As I doomscroll my way into oblivion on this Election Day, my dog Blue is laying on the couch asleep, his toes wiggling, as he dreams a dog’s dream. Every few minutes I stand up, sit on the couch next to him and give him a kiss on the head, effectively exfoliating my anxiety onto his fur. He’s a good boy, and he doesn’t seem to care. Of course, it’s hardly crunch time — as I write this, we’re still a few hours away from knowing the results of an election that has been taking up space in our collective psyche for the better part of the past four years.
But when things get down to the wire, when I’m pacing around my apartment and snacking on the keratin in my nails, what then? Is it fair to depend on him to relieve me of my anxiety well into the midnight hour? Can he even sense it? Or does my anxiety slip right off of him as though he’s wearing a moisture-wicking jacket?
In 2019, researchers in Sweden set out to find just that — if dogs can pick up on their owners’ anxiety. According to a piece in Healthline, they looked at “58 human-dog partnerships (33 Shetland sheepdogs and 25 border collies) and analyzed the hair cortisol concentrations (HCC) for both parties.” Cortisol is a hormone released when both humans and dogs experience stress, and while it cannot be passed from human to dog (or human to human, for that matter), the study did find that emotions are contagious. “As the study found, humans who experienced long-term stress were shown to have similar HCC concentrations as their dogs, meaning that as our own cortisol levels increase due to anxiety in our lives, we inadvertently pass those feelings along to our dogs,” Healthline reports.
Selfishly, but unsurprisingly, the road to anxiety doesn’t travel both ways. “It seems to be rather one-sided — dogs ‘take on’ our stress, physiologically; we don’t really take on their stress, even if we’re emotionally attuned to it,” says Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist and author of Unleashing Your Dog. Research backs this up: In the same study, researchers examined if physical activity, personality or even sex play a role in dogs’ cortisol levels. They “only found proof of the latter, with female dogs showing a slightly stronger correlation with their humans’ HCC levels than male dogs,” reports Mic.
Per the same Mic piece, the researchers’ findings indicate that my behavior is basically the only thing that can cause my otherwise perfectly chill dog to have an anxiety attack. “Since the personality of the owners was significantly related to the HCC [cortisol] of their dogs, we suggest that it is the dogs that mirror the stress levels of their owners rather than the owners responding to the stress in their dogs,” according to the study’s authors.
Worse still (for your dog), the closer your relationship is, the worse off they’ll be watching you sigh and scream and cry whilst Wolf Blitzer reports the results in that singularly Blitzer monotone voice. That’s according to Lina Roth, who authored the study and later told NPR that they’d found the correlation between owner and dog anxiety “was stronger between dogs and owners who compete together.” “When it comes to competing dogs, it could actually be that they spend more time together, and that this training could increase this emotional closeness,” Roth speculated to NPR.
Still, Pierce tells me that whether dogs absorb our stress on a minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour basis is a somewhat different question, and one that she doesn’t think can be answered with confidence. “Dogs are certainly tuned in to our transient emotions, but do they share these transient states? Perhaps,” she says. “It likely depends a great deal on the individual dog, on the nature of the relationship between dog and human (how tightly bonded are they?) and on the individual person.”
Pierce does however share a personal experience of hers, from the recent wildfire season in Colorado. “Many of us were frantic about the encroaching fires and really stressed out about whether we would be told to evacuate, and whether we would lose our homes,” says Pierce. “Everyone I’ve talked to who lives with a dog has told me that their dog seemed to soak up and reflect the anxiety. My own dog, Bella, has been very clingy, way more clingy than usual. I suspect that she was feeding off of our stress — though she also probably got worked up watching us pack suitcases and load the car.”
On the other hand, she does say that while she, too, is “feeling really edgy about the election today,” she’s “not sure if Bella is feeling my pain.”
So maybe don’t worry about stressing your dog out too much today — after all, it’s kinda unavoidable.