At a beginners' dog obedience class, one of the trainers and I noticed that one member of the class, a young woman with a large male German Shepherd, seemed insecure and stressed. She was nervously clenching and unclenching her hands and tended to fidget rather than stand in place. The interesting thing was that her behavior seemed to be mirrored by her dog. He exhibited clear signs of stress — he was licking his lips and yawning — and his ears would flick downward whenever the instructor in the center of the room raised her voice or moved quickly. The trainer who I was sitting beside observed the situation and commented to me, "You know what they say: The tension flows down the leash."
Her comments reflected something that has been casually observed by many dog trainers, which is that an anxious and nervous dog owner often seems to have a tense and nervous dog. Recent research from the University of Vienna seems to back up these casual observations. The team of investigators was headed by Iris Schöberl of the Department of Behavioral Biology, and the study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Like many recent studies on the emotional reactions of dogs (and people), the researchers looked at the levels of cortisol, a hormone related to an individual's response to stress. 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. However, if you are trying to get a picture of the overall levels of emotion and anxiety that a person or a dog generally experiences, it is more important to look at how the cortisol levels vary when he or she is exposed to stressors over time.
The reasoning comes from research by Canadian behavioral endocrinologist Hans Selye on what he called the General Adaptation Syndrome. He noted that when an individual encounters a stressor, the body rallies to defend itself, which includes the release of the stress-related corticosteroid hormones. However, if the stressors continue over long periods of time, or are simply very frequent, the ability of the body to combat the effects of subsequent stress becomes weaker and weaker. A highly stressed 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 is likely that you are looking at someone who has been reacting to anxieties, worries, and so forth frequently and for a long time.
This new 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.
A large number of behavioral measures were also taken, including measures of the owner's personality. Perhaps the most interesting findings from this research had to do with two personality dimensions — neuroticism and agreeableness.
For psychologists who study personality, neuroticism refers to the tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, pessimism and vulnerability. You can think of people who are high in neuroticism as being sensitive and nervous, while people who score low in neuroticism are secure and confident. In this study, the dog owners who scored high in neuroticism had dogs with low variability in their cortisol. This suggests that dogs with highly neurotic owners are less able to deal with pressure and stress.
We can contrast this to the personality dimension of agreeableness, which reflects a tendency to be cooperative and friendly, rather than suspicious and antagonistic toward others. You can view this as a measure of the degree to which a particular person has a trusting and helpful nature and an indication of whether that person is well-tempered or not. This study finds that the dogs with owners who are highly agreeable have greater variability in their cortisol response, suggesting that they are better able to cope with situations involving tension and strain.
There are some interesting sex interactions which are also pointed out by these new data. Previous research has shown that male dogs belonging to female owners are generally less sociable and relaxed than male dogs belonging to male owners. Some researchers have also pointed out that females tend to score somewhat higher on measures of anxiety and neuroticism. This current research seems to confirm these trends since male dogs owned by female owners tend to have less variability in their cortisol responses, suggesting that their ability to cope with anxiety and stress is less efficient.
The researchers are quick to emphasize that the real importance of their results is that the social and personality characteristics of both the dog and the owner tend to interact. How the dog owner responds to situations could shape the personality and the behaviors of their pets. As Schöberl summarizes the conclusions of the team, "Owners behave differently because they are pessimistic or neurotic, and perhaps dogs read the emotions of their owners and think the world is more dangerous — so they are more reactive to it. It looks like people who are pessimistic have dogs which are worse at coping with stress than others."
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Schöberl I, Wedl M, Beetz A, Kotrschal K, (2017). Psychobiological Factors Affecting Cortisol Variability in Human-Dog Dyads. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0170707. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0170707