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Does stress run through the leash? An examination of stress transmission between owners and dogs during a walk

Abstract

Humans and dogs have co-evolved for over 10,000 years. Recent research suggests that, through the domestication process, dogs have become proficient at responding to human commands, attention and emotional states. However, the extent to which a companion dog responds to human emotions, such as stress, remains to be understood. This study examines whether a companion dog’s stress, as measured by cortisol levels and heart rate, increases during a familiar outdoor walk in response to its owner’s experience of stress. Sixty-eight owner/dog dyads participated in this study. The dyads were randomly assigned to an Experimental or Control group. Owners in the Experimental group were informed the walk would be digitally recorded for subsequent evaluation of their handling skills, whereas those in the Control group were informed the walk would be digitally recorded for archival purposes (no evaluation). This manipulation was implemented to induce a mild stress response in the owners. Salivary cortisol samples were collected from the owner and their dog before and after the walk. The dyad was also fitted with monitoring devices to record heart rate throughout the walk. Finally, personality information regarding the owner and their dog was collected. We found that cortisol production within the dyad showed a marginal inverse correlation. We also found that owners’ Openness to Experience and dogs’ Fearfulness influenced the heart rate of the other during the first minute of a walk. These results support that although stress may be detected within a dyad, this does not result in an associated significant change in cortisol or heart rate.

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Acknowledgements

The study reported here was in partial fulfillment of the requirements for Bachelor’s of Science Honors degrees to Candace Briggs and Shane Thiessen. Research support was provided by a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Discovery grant (RGPIN/4944-2017) and Canada Research Chair to Debbie M. Kelly. We thank Kevin Leonard and Parisa Sepehri for assistance with data collection and Alizée Vernouillet for statistical advice.

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Correspondence to Debbie M. Kelly.

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Harvie, H., Rodrigo, A., Briggs, C. et al. Does stress run through the leash? An examination of stress transmission between owners and dogs during a walk. Anim Cogn 24, 239–250 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-020-01460-6

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-020-01460-6

Keywords

  • Stress
  • Cortisol
  • Heart rate
  • Dog
  • Human