Stressed? Your Dog Probably Is, Too

A best friend is with you through thick and thin — sitting by your side, being a good listener and offering you a helping paw. Yes, dogs truly are our best friends, and we’re still understanding the extent of their connection with us. Case in point: A new study has learned humans can pass on some emotions to our dogs, even if we don’t mean to. Here’s what the researchers found.

Study reveals human-canine stress connection

owner petting their dogCredit: PavelRodimov/Getty Images

Ever since dogs were first domesticated, they evolved to understand humans. Humans were their means for survival, offering food and protection. So the better they could get along with us and communicate their needs, the stronger they were as a species.

A growing body of research has indicated that dogs are exceptional at reading human emotions. They can pick up on our facial cues, our posture, the tone of our voice and even chemicals in our body. That’s why a dog might start whimpering if you’re crying or bark excitedly if you’re doing a happy dance. And this new study showed just how deep that connection can go.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, examined stress levels in dogs and their owners. Researchers at Linkoping University in Sweden recruited 25 border collies and 33 Shetland sheepdogs and their owners. They took hair samples from the dogs and owners on two occasions several months apart to obtain data for the summer and winter months.

The researchers analyzed these samples for hair cortisol concentrations — a measurement that would show long-term stress synchronization between dog and owner. And because activity can influence cortisol production, they had the dogs wear activity monitors and the humans report their daily routines. Aiming to get a well-rounded sample, they chose owners with various lifestyle and personality traits. And they included companion dogs, as well as more active competing dogs (in dog sports, such as agility).

Interestingly, the dogs’ activity levels did not seem to affect their hair cortisol concentrations. But what the researchers found is the dogs’ cortisol levels significantly correlated with those of their owners.

“We found that the levels of long-term cortisol in the dog and its owner were synchronised, such that owners with high cortisol levels have dogs with high cortisol levels, while owners with low cortisol levels have dogs with low levels,” the study’s lead author Ann-Sofie Sundman said in a news release.

The researchers also were interested in whether certain personality traits were linked to stress levels. So they had the dog owners fill out two validated questionnaires: one related to their own personality and one about their dog’s personality. They found owners who scored higher for the neuroticism trait had dogs with higher cortisol levels. And owners who scored high for conscientiousness and openness had dogs with lower cortisol. And interestingly, the dog’s personality didn’t seem to make a difference.

“Surprisingly enough, we found no major effect of the dog’s personality on long-term stress,” researcher Lina Roth said in the news release. “The personality of the owner, on the other hand, had a strong effect. This has led us to suggest that the dog mirrors its owner’s stress.”

Previous research has shown how members of the same species mirror each other’s emotions. For instance, children and mothers tend to share long-term stress. And even stress in teachers has been linked to higher cortisol levels in their students. Plus, research has shown a dog and their owner both will experience a synchronized short-term rise in cortisol in their saliva when they compete together in a sport, such as agility. But that might be more due to the shared physical activity.

This study was special because it marked an ongoing connection between human and canine. “Our results are the first demonstration of a long-term synchronization in stress levels between members of two different species,” according to the study.

Further research is necessary to continue to learn about the connection, as this study was limited. It only used two dog breeds — herding dogs, who notoriously are in tune with their humans. And it only included female owners. The researchers plan to perform the study on more owners and other types of dogs — especially hunting dogs, who have been bred to be more independent. Learning more might even help dogs find better homes.

“If we learn more about how different types of dog are influenced by humans, it will be possible to match dog and owner in a way that is better for both, from a stress-management point of view,” Roth said in the news release. “It may be that certain breeds are not so deeply affected if their owner has a high stress level.”

Signs of stress in a dog

Dog yawning with ears backCredit: gacolerichards/Getty Images

Regardless of whether you’re the culprit, it’s important to be able to recognize when your dog is stressed. Here are 10 potential signs of stress in a dog, according to VCA Hospitals.

  • Pacing or a whole body shake (like shaking off water after a bath)
  • Whining, barking or other abnormal vocalization
  • Yawning, drooling or repetitive licking
  • Dilated pupils, rapid blinking or wide open eyes
  • Rigid posture, tucked tail or ears pinned back against their head
  • Increased shedding
  • Panting not due to heat, exertion or excitement
  • Abnormal bodily functions or marking their territory
  • Changes in appetite
  • Avoidance or hiding

Many of these signs of stress also can indicate other conditions — and sometimes they might just be normal behavior. That’s why it’s critical to know your dog, so you can gauge when something is off.

If your dog is temporarily stressed — for instance, if they’re bombarded by a very exuberant dog at the dog park — VCA Hospitals suggests removing them from the stressor. Go to a calm place to regroup, but don’t make a big deal about comforting them. This will only reinforce their fear. Instead, try to divert their attention. Give them commands they know, such as “sit” and “down,” to return their sense of normalcy.

If your dog chronically seems to be stressed, a vet visit is in order. They’ll check for any underlying medical causes, as well as help you with behavioral issues. And as this new study demonstrates, your dog’s stress might actually be coming from you. So it’s important to consider how you interact with your dog, along with the home environment you provide them, when you’re considering potential stressors.

Dogs can do wonders to calm us and boost our moods. So it’s only fair we return the favor for them.

Main image credit: tshortell/Getty Images

59 comments

Toni W
Toni Wyesterday

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Toni W
Toni Wyesterday

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Ruth S
Ruth S5 days ago

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Ruth S
Ruth S5 days ago

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Frances G9 days ago

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Danuta W10 days ago

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Dr. Jan Hill12 days ago

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David C12 days ago

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