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Scientists: ‘Your human stress is contagious – to dogs’

Dog stress: is it caused by humans?
© moshehar - Pixabay

Stress levels in dogs rise and fall with the stress levels of their owners, according to a new study. And while the scientists at Linköping University show that owners’ stress is mirrored by dogs, the effect does not work the other way around.

By G. John Cole, 11 Jun 2019

“Surprisingly enough, we found no major effect of the dog’s personality on long-term stress,” said senior lecturer Lina Roth, principal investigator for the study. “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.”

Going through a tough period with their owner

The curious scientists began their work after wondering whether long-term stress levels can pass between different species in the same way they do between animals (including humans) of the same species.

They took hair from dogs and their owners and measured cortisol levels over a period of months. Cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’ and high levels of the hormone can indicate high levels of stress.

“We found that the levels of long-term cortisol in the dog and its owner were synchronised,” revealed Ann-Sofie Sundman, principal author of the study, who works at Linköping’s Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. “[O]wners with high cortisol levels have dogs with high cortisol levels, while owners with low cortisol levels have dogs with low levels. 

Biscuits and chill

The boffins used Border Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, and human women in their tests, and kept an eye on the exercise levels of all involved – since exercise increases cortisol levels but can improve mental health. 

The dogs and owners also completed questionnaires about their personalities.

The scientists have speculated that they might get different results from different types of dog, since herding dogs are bred to work closely with humans and to be more responsive to signals.

“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. It may be that certain breeds are not so deeply affected if their owner has a high stress level, adds Lina Roth.

For now, owners would do well to take a leaf from their dog’s book – and learn to chill like their pet rather than stress the little fellow out.