You may joke that your pooch knows you better than anyone else in the world, but science might back the punchline up.
Human owners can share a special, intense bond with their dogs. Perhaps a little too intense, according to a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, which finds an interesting relationship between human stress and dogs’ stress levels — depending in part on breed type and personality factors.
“The owner and her [or] his long-term stress levels seem to affect different breed groups to different degrees,” Lina Roth, a co-author on the study and a senior lecturer at Linköping University, tells Inverse.
Do dogs and pet owners share personality traits?
In her team’s recent study, Roth asked owners to complete a Big 5 personality test, which surveys five key personality traits in dogs and humans. These are:
- Openness to experiences
- Neuroticism or emotional stability
Roth’s study looks at three kinds of domesticated dogs, including solitary hunting dogs, herding dogs bred for human companionship, and ancient dog breeds that are more closely related to wolves.
Roth didn’t find considerable personality differences among the owners of the different dog types — with one exception. Openness varied considerably among dog owners of different kinds of dogs, with owners whose pet dog came from an ancient dog breed scoring highest on the scale for openness to experiences. Essentially, these owners seemed to be most predisposed to trying new things or new ideas.
Curiously, high scores for openness in owners were linked to higher stress levels in hunting and herding dogs, suggesting perhaps that humans with this personality trait may be best-suited to — and naturally seek out — ancient dog breeds.
Hunting dogs come with their own unique personality-stress pairings, the study also finds.
“We also found that owners to solitary hunting dogs that scored high on the trait ‘agreeableness’ had dogs with low long-term stress levels. Hence, more friendly hunters might have calmer dogs,” Roth says.
Ultimately, Roth’s study found that human personality traits don’t influence the relationship between pet owner and dog all that much, but her study seems to be an exception to past scientific consensus. Previous research suggests that human personality traits affect dogs much more than dog personalities affect their humans.
There is evidence of a more direct link between human personality types and dog behavior. A January 2021 study, for example, found the following links between some of the same five human personality traits listed above and dog behavior:
- Owner conscientiousness was linked to less aggressive dog behavior toward strangers
- More extroverted owners had dogs that displayed less fear
- Humans that were more open to experiences also reduced their dogs’ fear levels
From this study, it seems an ideal owner may be one that is conscientious, outgoing, and open to new things. But of course, we can’t all be perfect.
How does human stress affect dogs?
Researchers have known for a few years now that human stress can negatively affect pet dogs.
Roth’s own research has shown that dogs tend to mirror their human owner’s emotions.
“We suggest that dogs, to a great extent, mirror the stress level of their owners,” Roth’s team writes in the previous research.
Specifically, they found that herding dogs, in particular, synchronize their long-term stress levels with those of their owners. Roth’s more recent study describes this relationship between human stress and dogs as “emotional contagion.”
Since dogs mirror human emotions, our emotional stability — or lack thereof — can significantly affect our fluffy friends.
One study finds that dog owners with higher levels of agreeableness also have higher levels of variability in cortisol – the stress hormone — which indicates greater emotional stability. The opposite was found in owners with greater degrees of neuroticism.
Another study of dogs found that the pups performed worse on tasks when their humans scored higher on the “neurotic” trait measure of the Big Five personality test. Conversely, Roth’s previous study found lower stress levels in dogs whose humans scored higher in “conscientiousness” and “openness.”
Finally, Roth’s recent research suggests that human “stress-related personality traits such as fear and aggression influence” dog stress.
How do you help a stressed dog?
Stressed or anxious dogs will express certain behaviors, which can include:
- Excessive barking
- Urinating or pooping around the home
If your pet is exhibiting any of these behaviors, it’s best to try to calm them down and call your vet.
Since we now understand how dogs mirror human emotions, one of the best things you can do for your distressed pup is to keep your own stress levels in check.
But reducing your own stress may not always be possible. Or perhaps your dog is stressed for reasons unrelated to your moods, such as medical illnesses or a change in living situation.
In that case, pet experts suggest a few tricks and good habits that can help to calm down a stressed dog.
According to Roth, her previous research “found significant associations between play and low stress levels,” so regularly playing with your dog may be a good first step to alleviating canine stress. It will also help boost your own relationship with your dog.
On a similar note, exercise is a good catch-all recommendation for reducing stress in dogs, according to the VCA. Try taking your dog for longer or more regular walks if at all possible.
Music therapy, calming T-shirts, and massages are also recommended to help with short-term stress in dogs. Studies are also being conducted now on whether CBD oil — cannabidiol — could have a similar calming effect on dogs as it does for humans.
But when in doubt, consult a veterinarian before trying out any new treatments or regimens on your pets. Veterinarians may prescribe anxiety-reducing medications for your dog in certain circumstances.
How do you choose the right dog for your personality type?
Of the three dog types examined in Roth’s study, one dog type was most susceptible to their owners’ personality types. Her study finds that: “Owner personality traits influenced the solitary hunting breeds more than ancient breeds.”
Common hunting dog breeds include beagles, retrievers, pit bull terriers, English setters, and German shorthaired pointers.
Hunting dogs, bred for hunting and not human companionship, score significantly higher on one metric Roth used in their study, which is known as “perceived cost.” Perceived cost correlates to higher long-term stress in dogs.
“These results could be important in these days when more people buy dogs while working from home. If not aware of the extra ‘work’ that comes with keeping a dog the perceived cost might be high and negatively affect the dogs long-term stress and hence, welfare.”
“While the ancient dog breeds are least affected by the owner, the stress levels of solitary hunting dogs show significant associations to the owners’ personality traits,” she adds.
So, if you’re not willing to put in some extra work and emotional labor in raising your pet, then you may want to refrain from choosing a hunting dog breed.
An ancient dog breed may be better suited for you since they are less affected by the volatility of human nature. But herding dogs also have their benefits, as they have been specifically bred for human cooperation, according to Roth’s study.
Finally, as far as dogs in general go, Roth’s study found close associations between emotional closeness — between dog and human — and dogs that score higher on excitability on the personality questionnaire.
When in doubt, consider looking up information on a dog’s breed type on a reputed site, such as the American Kennel Club, and decide whether a breed is right for you. A personality mismatch could lead to long-term stress for you — and your pup.