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Stressed? Chances are you’re also stressing out your dog

According to new research from Linköping University, the levels of stress in dogs and their owners follow each other.

Researchers at Linköping University have examined how stress levels in dogs are influenced by lifestyle factors and by the people that the dogs live with, and specifically examined whether similar mirroring of stress levels over long time periods can also arise between species, such as between the domesticated dog and humans.

The study – Long-term stress levels are synchronised in dogs and their owners – examined 25 border collies and 33 Shetland sheepdogs, all of them owned by women. The owners and the dogs provided hair samples on two occasions separated by a few months. The researchers determined stress levels over several months by measuring the concentration of a stress hormone, cortisol, in a few centimetres of hair from the dog and from its owner.

“We found that the levels of long-term cortisol in the dog and its owner were synchronised, such that owners with high cortisol levels have dogs with high cortisol levels, while owners with low cortisol levels have dogs with low levels”, said Ann-Sofie Sundman of the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology at LiU, who was also the principal author of the study.

Previous research has shown that levels of short-term cortisol in saliva rise in a synchronous manner in both the dog and its owner when they compete together, the researchers mused, where the “study presented here, in contrast, found that physical activity in dogs does not affect the long-term cortisol in their hair”.

On the other hand, the stress level of competing dogs seems to be linked more strongly with that of the owner, with the researchers speculating that this may be associated with a higher degree of active interaction between the owner and the dog when they train and compete together.

The researchers also investigated whether stress levels are correlated with personality traits.

“Surprisingly enough, we found no major effect of the dog’s personality on long-term stress. The personality of the owner, on the other hand, had a strong effect. This has led us to suggest that the dog mirrors its owner’s stress”, said senior lecturer Lina Roth.

“The result suggests that the match between an owner and a dog affects the dog’s stress level, [but] further studies are, however, needed before we can draw any conclusions about the cause of the correlation.”

The researchers are now planning to study other breeds, with another line of research looking at whether the sex of the owner plays a role.

“If we learn more about how different types of dog are influenced by humans, it will be possible to match dog and owner in a way that is better for both, from a stress-management point of view. It may be that certain breeds are not so deeply affected if their owner has a high stress level,” Ms Roth added.

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