The existence of the canine empath is not a science fiction hypothesis. Several studies have shown that dogs can sense and contract stress from their owners.
Do dogs perceive their owners’ stress? That they can do this and feel other emotions is something we all suspect. If you ask any dog owner, they will tell you that they know when their pet is sad or happy. Sound and facial expressions are a universal language, therefore, communication between dogs and humans shouldn’t surprise us.
What is fascinating is knowing that, in addition to perceiving the emotional states of their owners, dogs can somehow be “infected” by generating physiological responses depending on the situation.
Stress is defined as a feeling of physical or emotional tension. It must be distinguished into two types: one chronic and the other acute.
- The stress acute physiological response is quite normal. The body of living things reacts to possible dangerous situations by releasing certain hormones.
- Chronic stress occurs when the body perceives signs of danger and discomfort even if there is no real reason to experience these sensations. This type of stress can last for days, weeks or months.
This sensation has a hormonal basis and is clearly associated with the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol improves the use of glucose in the brain, increases the availability of tissue repair substances, alters the responses of the immune system and affects proper digestive function.
All of these physiological mechanisms (and many others) have a clear function: to direct resources to prioritize an individual’s fight-or-flight responses. But how are the levels of these hormones related to the behavior of a dog and its owner?
Dogs perceive the stress of their owners
A study sought to clarify the relationship between the stress of a number of domestic dogs and the emotional state of their owners. To do this, these steps were followed:
- 58 pairs of dogs and owners were monitored and cortisol levels measured in both humans and dogs in two different seasons of the year (summer and winter).
- The results were compared with the personality traits of the owners and with the lifestyle of each of the dogs.
- The experiment showed a clear correlation between the dog’s cortisol levels and those of the owner depending on his personality and the time of year.
Incredible as it may seem, the levels of this hormone in dogs were not conditioned by physical activity, but rather by the emotional state of their owners.
The more neurotic, nervous and suspicious owners had higher stress levels which caused their dog to have a higher concentration of cortisol. This shows that dogs, in addition to detecting people’s emotions, make them their own.
This phenomenon is known as “emotional contagion” (emotional contagion) and responds to a mechanism by which you try empathy and emotions are shared between two or more individuals, either explicitly or implicitly.
We must remember that the owner is the central element in a dog’s life, therefore, the dog is much more influenced by his owner than vice versa. After all, people have other social relationships besides those living in the house, while dogs have only us.
Beyond the facial expression
But with dogs we go further. Various studies claim that dogs are able to “smell” hormonal changes in humans. This would explain, for example, why they change their behavior when they meet a pregnant woman.
In addition to recognizing our facial expressions, these animals can sense changes in our hormone levels.
For example, they recognize the levels of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine (substances produced when one is happy) and can unequivocally interpret the emotional state of the owner. It is for this reason that dogs also perceive the stress of their owners.
Dogs perceive the stress of their owners: a shared emotion…
As you have seen, canine empathy is something real. Studies have shown that dogs are able to perceive their owners’ emotions far beyond their facial expression. And the surprising thing is that they can be “infected”.
For all these reasons, the dog is in effect a member of the family. If it does not occur to us to scream in front of a small child, why should we do it in the presence of the animal?