Dogs react to owners’ stress levels

Posted on 2019-10-11 07:24:38


The London Guardian newspaper recently reported that a research team led by ethologist Dr Lina Roth at Linköping University, Sweden, had found that stress levels in canine pets matched high cortisol levels in their owners, especially if the animals live inside their owners’ homes and in close contact with them.

The researchers chose 25 border collies and 33 Shetland sheepdogs, along with their female owners, for their project. Cortisol levels were measured by taking hair samples from dogs and their humans. They divided the dogs into two groups. One group was enrolled in regular training schedules and competitions that tested qualities like obedience and loyalty. The other dogs were all companion pets.

In findings published in Scientific Reports, the researchers reported that stress in companion dogs closely mirrored stress levels in their owners. They found that this stress was not environmentally linked, like whether dogs had a garden in which they could run around, whether they had dog companions, or how long they were separated from their owners during the working week.

One factor that emerged was the effect of owner neuroticism, but it was found that dogs with neurotic owners actually had lower hair cortisol. Dr Roth suggested that it might be that neurotic owners seek more comfort from their pets and that hugging and giving them attention would be likely to lead to a reduced level of canine stress. One can’t help wanting further evidence, because, as every dog lover knows, not only neurotic people hug dogs. People who love their dogs hug them.

Most owners know that their dogs do pick up emotional signals from them… and we also know that loving one’s pets and hugging them reduces our own stress level, and that our animals respond to hugs with obvious pleasure. Dogs are very physical in the ways they show pleasure.

The researchers concluded that they had established that dogs definitely empathise with their owners and are affected by their owners’ personalities and their levels of stress. This sounds like common sense, but what the university project usefully achieved was to produce empirical evidence that lines up our feelings about animal empathy with evidence based on research.

Human beings have interacted with dogs for more than 15,000 years. Dr Lina Roth and her team are interested in trying to establish how our lifestyle choices and our behaviour affects our pets.

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