Feb
22
2017

Owners might be able to influence their dogs’ ability to adapt to stressful situations.  

Researchers from the University of Vienna conducted a study to see how owners and dogs might influence each other in adaptation to stressful situations. They wanted to see whether human and dog personalities might make the other more or less able to handle stress. In order to test this, researchers took samples of dog and human saliva after various testing situations and measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The researchers also used questionnaires to analyze the personalities of owners and their dogs. The research was published on Feb. 8, 2017 in PLOS One.

Extended exposure to stress and anxiety can affect a person’s cortisol levels. If exposed to continued stress over time, the levels won’t vary much, even in reaction to extra stressful situations, indicating a more constant state of anxiety. For this reason, the researchers hypothesized that dogs and people with high cortisol variability were better able to adapt to stressful situations. They believe testing these levels of cortisol “may be an informative measure of stress coping, with a high amplitude between arousal peaks and relaxation lows reflecting healthy regulation.”

The study focused on 132 human-dog pairings. Owners completed questionnaires to assess their personality and their dog’s personality. Questionnaires evaluated the owner’s personality in five categories: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. They also considered the attachment between the owner and the dog.

In addition, saliva samples were taken at base levels and 15 minutes after the end of each test. The tests were set up to collect information about how the dog and owner related to each other and how they dealt with different situations. In a challenge task, the owners had to walk the dog across a mesh bridge and stand on a wobbly podium for at least five seconds. In the mild threat test, researchers observed how owners and dogs related to the situation together and when separated. In this test, one of the researchers put on a long coat and ski mask and moved toward the dog while staring at it. In one of the situations, the threatening person would leave the room after approaching the dog, in the other, they would remove the coat and ski mask and present the dog with cheese.

Results showed that female owners with male dogs had the lowest cortisol variability of all owner gender-dog sex combinations. Owners who scored high in Agreeableness had higher cortisol variability as did owners with dogs who were cool and friendly.

Owners who scored high in Neuroticism had dogs with low cortisol variability. Neuroticism, according to the researchers, is linked to low expectations of social support, major depression and anxiety. As a result, dogs who are sensitive to their owners’ emotional state “may mirror the anxiety and negative expectations of neuroticistic owners in their cortisol variability.” Dogs who were insecure in attachments to owners also had low cortisol variability.

Dog personality did not seem to significantly explain cortisol variability in dogs and owners. Researchers concluded owner characteristics seem to be more relevant and influential in the relationship. They believe this study shows the importance of future studies on the human-dog relationship, including the social context, dog training, and dog behavior therapy.

Photo credit: © iStock/kzenon

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