Does your dog look nervous? Then maybe you should look in the mirror!
You, or maybe just your personality, or your lifestyle, could make your dog stressed, even nervous or anxious. Indeed, new research shows that the level of stress in the dog is the mirror of that of its owner.
Dogs, like people, suffer from the harmful effects of stress. These effects are highly dependent on the duration of the situation that generated them. Some stressors can be severe, but short-term (an accident, for example), while others can be less severe, but longer-lasting (financial problems, among others). These are long-term stressors that can cause a variety of mental and physical problems.
People who are constantly stressed are more likely to have cardiovascular problems or problems with their immune system, and they will be more likely to suffer from depression or other psychological problems. And this also applies to our canine companion. In fact, the same pharmacological agents are used to treat stress problems in humans and dogs. To counter the effects of continuous stress and depression, veterinarians often prescribe a canine equivalent of Prozac – beef flavour of course!
Dogs are not verbal, so they cannot make us understand that they feel anxious or tense. We must then try to see the signs of the animal’s body language, such as posture, tail movement, crouching, curling or lethargic body. While some of these signs may answer the question “Is this dog stressed?” , they cannot provide the degree of stress of the animal. Recent studies show that dogs under stress secrete the same hormones as humans. The main marker is the amount of cortisol released into the bloodstream by the adrenal glands, a crucial part of the body responding to different kinds of stressors. Thus, an increase in cortisol level may indicate a clear increase in stress, for example from a frightening event. The concentration of cortisol is therefore, for the researchers, an important tool that could define in real time the extent of the stress felt by the dog, by a simple blood test, or more recently by simply taking a saliva sample – which is much better since swabbing a dog’s mouth is much less stressful for him than a sting.
The researchers knew that if they found a connection between the stress levels of the human and his dog, the next question would be, “Why does such a relationship exist?” Dog owners responded to several questionnaires in a study conducted to provide information about their dog’s personality, habits, and lifestyle usually experienced by the dog. The biggest discovery was that there was indeed a correlation between the dog’s stress level and that of its handler. (For example, dogs that had a relatively low level of stress tended to have relatively stress-free handlers.)
To define the reasons for this correlation, the scientists took measurements of the personality of the dog, that of the human and their lifestyle. Statistically, the analysis clearly shows that the dog’s personality does not influence human stress. However, the personality of the human seemed important. The researchers used what is called “Big Five dimensions of personality”, or if you prefer “les cinq grandes dimensions de la personnalité”. It may be easier for you to use the acronym OCEAN to define the five main dimensions: openness, consciousness, extraversion, friendliness and neuroticism. In the study that was specifically conducted here, it was the dimensions of consciousness and openness that caused the increase in stress, while the level of neuroticism caused a decrease in stress.
Openness is associated with imagination, the willingness to explore new things and the appeal of new experiences. People showing a low rate of openness tend to dislike change and often feel more comfortable in a familiar environment doing the usual things. As dogs generally enjoy the routine and like to predict situations, this explains why they are more stressed when their master's stress level is higher than they are.
People with high consciousness are very organized and pay attention to detail. They hate messy things and are disturbed by unfinished or crooked tasks. Dogs don’t worry about that kind of detail and can be messy. In addition, they often procrastinate and are slow to complete tasks. Therefore, if the dog has a master who has a high consciousness dimension, he could develop a higher level of stress on his side.
The big surprise comes from people with a high level of neuroticism who had a dog with a low level of stress. Individuals with a high rate of this dimension are susceptible to depression and sadness. One would think that would increase the dog’s stress, but no. Quite the contrary, and this would be explained by the fact that people with a high level of neuroticism would be more inclined to develop a very strong bond with their dog and that he would use it as a social and moral support, which would greatly reduce the stress of the animal and its master.