Stressed out? Your dog may feel it too, study suggests

Man’s STRESSED friend: Tense dog owners pass their anxiety on to their beloved canine companions because pet pooches mirror human emotions

  • Swedish experts studied stress hormone levels in the hair of owners and dogs
  • They found that the levels closely matched in both winter and summer months
  • The owner–canine link appears to be stronger in show dogs than household pets
  • Researchers think that training helps dogs to forge stronger emotional bonds

When dog owners go through a stressful period, they’re not alone in feeling the pressure — their dogs feel it too.

Dog owners experiencing long bouts of stress can transfer it to their dogs through their emotional bond, which appears to be strengthened by canine training.

Researchers measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the hair of both dogs and their owners, and found that they changed shifted up and down in tandem.

When dog owners go through a stressful period, they’re not alone in feeling the pressure — their dogs feel it too (stock image)

Researchers from Linköping University in Sweden focused on 58 women who owned either border collies or Shetland sheepdogs.

They examined hair from the dog owners and their canine pals, looking at the concentrations of a hormone called cortisol, a chemical released into the bloodstream and absorbed by hair follicles in response to stress.

Depression, excessive physical exercise and unemployment are just a few examples of stress that can influence the amount of cortisol found in your hair, said lead author Lina Roth.

The research team found that the patterns of cortisol levels in the hair of dog owners closely matched that found in their dogs in both winter and summer months, indicating their stress levels were in sync.

Dr Roth thinks the owners are influencing the dogs rather than the other way around, because several human personality traits appear to affect canine cortisol levels, whereas the dog’s personality had no major effect on their long-term stress.

The researchers are unsure what causes the synchronisation in cortisol levels between humans and their pups — yet a hint might lie in the fact that the link is stronger with competitive dogs than in pet pooches.

The bond formed between owner and competitive dogs during training may increase the canines’ emotional reliance on their owners, she said. 

That, in turn, could increase the degree of synchronisation.

A study suggests that dogs owners experiencing long bouts of stress can actually transfer the stress to their dogs like a contagious infection. Pictured, a Shetland sheepdog at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York

But why do people influence their dogs, rather than vice versa? 

Perhaps people are ‘a more central part of the dog’s life, whereas we humans also have other social networks,’ Dr Roth said in an email.

The study results are no surprise, said Alicia Buttner, director of animal behaviour with the Nebraska Humane Society in Omaha.

‘New evidence is continually emerging showing that people and their dogs have incredibly close bonds that resemble the ones that parents share with their children,’ she said in an email.

But there is not enough evidence to assume that the influence goes only one way; it may go in both directions, she added

‘It’s not just as simple as owner gets stressed, dog gets stressed,’ she said.

Many other factors could affect a person or dog’s stress levels and possibly even dampen them, she said.

Pet dogs may reflect their owners´ stress levels

Buttner said cortisol levels do not necessarily indicate ‘bad’ stress. Instead, they can also indicate a good experience like getting ready to go for a walk, she said.

Dr Roth and her team plan to investigate whether other dog breeds react to their owners in the same way, as well as seeing if the owner’s sex might play a role.

In the meantime, she offered advice on ways to minimise how much stress dog owners may be causing their pets.

Dogs that play more show fewer signs of being stressed, she noted.

So, ‘just be with your dog and have fun,’ Dr Roth recommends.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

HOW DID DOGS BECOME DOMESTICATED?

A genetic analysis of the world’s oldest known dog remains revealed that dogs were domesticated in a single event by humans living in Eurasia, around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Dr Krishna Veeramah, an assistant professor in evolution at Stony Brook University, told MailOnline: ‘The process of dog domestication would have been a very complex process, involving a number of generations where signature dog traits evolved gradually.

‘The current hypothesis is that the domestication of dogs likely arose passively, with a population of wolves somewhere in the world living on the outskirts of hunter-gatherer camps feeding off refuse created by the humans.

‘Those wolves that were tamer and less aggressive would have been more successful at this, and while the humans did not initially gain any kind of benefit from this process, over time they would have developed some kind of symbiotic [mutually beneficial] relationship with these animals, eventually evolving into the dogs we see today.’

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