Emotional Contagion

Dogs affected by state of their guardians
By Karen B. London PhD, November 2014

Emotional contagion is the trigger of an emotional response due to perceiving a similar emotional state in another individual. Emotional contagion has been studied extensively in birds, primates and dogs, among other animals. It is generally more pronounced between individuals who know each other than between strangers.

Emotional contagion occur between dogs and people. There is evidence that dogs are sensitive to their guardians’ emotions and that dogs’ behavior is influenced by the emotional expression of those guardians. It has been suggested that dogs have “affective empathy” towards people. That is, dogs can actually feel the emotional experiences of humans, including stress.

Stress has an interesting influence on memory in both humans and non-humans. The effect of stress on memory follows an inverted U-shaped curve. This means that as stress goes up to moderate levels, tasks that rely on memory improve, but as stress increases further, memory tasks are impaired.

In the recent study Emotional contagion in dogs as measured by change in cognitive task performance published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, researchers investigated the role of stress and emotional contagion between dogs and people on performance in memory-related tasks.

Each dog was randomly assigned to one of three groups—stressed guardian, non-stressed guardian or stressed dog. The direct manipulation of canine stress levels allowed researchers to compare whether stress by emotional contagion had a similar affect as direct stress on the dogs’ performances. Dogs’ stress levels were increased by briefly separating them from their guardians.

Researchers experimentally manipulated the anxiety levels of people and then recorded their responses to a word list memory task. Stress levels were manipulated by giving the person mainly positive or mostly negative feedback during the experiment. Researchers recorded changes in dogs’ responses to memory tasks after guardians were stressed or not stressed as well as after directly manipulating dogs’ stress levels.

Stressed guardians performed better in the memory task than non-stressed guardians. Dogs improved their performance on memory tasks after they were stressed and after their guardians were stressed. Dogs in the non-stressed guardian group showed no such improvement. This study shows that guardian anxiety affects by and has a positive affect on dogs’ ability to perform well on a memory-related task.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.