Most emotions are contagious. We know this from our own experience. If we find a person who exudes enthusiasm and joy, we’re likely to end up infecting ourselves with his good vibrations. However, if we come across a person who, of the 10 minutes of conversation has used 9 in complaints and regrets, it’s likely that our state of mind falls almost at his level.
This emotional contagion is facilitated by our mirror neurons, which allow us to put ourselves in the place of the other and feel empathy. However, everything seems to indicate that emotional contagion is not exclusive to human beings. A study conducted at Linköping University revealed that our four-legged friends are also sensitive to our emotional states, especially stress.
The more you’re stressed, the more stressed will be your pet
These researchers analyzed how the lifestyle of people who live with dogs influences the level of stress of their pets. For this, they had 58 dogs and their owners and measured the level of stress for several months taking into account the concentration of cortisol, considered as the stress hormone by antonomasia.
The researchers found that the cortisol levels of the dog and its owner were synchronized, so that people with a high concentration of cortisol also had dogs that had a high level of cortisol.
However, the study went a step further. People also completed a questionnaire about their personality traits and another to indicate the character of their pets.
Thus it was appreciated that the personality traits of the owners were related to their level of stress, but there was no link between the character of the dogs and their reactions to stress.
People who scored higher on the scale of neuroticism, for example, were more likely to suffer a high level of stress and infect their dogs. On the contrary, people more open to experiences reported less stress and their pets were also more relaxed. These data suggest that dogs capture and reflect the stress of their owners.
The Social Intelligence of dogs: Pros and con
Dogs are very sensitive to human behavior and show great empathy. A study conducted at the University of Otago, for example, revealed that both people and dogs react with an increase in the level of cortisol when they hear a baby cry.
It is probable that this emotional contagion is due to the great Social Intelligence of the dogs. This is confirmed by an experiment carried out at the University of Milan in which it was proved that dogs, like young children, use social references to respond to stimuli from the environment. This means that, when they don’t have a response pattern for a new situation, that is, they don’t know what to do, they look to their owner for clues to how to react.
Dogs are not only able to capture our reactions and moods, but can also regulate their behavior based on these, taking into account these small signals – which often we send them unconsciously – to decide what to do in new situations.
That special sensitivity to our emotional states allowed dogs to live in harmony with us, to the point that we come to consider them our “best friends” and part of the family, but it also has a darker side as it makes them more vulnerable to our negative emotions, such as stress, which will also end up costing them in terms of psychological and physical health.
Sundman, A. et. Al. (2019) Long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners. Scientific Reports; 9: 7391.
Hooi, M. & Ruffman, T. (2014) Emotional contagion: Dogs and humans show a similar physiological response to human infant crying. Behavioural Processes; 108: 155-165.
Merola, I. et. Al. (2012) Dogs’Social Referencing towards Owners and Strangers. PLoS ONE; 7(10): e47653.