Training Tuesday: New Study Shows How Dogs Mirror Our Stress

By Claudia Bensimoun

First published in The United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA)



Image credit: Pixaby

Agility competitors have all felt the impact of stress, and have probably noticed their dogs feeling stressed out too. While cortisol levels increase naturally with physical activity, previous research has demonstrated that short-term levels of cortisol in saliva increases in both dog and owner when they compete together. A recent study from researchers at Linköping University (Sweden) compared the long-term impact of physical activity on cortisol levels among companion and agility or obedience dogs. The study, first published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports, discusses how dogs mirror their owner’s stress levels, and not vice versa as previously thought.

Let’s take a look at how this study may help agility competitors and allow for a more relaxed environment when competing.

The Study

The researchers worked with 25 border collies and 33 Shetland sheepdogs. These dogs all had female owners, and both dogs and owners had to provide hair samples on two occasions, separated by a few months. Activity collars were used for a week to measure activity levels in the dogs. The dog owners also had to complete two questionnaires related to their own and their dog’s personality.

The researchers then checked whether stress levels correlated with the dog’s personality traits, and concluded that “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,” says senior lecturer Lina Roth of the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology (IFM) at LiU and principal investigator for the study.


While studying how dogs get stressed by their environment and their pet parents, researchers at Linköping 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,” says Ann-Sofie Sundman, also of IFM, as well as principal author of the study and newly promoted doctor of ethology, via Science Daily.

In particular, they noted that the stress levels in agility or competing dogs were closely correlated to their owners. The scientists added that “this may be associated with a higher degree of active interaction between the owner and the dog when they train and compete together.”

What needs to be taken into consideration is that both the border collie and the Shetland sheepdog are dog breeds that work well with their owners. They are both intelligent dog breeds that are sensitive to cues and stress. That said, more studies are in the works to see whether a similar synchronization takes place between other dog breeds with their owners. Researchers also want to see whether the gender of a dog’s owners may also have an effect on stress.

For more on this article, please visit USDAA.

Woofs & Wags!




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