Thousands of years of co-evolution has made our dogs incredibly in tune with our emotional state — they are aware when we’re feeling happy, angry, anxious, or sad This ability is what endears them to us and is an essential part of our human-canine relationship. Yet many pet owners wonder if their anxiety is the cause of their pet’s anxiety.


Anxiety and depression are not contagious in the same sense as infections, such as the common cold or the flu. A person who has an anxiety disorder will not “give” their dog anxiety per se, but a dog that is already predisposed to anxiety might begin to exhibit symptoms more often, or at a more severe level, if their owner is also anxious. It’s helpful to make sure that we are addressing any anxiety of our own if we have a dog that suffers from separation anxiety, noise anxiety, travel anxiety, or other general anxieties. Not only is this important for our mental and physical health, but your dog will benefit as well — it’s a win-win!


How Do Dogs Sense Our Anxiety?


Dogs have learned over the last 40,000 years that the dog most responsive to human actions and moods is the one that gets the piece of meat tossed to them or the one to get the belly rubs. There are both obvious and subtle ways that dogs can sense our anxiety and stress.


Dogs Watch Our Body Language.


A dog needs to know how to “speak human” to get what they want or respond accordingly to our actions. While they can’t speak any verbal human language, they are experts in understanding human body language. They are quick to learn the association of specific actions we take and what happens afterward. If we start to put on our shoes, they know that it means you’re about to walk out the front door. When you unknowingly engage in anxious behaviors, such as biting your nails or tapping your fingers on the desk, your dog notices and associates that behavior with anxiousness that they can smell or hear in your voice. A dog’s ability to key into these subtle cues for anxiety is what therapy dog trainers look for and then teach a dog to interrupt with calming behaviors.


Body language is an integral part of regular obedience training with our dogs as well. Dogs learn that slight movements or hand signals mean different things and respond accordingly. There is a body language signal for every behavior that a dog learns, even if the person isn’t aware of it. You can see this in action if you’re practicing teaching your dog the Down cue. Stay still and say “down” just once. If they don’t move into the down position, lean forward slightly. In many cases where a dog is in the middle of learning Down on verbal cue only, this lean forward is all they need to know what it is you’re asking of them.


Dogs are experts at reading body language because it’s their primary form of communication with each other. Canine body language is quite nuanced — they learn that paying attention to often subtle things like tail position or a quick lick of the lips from another dog means the difference between getting to play or getting told to back off. It’s beneficial for people to learn how to read dog body language to be better able to spot signs of anxiety to treat the cause.


Dogs Listen to Our Voices.


Our dogs pay attention to the tone and pitch of our voice when we’re speaking. One study showed that dogs respond differently to vocalizations of happiness than to those that indicate fear or anger. When they recognize happy tones of voice, they engage in approach behavior, while the sound of a fearful or sad voice results in appeasement behavior or withdrawal.


The same study found that a dog’s heart rate increased when they heard fearful or sad vocalizations, meaning that their fight or flight response was engaged (also called the sympathetic nervous system). Comparatively, their heart rate decreased when they heard happy voices. By paying attention to the types of sounds we make, a dog can gauge our emotional status and respond accordingly. If a dog predisposed to anxiety hears their owner speaking in an anxious tone, it can trigger a physiological response that puts their nervous system on high alert.


Dogs Smell Emotional Changes.


When we feel a particular emotion, our body is responding to the release of certain chemicals, such as adrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin. A dog’s sense of smell is capable of picking up the presence of these chemicals through our sweat or on our breath. They notice when there’s a change in the level of the stress hormone cortisol and might respond with trying to calm their owner or becoming anxious themselves. This amazing sniffing ability is being used to train seizure or diabetic alert dogs, and even dogs trained to alert to the smell of cancer in the human body. There’s even a “stress detection” dog.


Dogs Pay Attention to How We’re Touching Them.


The sense of touch also plays a role in helping a dog determine their owner’s emotional state. If you are petting your dog in a slow and gentle motion, it indicates and promotes relaxation. If you’re trying to get your dog more excited or riled up about something, often petting them faster increases arousal levels. Your dog will associate certain types of petting from you with the emotional state they observe you in and will begin to respond to those types of touch in certain ways. For some dogs, this means more interaction with you to help you calm down, but for others, certain types of petting will trigger their anxiety.


Address Your Stress and Anxiety to Help Your Anxious Dog


People respond differently to stress and anxiety, as do dogs. Recently there have been illuminating studies into how dogs and their owners mirror each other’s stress levels by measuring cortisol levels over time. Owners that were overall more anxious, a trait called neuroticism, had consistently higher levels of cortisol, as did their dogs. What’s important to note is not that there were elevated levels of cortisol, but that the levels of cortisol remained high and didn’t drop back down — there was no cortisol variability.


It’s normal for cortisol levels to spike during stressful situations to help us take needed action, but this is where coping skills play an important part. To maintain a healthy balance, the body needs to be able to process stress and then calm down afterward, flushing excess cortisol and other stress hormones out of its system. Less anxious people (and their dogs) had higher variability of cortisol levels, meaning their body was able to cope with stress and return to a state of calm. More anxious people and their pets didn’t have this fluctuation — their bodies stayed stressed over time, which isn’t healthy in the long term.


Chronically high levels of cortisol have been attributed to anxiety disorders, digestive issues, fatigue, heart disease, and weight gain. If you feel anxious, working on it won’t just help you, but can help your dog, too! Our pets are looking to us for cues on how to react to certain situations. If you’re able to show calm and resiliency after a stressful or anxiety-inducing situation, your dog will have a great example to follow. Connect with a health professional to find ways to address any anxiety you might be experiencing.


Ways to Help Prevent Transferring Anxiety to Your Dog


Some easy ways to limit any transfer of stress or anxiety to your pet include:




Spend time every day engaging in fun play with your dog. Dogs are playful creatures, and they are great at bringing out our child-like behavior, which is a great stress reliever! Games like Hide-and-Seek, Tug-o-War, Fetch are great opportunities to build the relationship you have with your dog and let off any steam for both of you.


Keeping a Routine


Being predictable helps an anxious dog by providing structure and taking away uncertainty. By maintaining a routine every day with mealtimes, walks, playtime, training sessions, etc., a dog not only knows what to expect and feels less anxious, but they also get lots of mental enrichment and physical activity. If you have an unpredictable schedule, and you believe it’s a part of why your dog is anxious, connect with a certified training professional to address positively introducing a varied routine.


Practice Coping Skills


Coping skills for people and dogs are important when dealing with stress or something like separation anxiety. For a dog, positive coping skills include releasing tension with chewing on designated toys or going to their safe space. People can practice positive coping skills by using a variety of things, such as deep breathing, meditation, finding a support group, or increasing exercise. Mental health is important to address for better overall health, for both dogs and people — by practicing healthy coping skills in your own life, your dog will be able to better cope with stress as well.