Anyone who has lived with an anxious dog has probably wondered at some point ‘Is it my fault?’ or ‘Have I made them anxious?’. Some people will have been outright told that they are the cause of their dogs problems. But can we really be at fault for creating anxious dogs?
The idea of Emotional Contagion is a well-known phenomenon, as the name suggests, emotions are shared between people and our empathetic natures make us susceptible to feeling the emotions of other people.
Given that many breeds of dog have been selected for the ability to form close bonds with people and be attentive to their bonded people, it’s probably no surprise that they will be at risk of absorbing the emotional state of the people around them.
There have been many studies looking at whether personality traits of dog owners can correlate to behaviours of their dogs, whether the results are a true representation is unclear, but in multiple studies, owners who score low on the “emotional stability” personality trait, tended to have dogs with more behavioural issues, including anxiety, fear and aggression.
The cause and effect of this is harder to analyse. It could be due to anxious owners projecting their anxieties onto their pets, anxious people being more likely to choose a nervous dog, or neurotic owners taking an overprotective approach with their dogs and not positively exposing them to different situations. Most likely, it depends on the individual situation and relationship between dog and owner.
What does seem more conclusive is that anxious owners have anxious dogs, rather than anxious dogs having anxious owners, which suggests our dogs are more likely to pick up on our anxieties than we are to pick up on theirs.
This is by no means definite though, because anyone who has had traumatic experiences involving their dog is likely to experience anxiety in similar situations.
Do our anxieties make our dogs anxious?
Not being able to understand why your dog behaves in a certain way can increase feelings of anxiety for many dog owners and a feeling of apprehension when faced with situations which may trigger difficult behaviours from their dog. This can quickly spread and create increased anxiety about taking your dog out for a walk or more generalised anxiety if you feel your dog’s behaviour is unpredictable.
What’s important here is that having an understanding of your dog’s behaviour and their emotional state can reduce your own anxiety. The feeling of not being in control or not knowing how to handle a situation is a prime cause of anxiety, so simply having a plan of action and a better understanding of how to help your dog can relieve these trigger points.
If you’re panicking and unable to think clearly, your dog will pick up on your stress and you will also find it harder to give your dog the support they need. This is likely to lead to your dog displaying difficult behaviours because firstly their stress levels will increase with yours, and secondly without your direction, they are likely to deal with the situation themselves. You feeling relaxed won’t instantly fix your dog or take away their own anxieties, but if you are able to guide and support them, this can go a long way to improving their behaviour.
As an example, if your dog is fearful of other dogs and reacts with barking and lunging, you are likely to start to feel more anxious when faced with an approaching dog because you know your dog will react negatively. As a dog approaches, your heart rate speeds up, you hold tightly onto the lead, you might shout at the approaching dog (or your own if they start barking), you’re now feeling tense, stressed and panicked as the dog continues to approach. Your dog will be feeling all your stress, plus their own as they start to fear the approaching dog. With no other options, and no support from you, they will use their own behaviour to warn the dog away, usually this will result in barking, lunging and snapping, all of which are often effective strategies at scaring off an approaching dog.
If this scenario repeats a few times, you and your dog may start to feel anxious when seeing a dog at a much bigger distance or when you notice any possible warnings like hearing a jingling tag, hearing a dog bark, or when walking round a corner not knowing if there’s a dog the other side.
While in this example, the person isn’t CAUSING their dogs anxiety and fear, they certainly aren’t helping it.
If instead they had a clear plan and methods in place to use when faced with an approaching dog, for example, a ‘let’s go’ (quick U-turn cue), reliable walking eye contact, and a method of creating positive associations, like DMT, they would be able to rely on these strategies and therefore feel more in control about the whole situation.
Not only does this reduce the owners stress levels from increasing, it also means their dog is receiving support and their stress levels should remain lower too.
While internally the owner may still feel anxious and apprehensive, and their dog is likely to sense this, if on the outside they can work through the situation using well-practiced methods, it will hugely reduce the impact of emotional contagion and avoid stress levels spiralling for both.
If you’re finding your dog’s behaviour and anxieties are increasing your own stress levels or making you anxious, it’s important to seek help from a professional trainer. Finding a trainer or behaviourist who is experienced in the challenges you face will enable you to share your anxieties and create a plan of action. A good trainer will also help you understand why your dog is behaving in a certain way and give you the tools you need to support your dog.
When faced with a challenging situation, ideally either you or your dog needs to be able to remain in a good thinking state, allowing you to support each other without emotional contagion taking over. This becomes important if you are hoping to rely on your dog for support in situations which you find difficult.
The role of assistance dogs
Emotional contagion works both ways and when it comes to assistance dogs, they are often chosen for their ability to keep calm and controlled even if everyone around them is in disarray. That doesn’t mean they’re immune to human emotions, they will be highly in tune with them but they’re able to process and cope with those emotions without allowing them to take over.
This is essential if you need your dog to stay calm and help you when experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. Having your dog go into meltdown as they sense your emotional state isn’t going to allow them to remember their training and support you.
You could argue this comes down to training. Perhaps we have to teach our dogs to process our varying emotions and respond appropriately, but there’s no doubt some dogs will be naturally more capable of this than others.
An assistance dog who is completely oblivious to the emotional state of their handler is unlikely to be so skilled at providing emotional support or stepping in without the need of a cue when their handler is unable to communicate effectively.
An important attribute of most assistance dogs is their ability to ‘know’ what their handler needs them to do, without always being asked.
This is particularly relevant to dogs who are assisting with mental health conditions and will need to be able to understand the emotional state of their handler and take them to a safe place or offer to support to interrupt negative behaviours.
The key for these dogs is that they are able to respond and act in a calm state of mind, no matter what scenario they are faced with. When seeing their handler struggling to cope or being overwhelmed with anxiety and panic, the dog needs to be able to process these emotions, without being emotionally impacted themselves. By remaining calm, the dog is able to take action and support their handler.
It’s a pretty special skill when you think about it!
What can we do when emotional contagion occurs?
As well as having an understanding of your dog’s behaviour and training plans in place to help them, it’s important to make time to enjoy being with your dog and doing activities together which can relieve stress for you and your dog.
Many of us are likely to have experienced moments where we’re overwhelmed with stress and we notice our dog’s behaviour changing as a result. Some dogs are much more susceptible to this than others and it’s important to bear this in mind when considering why behaviours are happening.
Making time for other mutual activities like playing with your dog, stroking them and generally focusing on some one-on-one time with them can make a huge difference. We can often we so busy and distracted by daily life, we forget to just BE with our dogs.
Whether that’s breathing in the fresh air on a walk or cuddling them at home, taking these moments to focus on them in a stress-free situation will go a long way to reducing the stress shared between you.
If you have a dog who struggles to relax around other dogs or people, taking them for a quiet walk in a trigger-free environment can allow you to simply enjoy being together. Hiring a secure field can be perfect for this because you can be sure you can be free from any unwanted triggers.
When our dogs begin to add to our stress or anxiety in daily life, our relationships with them can become strained, and through no fault of their own, we can find the dog is one stress too much. It’s why so many dogs are rehomed, especially around stressful times of year like Christmas and New Year. Often it is the right decision to make when the stress and anxiety felt between dog-and-owner becomes unrepairable. But understanding WHY it’s happening or WHY your dog is displaying challenging behaviours might avoid this ultimate decision from happening.
Knowing you are not at fault for your dog’s behaviour is an important starting point, but also being aware of how your own emotional state can be felt strongly by your dog will give some indication of why they might be struggling too.
Written by Naomi White
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