What Your Dog Reveals About Your Stress, Health and Behavior

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog and owner bond

Story at-a-glance -

  • When you and your dog look at each other, levels of the hormone oxytocin — sometimes described as the love hormone — increase in both you and your dog
  • Dogs can discriminate between emotional expressions on human faces and body postures
  • Dogs distinguish between the verbal and emotional components of speech and process emotional cues and meanings of words in different hemispheres of the brain, similar to humans
  • Dogs and their owners have synchronized long-term stress levels, and dogs are more likely to be overweight if their owners are, too

Dogs have an uncanny way of weaving themselves into our hearts, and it’s not just because they’re cuddly or cute. When you look in a dog’s eyes, you may feel a sense of understanding and kinship that’s hard to describe, and the feeling is prevalent among dog owners. The 2018 Pets and People Survey, which involved more than 1,000 dog owners, revealed 95% view their dog as part of the family, 62% say their dog helps them de-stress after work and 55% believe their dog gives them emotional comfort if they’ve received bad news.1

In fact, dogs engage in “human-like modes of communication,” such as mutual gazing. When you and your dog look at each other, levels of the hormone oxytocin — sometimes described as the love hormone — increase in both you and your dog.2 The warm feelings from oxytocin serve to reinforce the attachment you feel, and this is only the beginning of the intense connections felt between dogs and people.

Dogs Recognize Human Emotions

If it seems like your dog knows what you’re thinking, it’s because he’s likely in tune with your emotional state. Dogs can discriminate between emotional expressions on human faces and body postures. For instance, research published in Biology Letters found dogs recognize both dog and human emotions.3

In one study, dogs were shown human faces with happy and playful expressions or angry and aggressive expressions, paired with a positive, negative or neutral vocalization.

The dogs looked significantly longer at the faces that matched up to the appropriate vocalization, which is an ability previously thought to be distinct to humans. According to the study, the fact that dogs are able to gain emotional information from both visual and auditory cues, and use them to perceive emotions, is significant:4

“It is likely that dogs possess at least the mental prototypes for emotional categorization (positive versus negative affect) and can recognize the emotional content of these expressions. Moreover, dogs performed in this way without any training or familiarization with the models, suggesting that these emotional signals are intrinsically important.”

Dogs May Process Speech Like You Do

Dogs often watch your every move, paying attention to the emotional cues in your voice and those indicated via your body language. They can distinguish between the verbal and emotional components of speech and process emotional cues and meanings of words in different hemispheres of the brain, similar to humans.5

At the same time, while your dog is intently listening to you, owners also understand their dog’s barks. For instance, in a study involving a Hungarian dog breed called Mudi,6 researchers recorded the dogs barking in six distinct situations, including:7

A stranger at the door

A “bad guy” triggering aggression

An owner picking up the dog’s leash for a walk

The dog left alone while tied to a tree

Playing tug-of-war with his owner

The owner holding a toy near the dog

The recordings were then played for 36 people, who were able to categorize the barks according to the dogs’ likely emotions at the time (playful, fearful or aggressive).

Study author Péter Pongrácz, Ph.D., of Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, told the American Psychological Association dogs are “a very special, man-created animal," adding, "It was shaped during many tens of thousands of years of domestication to live with people, so it's not surprising that this type of communication should exist."8 Karen B. London, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist and certified professional dog trainer, agreed, telling Bark:9

“Just as we understand dog vocalizations, they are able to make sense of ours, and are responsive to our tone of voice as well as our words. In both human and canine brains, the same area of the temporal lobe responds to human speech; crying and laughing, as well as canine whimpers and intense barking, cause activity near the primary auditory cortex of both species.

So, it’s a simple biological fact that physiologically, visually, acoustically and cerebrally, humans and dogs just get each other. The closeness we feel to dogs is a natural outcome of that biological connection.”

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Dogs and Owners Have Synchronized Stress Levels

Dogs and their owners are so connected that even their stress levels are similar. While it’s previously been demonstrated that acute stress episodes are “contagious” among humans as well as among other species, researchers looked into the long-term stress levels of 58 dog-owner pairs.

Significant correlations were found in long-term stress levels among the humans and their dogs. Further, certain human personality traits — namely neuroticism, conscientiousness and openness, significantly affected dogs’ stress levels, as measured by hair cortisol concentrations. According to the study, “Hence, we suggest that dogs, to a great extent, mirror the stress level of their owners.”10

Veterinarians also commonly observe that pet parents often display many of the same health conditions as their pets, such as obesity or heart problems, which may be linked to similarities in processed food diets or lack of activity.11

“The trend of processed foods and everything that occurs with industrialization is making us both sick,” Dr. Joseph Bartges, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia, told the Seattle Times, adding, “As veterinarians, we often see pets who have the same health issues as their human companions or who are sentinels for a human health problem.”12

Dogs, for instance, are more likely to be overweight if their owners are, too.13 The good news is that having a dog in your life is beneficial to your health, physically and mentally. People who own dogs have a lower risk of heart disease and a lower risk of premature death than non-dog owners, with the benefit being particularly pronounced among singles.14

What’s more, for those struggling with mental illness, pets provide a distraction from distressing symptoms, facilitate daily routine and exercise, and offer acceptance and unconditional love. The data is so convincing that researchers have concluded:15

Pets should be considered a main rather than a marginal source of support in the management of long-term mental health problems.”

In case there were any doubt, the close ties between humans and their dogs continue to be revealed, but if you’re a dog owner, you don’t need to be told that — just go spend time with your dog, and you’ll readily feel it!