You Get Stressed, Your Dog Does Too


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I’ve said many times – and I’ve even been quoted saying, “As smart as we are – or think we are – our dogs understand us far better than we understand them.” What do you know? It turns out I was right, at least when it comes to your dog picking up on your stress.

Researcher Ann-Sofie Sundman of the Department of Physics, doctor of ethology Chemistry and Biology (IFM) at LiU Sweden told Science Daily “We found that the levels of long-term cortisol in the dog and its owner were synchronized, 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 examined 25 border collies and 33 Shetland Sheepdogs, all of them owned by women. The owners and the dogs provided hair samples on two occasions separated by a few months. Since physical activity can increase cortisol levels, the researchers also wanted to compare companion dogs with dogs that competed in obedience or agility. The physical activity levels of the dogs were therefore recorded for a week using an activity collar.

This is fascinating – but not surprising. Numerous other 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.

The study presented here, in contrast, found that physical activity in dogs does not affect the long-term cortisol in their hair. On the other hand, the stress level of competing dogs seems to be linked more strongly with that of the owner. The scientists speculate that this may be associated with a higher degree of active interaction between the owner and the dog when they train and compete together.

The result suggests that the match between an owner and a dog affects the dog’s stress level. It was the owner’s personality and mood that influenced the dog’s hair cortisol level, rather than the dog’s personality itself,

Researchers concede there were various study limitations, including that the breeds in the study were both herding dogs. Future studies may include breeds representing other groups.

Here an idea for an interesting stud: Find actors who act stressed, and see if they can fool their dogs. I bet not.

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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