Your Dog May Be Taking Cues From You

By Erin Kirkpatrick

It’s been said that dogs can read emotions, and many of us have found ourselves in situations we believe confirm these findings. My childhood pup, Kaya, and my current roommate’s dog, Koda, shower me in sloppy, wet kisses and unwavering attention when I bawl my eyes out, but maybe there is more to this interaction than I previously thought…

What if dogs learn and actually mirror their owners’ behaviors and responses?

Does a carefree and relaxed owner = a carefree and relaxed dog? Does a nervous and anxious owner = a nervous and anxious dog?

A recent study from the University of Vienna led by Iris Schöberl of the Department of Behavioral Biology may have provided scientific evidence that answers these questions. In this study, researchers measured levels of cortisol, often referred to as “the stress hormone,” in the saliva of 132 dog owners and their pets to determine responses to stress.

An individual with high cortisol levels is more likely to be stressed out, but in order to understand how they experience stress over time, it is important to look at how cortisol levels vary over time.

For example, two individuals may find themselves in the exact same stressful situation. One of the individuals is calm and the other individual is already stressed. The cortisol levels in the individual who was initially calm might skyrocket, while the cortisol levels in the stressed individual might remain the same because their body, out of habit, is already producing the stress hormone.

Keeping this in mind, cortisol levels were measured numerous times while the dogs were placed in situations designed to make them anxious and uneasy. In one situation, someone wearing a ski mask approached the dog in a threatening manner. In another, the dog was asked by its owner to walk across an unstable wire mesh bridge. The most realistic situation involved separating the dog from its owner.

That’s not all the study looked at

In addition to cortisol measurements, researchers also collected behavioral measurements from each owner, including personality traits. It turns out that neuroticism and agreeableness have a substantial impact on doggos.

People with high neuroticism have a tendency to easily experience emotions, including worry, fear, vulnerability, loneliness, and anxiety. They are often described as “high strung,” and females tend to display higher levels of neuroticism and anxiety than their male counterparts. This study found that dog owners with neurotic personalities and tendencies had dogs with low variability in their cortisol levels, meaning they were less capable of dealing with pressure and stress.

Now, on the opposite side of the spectrum there’s agreeableness. People with high agreeableness are friendly, cooperative, well-tempered, and helpful rather than suspicious and distrustful. In this study, dog owners who were highly agreeable had dogs with greater variability in their cortisol levels, who were more capable of coping with stressful, tense situations.

Participants were comprised of 35 female owners with female dogs, 35 male owners with male dogs, 31 female owners with male dogs, and 31 male owners with female dogs in order to gauge gender interactions.

In previous research, male dogs belonging to female owners were shown to have less variability in their cortisol responses, were less capable of dealing with stressful situations, and were less sociable than male dogs belonging to male owners.

It looks like Fido does learn from his master, but it’s a two-way street. The study’s results show that the “social and personality characteristics of both of the dog and the owner tend to interact.”

So, the next time you’re thinking of going down “negativity lane” remember that how you respond to future situations and stress could influence your pet’s personality and behaviors. If you need a little bit more convincing, we’ll just tell that you that smiling is a better workout than frowning.