Part of why we love out dogs so much is the way they seem to always comfort our moods. Nothing says empathy like a big sloppy kiss when you are down. A few years back I was going through multiple personal crisis’s and then it was compounded by the fact that my dog’s reactive fear behavior seemed to reach a fever pitch. I reached out to an animal communicator that simply told me-” it’s you”. They didn’t mean it in a blame sort of way but simply that my dog was feeding off my own state of mind and that it was important for me to take a breath and get myself in a better place if I wanted my dog to make progress. This is obviously over-simplifying how we reached a solution but the fact that out dogs are impacted by what we are feeling did not surprise me.
We all might have assumed this and there have been studies that reflect the behavior from short periods of acute stress mirroring the behavior in our pets, called emotional contagion. Emotional contagion, the mirroring of emotional or arousal states between individuals, is commonly seen among group-living species. But a recent study done by Linkoping University in Sweden provides some additional science that supports this to a greater degree than we probably realize.
One reaction in the body when you are under added stress is for your body to produce more of a hormone called Cortisol. This study looked at 58 dogs and their owners and measured the Hair Cortisol Concentrations (HCC) of both owner and dog. Measurements were taken at two separate occasions, reflecting levels during previous summer and winter months. The dogs’ activity levels were continuously monitored with a remote cloud-based activity collar for one week because physical activity can affect cortisol levels. Shetland sheepdogs and border collies, balanced for sex, participated, and both pet dogs and actively competing dogs (agility and obedience) were included to represent different lifestyles. The results showed significant inter-species correlations in long-term stress where human HCC from both summer and winter samplings correlated strongly with dog HCC. The personality traits of both dogs and their owners were determined through owner-completed surveys about their personalities. However, although dogs’ personalities had little effects on their HCC, the human personality traits neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness significantly affected dog HCC. Hence, they suggest that dogs, to a great extent, mirror the stress level of their owners.
When I was going through my stressful period someone could have told me (and they did) I needed to take a break and make some time for my own mental health and the suggestion went in one ear and out the other. When I realized the impact, my issues were having on my dog…. well that is a completely different thing! The last thing in the world I would do is put my dog under stress that was not necessary. Be thoughtful about what affect you are having on the loved ones around you. For me I felt a little like it would be selfish to close my eyes to the bad things going on to get a massage or meditate; but the truth was that I was being selfish by not doing that.
Have you seen your personal stress change your dog’s behavior?
The entire study can be reviewed at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-43851-x