Are We Stressing Our Dogs Out?

In moments of stress, most dog lovers know exactly where to turn: their canine pals. But how does our stress affect our furry best friends? Recent research has some answers.

How Long-Term Stress Impacts Dogs

For years, studies have found that dogs are very attuned to humans, and will often mirror their emotions in heightened moments — something any dog lover who’s experienced a sympathetically excited or sad pup knows intuitively.

But researchers at Linköping University in Sweden had a different question: How does a human’s long-term stress level affect their canine companion? Does chronic worrying impact dogs? Overwhelmingly, they discovered that the answer is: yes.

In a study published in 2019, senior lecturer Lina Roth and her team analyzed the level of cortisol in the hair of 58 dogs and their owners — a test that allowed them to track the level of stress hormones each experienced over time. For this study, the team worked with Border Collies and Shetland Sheepdogs — herding dogs that have been bred to be highly cooperative with humans — and interviewed their owners on various personality traits in both themselves and their pups. Their findings?

In both breeds, the level of cortisol found in the dog’s hair was found to mirror that in the human’s, and to reflect the results of the human personality survey. In other words: the way dogs feel over time tracks with the way their humans feel. “We actually were surprised how much they seemed to affect each other,” Roth told AKC.org.

Does Long-Term Stress Affect All Dogs in the Same Way?

Next, the team widened their horizons. After all, Border Collies and Shetland Sheepdogs have been specially bred to be responsive to humans. Is this emotional attunement just a result of careful breeding?

In a study published earlier this year, Roth and her team studied dogs at the opposite end of the human-cooperation spectrum: those bred for independent hunting, such as the Dachshund and the Norwegian Elkhound, and ancient breeds that are closer to dogs, including the Shiba Inu and the Siberian Husky. Again, they compared the hair-cortisol levels of dogs and their owners, and asked owners to complete questionnaires about both their and their dogs’ personalities and about their relationship with their dog.

Pembroke Welsh Corgi laying down on the feet of its owner on the couch.

Their findings? The owner’s personality affected stress levels in hunting dogs — but not in ancient breeds. Meanwhile, the relationship between the dog and the owner affected stress for all the dogs — though the effects were more significant in the hunting dogs than the ancient breeds.

Meaning: dogs’ attunement to human stress levels increases depending on how closely their breed has been developed for human cooperation — but all dogs’ personalities are affected by their relationship with their owner.

What Does All This Mean for Dog Owners?

So does this give stressed-out dog owners another reason to be stressed? Should we be worried about exposing our dogs to our worries and woes?

In a word: no. Since the study reveals that all dogs’ personalities and stress levels are affected by the quality of their relationship with their owners, the biggest lesson is in fact the opposite: there’s more reason than ever to bond closely with your dog. Even better news: doing so will probably improve your own stress levels, too.

“We know [from earlier studies] that interacting together has beneficial effects on those stress levels,” Roth says, “and can actually lower the stress level — and especially play interaction… So this really indicates that if you have nice interactions together with your dogs, it will probably be beneficial for your stress levels.”

One other interesting note for dog owners concerned about their pup’s happiness: the things that stress us out probably don’t bother our dogs in the same way. Roth and her team also looked into the dog-stress effects of various environmental factors, such as whether the owner worked part-time, whether there were children in the house, and whether the dog lived in a house or an apartment. “There was no effect from those more lifestyle aspects,” Roth says. “So it was only this long-term stress in the owner’s personality that hooked up so strongly.”

So if you’re worried that your dog doesn’t have enough space or that the kids are stressing them out, know that in the long term, all of that pales in comparison to one simple thing: the quality of your relationship with your dog, and how much time you spend letting off steam by playing together.

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