Let's get one thing out of the way - your anxiety isn't contagious per se. It's not as though your dog "catches" your anxiety. That said, your dog is your best friend and they are perceptive, can pick up on your energy and often end up mirroring whatever energy you're putting out into the world.
Research shows that as we humans become stressed, our bodies release cortisol, a stress hormone. Our dogs when they are stressed begin to do the same thing by releasing cortisol into their bodies. Research out of Sweden found that though cortisol itself is not contagious, a human who has high cortisol and is therefore highly stressed is likely to also have a dog who mirrors their same high levels of cortisol. This isn't because your cortisol is contagious, but because whatever stress you're feeling on the inside begins to manifest on the outside via anxious cues such as nail biting, sweating, irritability, pacing, etc. Your dog then picks up on those cues and begins to feel stressed themselves, taking on your stress as their own because they care about you and you're they person.
There are a couple of really fascinating takeaways from this study though that shouldn't lead you to panic:
- If you are a naturally anxious or neurotic person, do not let this detract you from adopting a dog. There is an abundance of research that shows that dogs can help alleviate anxiety in humans. In a survey of pet owners, 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements from pet ownership, and 75% of pet owners reported a friend’s or family member’s mental health has improved from pet ownership. Dogs can help alleviate stress, anxiety, depression and signs of loneliness and social isolation. So don't let your anxiety deter you from bringing a dog into your life for fear of making them anxious as well. Most science shows that dogs are a super calming, supportive presence.
- What's also cool about this idea isn't that you can make your dog anxious, but rather how the social and personality characteristics of you and your dog interact. How you respond and react to certain siutations shapes your dog's personality and behavior. In my mind, that's kind of cool. Your dog's personality isn't fixed, but rather the two of you work together as a team and have the ability to shape each other. Yes, on the downside that could mean sharing in stress. But on the upside, you also have the ability to shape your dog's life in such positive ways. At the end of the day, it's about your relationship with one another and your ability to play off of one another's personalities that make this bond so special.
- You have control over how your dog responds to stressful situations. Things like visiting the vet or thunderstorms or changes in your dog's environment can all lead to stress. But there are tangible things that you can do in your behavior to help calm your dog such as remaining calm yourself, showing them they can rely on you, maintaining a composed demeanor and showing them that certain things are no big deal by giving no reaction. You have the ability to help manage your dog's stress and that's incredibly empowering.
If you're wondering how to figure out if your dog is feeling stressed or anxious and what you can do about it, we have resources that help pinpoint stressed behaviors and tactics you can use to keep your dog calm over here.