Can Your Dog Catch Your Anxiety?

Jan 02, 2023 |

Taken from the course 'Grid Walk & Bond'

Can your dog 'catch' your anxiety?

Let me begin by saying anxiety is necessary, it is not an illness or something you should be ashamed of or blamed for. It is the thing that stops us jumping like lemmings from tall buildings, walking into traffic or walking out of a job when we have a mortgage to pay.

So the question of ‘can you catch anxiety’ is a grey area and we need to look at what anxiety is? It’s not a singular thing, but really a collective term for your body’s fight, freeze or flight response to a threat.

When doing its job correctly, it is the gift that nature gave us to keep us safe. For those of you that enjoy going down google rabbit holes in the name of research it is the sympathetic division that fires off a very complex chain of events. The amygdala sends a signal and like soldiers ready for action, a complex network inside your body jumps to attention.

Once the threat has passed the parasympathetic division of your nervous system like nurses are able to get your tiny soldiers to stand down, and calm you by slowing your heartbeat and returning equilibrium.

So in short you have a thought, that thought creates a feeling. If it’s fear that feeling creates a sequence of biological effects which in turn creates a psychological effect, aka emotions that may not be stable or balanced.

Let’s break it down:

  • Anxiety itself as an umbrella term is not an issue for dogs.

  • Dogs however can detect cancer, drugs and changes in hormones. And they can smell our fear, they can also smell happiness and confidence.

  • In an experiment by a team of researchers headed by neurobiologist Biagio D’Aniello of the University of Naples “Federico II.” scent donors were exposed to videos that would make them happy, or videos that would make them scared. The dogs were fitted with heart monitors and those exposed to the scent from the scared donors had a faster heartbeat. They also showed more signs of stress than the dogs exposed to the happy sweat scent.

  • This is where the grey area comes in. Anxiety as a sequence of events does affect those around you, especially our dogs that are non verbal so have a heightened ability to read body language and visual cues, have acute hearing and 125-300 million olfactory receptors compared to our 400 scent receptors.

  • Anxiety disorders can occur when a human or hound are exposed to long term stress, have PTSD or any other trauma. This means those soldiers struggle to stand down and are constantly on alert and our cells and immune systems are affected.

As a human hound coach I want to know how you feel in any given situation with your dog that we happen to be working on. The words that come to mind for you are likely to be anxious, stressed or frustrated. So those are the terms we use for your collective feelings. I will then go to work reverse engineering and breaking everything down to find a point to work from. What coach in their right mind would tell you how wrong you are and begin explaining in depth neuroscience to you, when all you want is to feel calm and safe.

The good news is any contagion (transfer of emotions from you to your dog) is transient. This means it is only present in that current situation. For example if your dog is scared of cars and you are walking beside a road and becoming stressed the mix of both of your emotions needs to be balanced. Do remember however that your dog does not have the cognitive processing skills that you do and it can take time for them to decompress after a stress.

When you Grid Walk and Bond together, you are dealing with one moment at a time. You are desensitising to external stimuli, using the tools you’ve been given by your coach. You are both building trust and confidence step by step, moment by moment.