Long-term stress in dogs linked to the owner-dog relationship

August 29, 2021

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Long-term stress in dogs linked to the owner-dog relationship

The relationship a dog has with its owner is related to its stress level. This is the conclusion of a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, which also suggests that the link between stress and the owner’s personality traits differs between dog breeds.

The researchers investigated whether the stress levels of dogs are affected by the people they live with. Stress levels for the past several months can be determined in both dogs and humans by measuring the levels of stress hormones stored in hairs as they grow (or through saliva if you, or your dog, are bald).

The researchers have collected hair from both dogs and owners, and measured levels of cortisol, the most important stress hormone, in them. They were interested in whether there are differences between different dog breeds.

Breeding has led to the genetic selection of different breeds for different tasks. The study included 18 dogs from breeds that have been bred for independent hunting, such as the Swedish elkhound, the Norwegian elkhound, and the dachshund (dachshund for hunting? Really?). A second group included dogs from ancient breeds that are genetically more closely related to the wolf than other breeds. This group comprised 24 dogs from breeds such as the shiba inu, the basenji, and the Siberian husky. All owners completed questionnaires about their own personality and that of their dog. They also answered questions about their relationship with their dog, including such matters as how the owner experienced the interaction with the dog, degree of emotional attachment to the dog, and the extent to which owning a dog gave rise to problems.

What the researchers say: “The results showed that the owner’s personality affected the stress level in hunting dogs, but interestingly enough not in the ancient dogs. In addition, the relationship between the dog and the owner affected the stress level of the dogs. This was the case for both types, but the result was less marked for the ancient dogs,” said the lead researcher.

In a previous study, the same researchers had seen that dogs from herding breeds, which have been genetically selected for their ability to collaborate with humans, mirrored the long-term stress level of their owner.

The researchers conclude that long-term stress is influenced least strongly by the owner and their relationship to the dog for ancient breeds. The hunting dogs show clear links between both the personality of the owner and their relationship to the dog, but it is only herding dogs that demonstrate the unique synchronization with the long-term stress in the owner.

“We believe that the synchronization of stress is a consequence of breeding the herding dogs for collaboration with people, while the relationship to the owner and the owner’s personality are important parameters that influence the synchronization of stress levels,” she added.

So, what? Prior research has shown that dog owners live considerably longer than non-dog owners (up to five years) and that is probably due to the fact that they give their owners companionship. They certainly alleviate the loneliness of those living alone. Since loneliness is one of our greatest mental and physical threats, dogs provide a great service.

However, with the rapidly increasing rise in stress levels in the human population the stress on dogs will inevitably increase as well. Not long ago I saw an ad for a service that claimed to be able to “destress your pet.” I wonder if they extend their service to the owner as well?

For more on dog-related research click here.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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