Ever notice that dogs and their humans start to look alike after a while? Well, it’s not just physical appearance that many dogs may come to share with their human “best friends,” but also their emotional state. When a dog owner is constantly stressed out, nervous or fearful, it can have a direct impact on their four-footed buddies and leave them suffering from anxiety as well. Or as one un-named dog trainer put it, “tension flows down from the leash.”
So, how do we know that the emotional stress a person feels can be reflected in their dog? It is not just casual observation, although it is often quite apparent when a nervous, hyper pup is following his or her owner’s lead. A recent study conducted at the University of Vienna measures the “fight or flight” hormone cortisol in the bodies of both stressed out owners and their dogs, with some very interesting results.
The study followed the principle that if you are simply taking a “snapshot” of someone’s emotional state, the higher the cortisol level, the more stressed the individual is likely to be. But, if you’re trying to get a picture of the overall levels of stress and anxiety that a person or a dog generally experiences on an ongoing basis, it is more important to look at how the cortisol levels vary when he or she is exposed to stressors over time. When a person or pooch encounters a stressor, the body rallies to defend itself, by releasing stress-related hormones like cortisol. But, if the stressors continue over long periods of time, or are very frequent, the ability of the body to combat the effects of new stress becomes weaker and weaker. A highly stressed out individual will not be able to react as well to the most recent stressor, and this will show up as a smaller change in the concentration of cortisol. So if you find an individual who shows only a small change in cortisol levels when confronted by stressors, it’s likely that you’re looking at someone (man or beast) who has been reacting to anxieties, worries, and stressful situations frequently and for a long time.
This study involved 132 dog owners and their pets. The amount of the stress hormone cortisol was measured in the saliva of both the dogs and their owners a number of times, while the dogs were exposed to a variety of new situations designed to be mildly anxiety-provoking. One example is when an individual wearing a ski mask and a hood approaches the dog in a threatening manner. Another is when the owner is asked to walk the dog across a somewhat unstable wire mesh bridge. Yet another involves simply separating the owner from the dog for a period of time.
The researchers found that when human subjects introduced to stressful situations showed minimal reaction, in the form of cortisol release, it was reflected in similar reactions in their dogs. The dog owners who scored high in anxiety had dogs with low variability in their cortisol. This suggests that dogs with highly nervous or stressed out owners are less able to deal with pressure and stress, themselves.
How can we keep from sharing our anxiety and stress with our dogs? Saint Luke just might have the best answer for that question, “Physician, heal thyself,” Luke 4:23. In other words, look for the source or sources of your own stress and find ways to reduce it, so you can be your best self for you and your faithful friend.
Source: Psychology Today, “Do Nervous Dog Owners Have Nervous Dogs?”