June 8, 2019
Dogs 'Mirror' The Stress Of Their Owners, Study Finds

Dogs are often called man's best friend, and a new study shows yet again how strong the bonds between pups and their owners are. Per The Guardian, a recent study shows that dogs mirror the stress levels of their owners.

The study was headed by Lina Roth, an ethologist from Linköping University in Sweden. As part of the experiment, the research team measured the cortisol levels of 25 border collies, 33 Shetland sheepdogs, and the owners of the pets.

The team measured the cortisol that was present in the dogs by testing their hairs and coordinated it with the stress levels of their owners. The levels seemed to be linked between owner and pet for a majority of the year, except the winter, when the dogs exhibited slightly higher cortisol levels than their owners.

"This is the first time we've seen a long-term synchronisation in stress levels between members of two different species," said Roth. "We haven't seen this between humans and dogs before."

For those wondering how to help a pup relax, researchers also found what human personality trait resulted in the calmest dogs -- and it's surprising.

What caused the greatest reduction in cortisol was the measured neuroticism of the owner. Owners with high levels of neuroticism actually had dogs with lower cortisol levels. Roth believes that this may be because neurotic owners may "seek comfort" from their pets more often, resulting in a greater number of hugs, kisses, and overall attention.

Surprisingly, certain aspects, such as having a backyard, long working hours for the owner, and other dog companionship, seemed to have no effect on dog cortisol levels. In addition, the stronger the bond between owner and pet, the higher the synchronization of stress levels.

pug hiding under blanket
Unsplash | Matthew Henry

However, despite the findings, Roth emphasized that dog owners who suffer from anxiety shouldn't feel guilty about potentially spreading their angst to their pet.

"Most dog owners are aware that their dogs pick up a lot of signals from them, even the unintentional ones, but it's still beneficial to be together," she said.

While the findings are the first scientific confirmation that pets mirror their owners' stress, James Burkett at Emory University -- who has also researched synchronized emotions in animals -- joked that it would not come as a surprise to any dog-owner.

"Dogs are affected by their owners' distress and respond with consoling behaviors," he said. "We now know that dogs are also affected by their owners' personalities and stress levels. While this may be common sense for dog owners, empirical research is still catching up to our intuitions about animal empathy."