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Dog Owner's Stress: Breaking Down the Cause and Effect

Dog Owner's Stress: Breaking Down the Cause and Effect

Dog Owner's Stress: Breaking Down the Cause and Effect

Key Points

  • Owning a dog can be stressful and a dog owner’s stress can be detected by their dog.

  • A dog owner’s stress can be reduced by a calm dog.

  • Studies indicate that dog owners are happier than those without dogs.

As a human, you’re going to feel stress from time to time -- it’s just a part of life! You should be aware that many dogs experience anxiety as well, but are the two related? Can a dog owner’s stress be transferred to their pet or vice versa?

Dogs are more acutely aware of human emotions than you may realize. A dog owner’s stress can not only be detected, but mimicked by their canine companion. Fortunately, the reverse is true–your dog can make you happy and calm, too.

Is Your Dog Stressing You Out?

Owning a dog is a big responsibility. They require a lot of time, care, and expense. This can be overwhelming when you first get your dog – especially if you’ve never owned one before. If you adopt them when they’re puppies, you may only think of how cute and how much fun they are. Think about the fact that they are full of energy and need a lot of training to learn appropriate behavior.

It’s stressful when your dog suffers from anxiety issues like separation anxiety and aversion to noises, strangers, or other animals. You may not know how to deal with it or respond. These issues are inconvenient and expensive when you must buy special toys, beds, or supplements.

If you’re not prepared, your anxiety can be displayed by neglecting your dog, raising your voice, speaking in a harsh or derogatory tone, or showing impatience when your dog wants to stop and sniff things while out for a walk.

These signs may be obvious to you and the people around you, and they are picked up by your dog just as easily. These actions cause your pet anxiety which makes their behavior worse and perpetuates a stressful cycle.

Frustrated, Frazzled, and Flummoxed? Fido Feels It!

That’s right: Your dog knows when you’re stressed. Just as you recognize signs of anxiety in your dog, they sense it in you, as well. In some ways, they have more advanced methods of detecting stress than you do. Three of their senses accurately perceive changes in your emotional state: smell, sight, and hearing. 

Owner and dog sit on simple bench on a cloudy day

Smell

You’ve heard of bomb-sniffing dogs, drug-detection dogs, and tracking dogs like bloodhounds, but did you know that dogs can also smell anxiety?

In a research article published in 2022, researchers Wilson, Campbell, Petzel, and Reeve found that “Dogs were able to discriminate, with a high degree of accuracy, between human breath and sweat samples taken at baseline and when experiencing psychological stress.”

This means dogs smell your stress! When your anxiety level begins to rise, your body temperature rises too; you start to perspire and your breath becomes warmer and faster. Your dog is keenly aware of these changes. 

This is valuable information when training dogs to be service animals for individuals with anxiety issues as well as using them in mental health facilities to assist with the rehabilitation of patients.

Sight

It might be obvious that dogs are aware of particular hand gestures and body language, but dogs are surprisingly perceptive. Something as simple as a change in facial expression is triggering as well.

In a 2018 article, researchers Siniscalchi, d’Ingeo, and Quaranta from the Department of Veterinary Medicine, studied dogs' sight behaviors. Their article, published in the journal Learning Behavior, states “dogs displayed a higher behavioural [sic] and cardiac activity in response to human face pictures expressing clear arousal emotional states, demonstrating that dogs are sensitive to emotional cues conveyed by human faces.”

You may not even be aware of the subtle changes your body makes when you experience certain emotions. When you’re afraid, for example, it shows on your face and the muscles in your body tend to tense up as well. As imperceptible as you think these movements are, your dog notices them.

Owner gives dog a bath in yellow bucket

Hearing

You have no doubt heard that dogs perceive sounds that are out of the range of human hearing. Dog whistles have become tools for training because of their ability to pick up frequencies we are unaware of.

National Geographic author Stacey Colino writes, “On the auditory front, research has found that when dogs hear expressions of distress, like crying, or positive sounds like laughing, they respond differently than they do to other vocalizations or non-human sounds.”

Dog owners can tell you about circumstances when they were crying while experiencing moments of grief and their dog comforted them.

Signs of Stress in Your Dog

You know the signs when a human is stressed, but a dog shows them in different ways. You see them pacing, growling, whining, barking, destroying objects and furniture, trying to escape while you’re away, or having accidents even after successful potty training.

Some signs can become more serious when they start affecting your pet's health, such as overeating, not eating enough, vomiting, and scratching themselves too much. Catch their anxiety before serious damage is done by scheduling regular checkups with your vet to make sure they don’t have any conditions that could cause these symptoms.

Dog with sad eyes rests head on floor

Stay Calm and Model Your Behavior

Your dog looks to you as their “pack leader” and takes cues from you. Now that you know your dog can decipher your negative emotions, you understand how your behavior affects your pet. When your dog sees that you’re in distress, they are unaware of the reason and this unknown source of anxiety causes them to be stressed as well. 

When you’re stressed out, angry, or depressed, you are, in a way, telling your dog to react in kind. It may be unintentional, but your physiological state, movements, and tone of voice all betray your true emotions.

What can you do about it? Above all, remaining calm is the most important thing you can do. For example, if your dog suffers from separation anxiety, try to stay calm when you return home. If your pooch excitedly jumps up or barks, try to ignore them. Don’t look at them or respond, but wait until they have calmed down. 

Then, when they are in a more subdued state, greet them and reward their calm behavior with a treat or a simple scratch behind the ears or whatever they respond to best. Your priority is to be patient and continue to display a calm demeanor, showing them the way they should behave.

If you had a bad day at work and find it difficult to shake off that disgruntled feeling, at least try to “fake it until you make it.” Walk in the door with your head held high, shoulders back, and a smile on your face. When you speak to your dog, use an uplifted tone. This reassures your pooch, but it also lifts your spirits as a result.

Can Being a Dog Owner Make You Happier? 

With all of the stress involved in owning a dog and that anxiety being transferred back and forth, is it worth getting a dog in the first place? Research shows that it is.

Dog peers through glass door during rain

Combatting Depression

Depression is all too common around the world in 2023. With more people working remotely, feeling isolated is even more prevalent than before the pandemic of 2020. Limited social interactions have a detrimental effect on your mental health. Having a companion animal isn’t a complete replacement for human interaction, but it is helpful – and in some cases, people even prefer the companionship of a pup to that of other people. 

In a 2018  article published in Medical News Today, Dr. Maria Cohut says, “When we interact with dogs, our oxytocin levels shoot up. Since this is the hormone largely responsible for social bonding, this hormonal 'love injection' boosts our psychological well-being.”

The article reports that dogs reduce depression and help individuals become more resilient to stress. As you read earlier, reducing your stress reduces your dog’s as well and that is a win-win situation!

Physical Benefits

Simply going out and walking your dog is not only good for their physical well-being but yours, too. Taking your dog for a stroll around the block gives you a reason to get out and exercise when you may not have done so otherwise. 

Playing with your dog also involves physical activity. Frisbee, tug-of-war, and fetch are all forms of enjoyable play that exert energy. These physical benefits also improve your dog’s mental state by reducing their anxiety and providing mental stimulation. 

If you have a dog with separation anxiety, take them for a romp in the park before you have to leave them alone. They are worn out and ready for a nap when you return home. Give them a nice place to rest, like a calming dog bed. This enhances feelings of comfort and security. 

A depressed dog rests head on wood floor

Social Interaction

Dogs also lead owners to interact with other humans. In an article from 2022 in The U.S. Sun, Rob Knight reported on a study that found dog owners are happier than those without a dog: “The study of 2,004 adults also found dog owners benefit from the simple act of walking their canine chum, as 31 percent feel less lonely when they go for a stroll with their pet.”

The study also shows benefits for people with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities reported having more social interactions with others and attributed these connections to their dogs. They also established long-lasting, deep connections with others they initially met while walking their dog.

Studies like this have proven that therapy/service dogs do work. This study explains why they have gained so much popularity – especially among those suffering from anxiety issues.

Happiness is Contagious Too

You’ve learned that stress can be transferred from owner to dog, but so can positive emotions. You see that when engaged in play activities. When you jump around excitedly, what does your dog do? That’s right: They do the same thing.

Once you’ve been together for a while, you become synchronized. Your dog becomes used to the way you respond to certain situations and reacts to that stimulus in the same manner. 

You want a dog who is calm, happy, and content, so you have to demonstrate those desired traits. If your dog is still exhibiting signs of anxiety after repeated measures to calm them, check with your vet to make sure there are no underlying medical issues. There are also supplements and treats like Calming Zen Chews with natural ingredients that ease your dog’s anxiety in stressful conditions.

Make your pup happy by doing fun things with them. Get an interactive toy to leave with them while you’re away, play games that support a bonding experience between you when you’re together and go places with your dog like on regular walks and to a dog park. You can also schedule a puppy playdate if your dog doesn’t have issues with unfamiliar dogs.

Sick owner embraces dog head to head

Happily Ever After

Whenever you are experiencing anxiety, be aware that your dog knows it. Don’t be surprised if they start showing symptoms of anxiety as a result. With a little self-regulation, you can stop the cycle before it gets too difficult to handle. If you have a dog with anxiety issues from the start, deal with them gently and teach them by example how to be calm.

When you have a dog, you already have an emotional advantage over those who don’t. Take advantage of this gift and create a bond that endures and thrives. Remember that you can control the way you react to any given situation, but a dog acts on instinct. Make sure they see you as a loving and caring dog owner and your dog will be your loving and loyal companion.