’ stress levels than the dogs did on them. Roth said it’s because pet owners are a more central part of their dogs’ life whereas humans often have strong, outside social networks. She added that pet parents shouldn’t worry about causing distress to their canine companions and that this correlation reflects the tight-knit bond between humans and dogs.
"I don't think you should be anxious that, if you're stressed, you might harm your dog," Roth says. "Instead, your dog is a social support for you, and you are a social support for the dog."
Roth plans to conduct follow-up studies that look at more dog breeds as well as whether male owners have the same influence over their dogs’ stress levels.