You May Be Stressing Out Your Dog

Jun 6, 2019
Originally published on June 6, 2019 9:28 pm

Updated at 9:34 a.m. ET

If you are neurotic and anxious, your dog may be feeling the stress, too.

Numerous studies have found that dogs and their owners can experience synchronized emotions and stress levels, especially during acutely stressful or exciting activities such as competitions or police work. A new study followed dogs and their owners over the course of months to see how stress hormones in both animal and human changed over time.

The results suggest that dogs may be quite sensitive to human stress. "If the owner is stressed, then the dog is also likely to mirror that stress," explains Lina Roth, a professor at Linkoping University in Sweden and an author of the study published today in Nature's Scientific Reports.

Roth and her colleagues surveyed 58 dogs and their owners. Owners answered questions about traits including extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness.

They also were asked to fill out surveys scoring their dogs on traits such as excitability, responsiveness to training, aggression and fearfulness. The researchers then took hair samples from the dogs and their owners to test for the stress-related hormone cortisol.

"Cortisol is incorporated in hair as it grows, so we get kind of a retrospective of our cortisol secretions," Roth explains.

They found that dog cortisol levels seemed to mirror the personality traits of their owners.

"It was the owner's personality that influenced the dog's hair cortisol level, rather than the dog's personality itself," Roth says. The correlation was stronger between dogs and owners who compete together than it was between owners and dogs who don't.

"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," Roth speculates, though she adds that "this is a correlation, so we really don't know the mechanism behind this."

Roth says she would like to do follow-up studies looking at more dog breeds — this research focused on border collies and Shetland sheepdogs. She is also interested in how owner gender might influence the results. This study included only female owners.

Rosemary Strasser, a behavioral neuroendocrinologist at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who has studied connections between dogs and humans, says the new research is exciting and that it raises further questions about how dogs and humans influence each other emotionally.

One big question: Could dogs also influence human stress levels over time? "Especially with dogs being used as service or support dogs for individuals," Strasser says, "if you place a confident, outgoing dog in a home, how does it influence the personality of that owner? Is it always one-directional? That would be a very interesting further extension of this."

Previous research has suggested that the personality and attitude of a dog owner can influence how emotionally attached that person becomes to their pet. "A person who likes dogs and wants a dog will interact with that dog differently than a person who may be given or exposed to a dog that they don't necessarily want," Strasser says.

Both researchers caution that dog owners should not read the new research results and worry that their personalities are harming their animals. The study doesn't suggest, for example, that neurotic humans are causing their dogs to act neurotically, as well.

"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."

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If you're a dog lover, you already know dogs and humans have a special connection. Now new research suggests that when owners are anxious or neurotic, their dogs get more stressed. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports that is not necessarily a bad thing.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Not all stress is bad stress - take, for example, dogs that compete.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Our last dog up in the 24-inch class is Kaboom, a border collie handled by Amber McCune of Bedford, N.H.

HERSHER: The 2018 agility competition at the Westminster Dog Show. McCune has to help Kaboom the dog race through obstacles. And even on TV, it's clear that they're totally in sync emotionally.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Kaboom is just waiting - look at this - just will not leave Amber's side.

HERSHER: McCune gestures and coaxes, Kaboom weaves and leaps. They're both focused.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Here she comes - back-to-back champion.

HERSHER: It's over. Focus turns to excitement for animal and human. McCune smiles. Kaboom jumps into her arms.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's a happy dog and a happy handler, yes.

HERSHER: Rosemary Strasser is a behavioral neuroendocrinologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She studies dog-human relationships. She also personally competes with her dog in agility competitions.

ROSEMARY STRASSER: It just feels like both you and your dog are reading each other's body cues so well that you don't need to use verbal type of commands.

HERSHER: She wondered about that feeling of being emotionally in sync. What was going on biologically? In a study published a few years ago, Strasser found that the stress hormone cortisol might have something to do with it. When dogs and humans were competing or working together, she found that their cortisol levels were in sync, rising together, for example, when they were competing.

A new study published today in the journal Nature's Scientific Reports builds on that work. Researchers in Sweden found that even regular pet dogs appeared to have higher levels of cortisol over time if their owners act in ways that are anxious or neurotic. Biologist Lina Roth is one of the study's authors.

LINA ROTH: If the owner is stressed, then the dog is also likely to mirror that stress.

HERSHER: And the dog will mirror that stress over months, they found, not just right before and acutely stressful event like a competition. For those who might be anxious by nature and who have a dog they love, Roth says this study should not make you worry.

ROTH: I don't think you should be anxious that if you're stressed, you might harm your dog. But instead, your dog is a social supporter for you. And you are a social supporter for the dog.

HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.