Playing with your dog may feel like a major stress reliever, but your stress might actually be spreading to your pet. A new study, published in the academic journal Scientific Reports on June 6, found that dogs can pick up on their owners' anxiety. And while this is the first known study of its kind to show the synchronization between the emotions of pet owners and their pets, the research may have important effects on the way that we interact with our canine pals.
To assess the emotional connection between people and their dogs, researchers in Sweden looked at 58 human-dog partnerships (33 Shetland sheepdogs and 25 border collies) and analyzed the hair cortisol concentrations (HCC) for both parties. Cortisol is a hormone released when animals experience stress, and while hormones in and of themselves cannot be passed between people or pets, emotions can be contagious. As the study found, humans who experienced long-term stress were shown to have similar HCC concentrations as their dogs, meaning that as our own cortisol levels increase due to anxiety in our lives, we inadvertently pass those feelings along to our dogs.
In addition to determining the connection between humans' and dogs' stress, the study also asked if physical activity, personality, and sex play a role in dogs' cortisol levels. Researchers only found proof of the latter, with female dogs showing a slightly stronger correlation with their humans' HCC levels than male dogs. Yet from the study's results, it seems, an owner's anxiety level is by far a bigger direct link to anxiety in their pets than any other factor.
Dogs' increased cortisol levels when their owners were anxious "could not be explained by either physical activity or by the amount of training," stated the study. "Since the personality of the owners was significantly related to the HCC of their dogs, we suggest that it is the dogs that mirror the stress levels of their owners rather than the owners responding to the stress in their dogs."
So if you have a dog with major anxiety and are trying to find a way to calm them down, you may want to consider de-stressing yourself, first. As the study's senior author, Lina Roth, a zoologist at Sweden’s Linkoping University, told National Geographic, “Dogs are quite good at understanding humans. They’re definitely better at understanding us than we are at understanding them.” When your dog sees you display anxiety-related habits like nail biting, pacing, or irritability, Roth explained, they'll likely pick up on and echo your emotions, even if you don't realize that's what's happening.
Thankfully, the study did not state that dogs who've sensed their owners' anxiety will have long-term health issues, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing for your pet to constantly be on edge, of course. In addition to trying to bring your own stress level down, look into dog anxiety treatments like specialized pet therapy, antidepressants, and even CBD, which is increasingly used as a way to help stressed-out pups.
There's no one foolproof treatment for anxious humans and their dogs, but the tangible evidence that pups do indeed pick up on our behaviors and moods will hopefully help all of us become better, calmer pet owners in the future.