Dr. Karen DeBraal talks of emotional contagion, based on a recent study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science Emotional contagion in dogs as measured by change in cognitive task performance. To quote: ‘Emotional contagion is the trigger of an emotional response due to perceiving a similar emotional state in another individual.’
Through my work I have extensive personal evidence that dogs are super-sensitive to their humans’ emotions and that they are strongly influenced by whether they are stressed and anxious, or calm and happy. As DeBraal puts it, it has been suggested that dogs have ‘affective empathy’ towards people – they actually feel the emotional experiences of humans, including stress.
What is interesting is that it seems that as stress goes up to to a certain extent, tasks that rely on memory actually improve – the ability to learn improves. This study shows that guardian anxiety, which causes a degree of stress in their dog, has a positive affect on a dog’s ability to perform well on a memory-related task.
This seems to oppose the evidence that stressed dogs are in no mental state to learn. That’s because it’s a question of degree of stress.
In an article, Sara Reusche describes the affects of extreme stress on dogs and learning: ‘Extreme stress can make learning difficult or even impossible, and can have seriously detrimental effects on the body. Alternatively, without some stress, growth and personal improvement is impossible. A wise trainer pays attention to his or her dog’s stress level and adjusts the environment, demands on the dog, and expectations appropriately’.
I used to play the piano in festival competitions when I was young. Without a bit of stress and adrenalin I would not give my best performance. However, I remember on occasiona as a child being paralised with fear, physically sick and unable to play at all.
I have recently been to two quite dramatic cases of dogs affected by their closest human’s state of mind. Here is the story of the little dog with an invisible umblical attached to the lady, and another story of human frustation and anxiety being mirrored in her dog’s actions.
To go to my main website with many more stories of dogs I have been to, their problems and the approach I have taken, see www.dogidog.co.uk