4 Ways You Don't Realize You're Stressing Your Dog Out

by Mia Mercado
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Anyone who’s ever been near a dog knows that our four-legged friends can often help ease our stress. Research has shown that emotional support animals can help us cope with things like anxiety, loneliness, stress, and general nervousness. However, while cuddling up to your pooch you may wonder, with all that anxious, nervous, stressed out energy, are we stressing our dogs out? In some cases, the answer may be “yes.”

You may remember a story a couple of years back about how we shouldn’t be hugging out dogs as it causes them distress. The internet responded with a resounding “NOOOoooo!” at the idea of not being able to snuggle our furry little floofs. However, multiple news outlets pointed out that science didn’t “prove” that dogs hate hugs as the data being referenced was based on “a set of casual observations” in an op-ed. In other words, the phrase “don’t hug your dog” was not published in any peer-reviewed paper.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean all dogs are super down for a hug. “I would advise against hugging dogs, at least in the conventional human form of hugging,” Evan MacLean, co-director of Duke's Canine Cognition Center, told the Washington Post. “This is essentially a primate behavior (for example, we see similar embraces in nonhuman apes), but not something that dogs do with one another naturally. However, there are lots of ways to have close body contact with dogs that don’t require wrapping your arms around them in a confining manner.”

There’s a lot in play when we talk about whether a dog is “stressed,” from environment to past trauma. However, there are some telltale signs to look for based on research and expert recommendation. Here are four things you do that may be causing your pup some stress.


Feeling Stressed Out Yourself

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One recently published study suggests dogs mirror our stress. “If the owner is stressed, then the dog is also likely to mirror that stress,” Lina Roth, a professor at Linkoping University in Sweden and an author of the new study published Nature’s Scientific Reports, told NPR. The study focused specifically on measuring levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) in dogs.

Researches found that dogs’ cortisol levels appear to mirror the personality traits of their respective owners. “It was the owner’s personality that influenced the dog’s hair cortisol level, rather than the dog's personality itself,” Roth said to NPR.

Of course, saying “don’t be stressed” does little to actually lower your own stress levels, often quite the opposite. In turn, telling someone “don’t be stressed because it’s making your dog stressed” isn’t the most helpful bit of information. However, Roth clarified that this should be cause for concern among pet owners. “I don’t think you should be anxious that, if you’re stressed, you might harm your dog,” Roth says, whose research doesn’t extend to any long-term effects dog owners’ stress may have on their pets. “Instead, your dog is a social support for you, and you are a social support for the dog.”


Leaving Your Dog Alone Too Much

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This is a big one for dogs with separation anxiety as the name "separation anxiety" might suggest. There are breeds of dogs (and just dogs with chill ass personalities) that are totally fine hanging by themselves. However, if your dog shows signs of anxiety in other situations, leaving them alone for too long may cause heightened levels of distress.

Per the American Kennel Club, around 14% of dogs experience separation anxiety. That distress around an owner leaving can manifest in your dog peeing where they shouldn’t, wrecking furniture, and barking. There are plenty of anxiety medications and treatments that exist, and the American Kennel Club suggests talking to your pet’s vet if you’re concerned about your dog’s anxiousness.


Being Nervous In Social Situations

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Similar to how dogs seem to mirror their owners’ stress levels, the way a dog’s owner acts in a social situation can indicate how their dog will behaves as well. One study from 2017 on cortisol levels and dog-owner interactions found that how a pet owner behaves in a social situation can correlate with their relationship with their pet. “Our findings confirm previous results that the owner’s relationship towards other humans is reflected in the owner-dog relationship,” the study states. In particular, owner’s who display less sensitivity caregiving roles with humans “may be more likely to have dogs with an insecure attachment style.”

“We suggest that both owner and dog social characteristics influence dyadic cortisol variability,” the study state, “with the human partners being more influential than the dog.” Again, saying “don’t be nervous” likely does little to calm a person’s nerves. However, if you notice a fluctuation in your dog’s stress and anxiety, it may be worth asking whether you, too, have been feeling stressed or anxious.


Giving Too Many Commands

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“Personality has been shown to affect social relationships between humans,” the introduction for one 2014 study on dog and owner characteristics states, “and human personality has been shown to affect human–dog interaction in different ways.”

One personality trait that may impact your dog’s behavior? Higher neuroticism. Per one 2012 study, “Owners scoring higher on neuroticism and openness used more commands (gestural and verbal) when asking the dog to sit, and the dogs of owners higher on neuroticism obeyed with a longer latency and spent more time looking at the stranger.”

While this study is not saying your neuroses are making your dog neurotic, it does suggest that those neuroses may manifest in a way that causes your dog confusion or stress. The American Kennel Club recommends giving your dog one command at a time if they are having trouble listening to or learning your commands.

Again, none of these studies suggest you're causing your pet permanent harm when feeling a little stressed out. If they're showing signs of stress, a little extra positive attention, perhaps a gentle hug, might help.