When Stress Travels Down the Leash

By Haley J. Silas

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Working in a busy canine therapy program at the University of British Columbia (UBC) has taught me a lot about how dogs can positively impact the well-being of humans. The studies run in UBC’s Building Academic Retention through K9’s (B.A.R.K.) program have shown significant reductions in students’ homesickness (Binfet & Passmore, 2016) and stress levels (Binfet, 2017) and increases in their affinity to campus – how much they feel a part of the campus community (Binfet et al., 2016). With upwards of 60 dogs and handlers working in the various programs offered by B.A.R.K., I’ve also seen how human well-being can impact canine behavior.

Emotional Contagion in Action. Are dogs susceptible to it?

Emotional contagion, a phenomenon when the emotional state of one individual passes to others in the same shared environment (Huber et al., 2017), has been identified in human-to-human interactions. It has been studied in interactions between spouses (Lavee & Ben-Ari, 2007), in employees and customers (Albrecht & Weyerer, 2012), and in teachers and students (Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2016). Findings from my recent B.A.R.K. study (currently under review) on canine stress in working therapy dogs suggest the possibility of emotional contagion in human-to-dog interactions. In a sample of 40 canine therapy teams (comprising a volunteer handler and his/her therapy dog) and using self-ratings of handler stress and observational ratings of canine stress (by a researcher in the lab, the handler, and student clients visiting stations), correlational findings indicated that those handlers who arrived to a session with elevated stress were more likely to have therapy dogs whose stress levels were elevated at the end of the session. Based on these correlational findings, we cannot say for sure that the handler’s stress is traveling down the leash to the dog. In other words, we have not yet established that the handler’s stress is causing increases in the dog’s stress. However, this finding is in contrast to the typical pattern we found for therapy dogs who, for the most part, did not experience changes in their pre-to-post session stress levels and whose overall stress levels were low. These findings provide initial evidence to suggest that emotional contagion may be an important factor affecting the well-being of therapy dogs.  

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The Importance of Canine Stress Education

Increasingly the field of Human-Animal Interactions has emphasized the importance of safeguarding the welfare of the animals working in sessions (Evans & Gray, 2012; Hatch, 2007; Iannuzzi & Rowan, 2015). To increase awareness around canine well-being and to educate the clients making use of the B.A.R.K. program at UBC, we initiated a Canine Stress Education Campaign.  This consisted of a short animated video (in production currently), handler training on identifying canine stress indicators during our orientation sessions, and the creation of a user-friendly educational poster to help educate students around the indicators of canine stress.  We all bear a responsibility in helping safeguard the well-being of working dogs on campus and therapy canine programs must ensure that human well-being doesn’t augment at the expense of canine well-being.

 

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References

  1. Albercht, C. M., & Weyerer, J. (2012). Salespeople’s job stress: Exploring stress contagion from salespeople to customers. Asia-Pacific Advances in Consumer Research, 10, 305-307.
  2. Binfet, J. T., Passmore, H. A., Cebry, A., Struik, K., & McKay, C. (2018). Reducing university students’ stress through a drop-in canine-therapy program. Journal of Mental Health. (early online edition) doi: 10.1080/09638237.2017.1417551
  3. Binfet, J. T. (2017). The effects of group-administered canine therapy on first-year university students’ well-being: A randomized controlled trial. Anthrozoos, 30, 397-414. doi/abs/10.1080/08927936.2017.135097
  4. Binfet, J. T., & Passmore, H. A. (2016). Hounds and homesickness: The effects of an animal-assisted therapeutic intervention for first-year university students. Anthrozoos, 29, 441-454. (IF = 1.017, Supported by UBC Okanagan Internal Research Grant, 70% contribution)
  5. Binfet, J. T., Trotman, M. L., Henstock, H. D., & Silas, H. J. (2016). Reducing the affective filter: Using canine-assisted therapy to support international students’ English language development. BC Teaching English as an Additional Language, 1, 18-37.
  6. Evans, N., & Gray, C. (2012). The practice and ethics of animal-assisted-therapy with children and young people: Is it enough that we don’t eat our co-workers? British Journal of Social Work, 42, 600-617.
  7. Hatch, A. (2007). The view from all fours: A look at an animal-assisted activity program from the animals’ perspective. Anthrozoos, 20, 37-50.
  8. Huber, A., Barber, A. L. A., Farago, T., Muller, C. A., & Huber, L. (2017). Investigating emotional contagion in dogs (Canis familiaris) to emotional sounds of humans and conspecifics. Animal Contagion, 20, 703-715.
  9. Iannuzzi, D., & Rowan, A. N. (1991). Ethical issues in animal-assisted therapy programs. Anthrozoos, 4, 154-163.
  10. Lavee, Y., & Ben-Ari, A. (2007). Relationship of dyadic closeness with work-related stress: A daily diary study. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 1021-1035.
  11. Oberle, E. (2016). Stress contagion in the classroom? The link between classroom teacher burnout and morning cortisol in elementary school students. Social Science & Medicine, 159, 30-37.

About the Author:

Hailey Silas is a fourth-year biology student graduating in June with B.Sc. honors in biology from the University of British Columbia. She will be attending veterinary medical school starting in the fall, following which her goal is to complete a Ph.D. Having worked in a parasitology lab at the University of Calgary and UBC’s dog therapy program B.A.R.K., she looks forward to continuing research as part of her DVM training.

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Interested in learning more about this topic? Be sure to check out the related symposium chaired by B.A.R.K. Director, Dr. John-Tyler Binfet, at the 2018 ISAZ Conference in July! The symposium, entitled, “Therapy Canines: Screening and Assessment, Safeguarding Well-Being, and Innovative Programming,” will provide an overview of three dimensions of working with therapy canines and will include sessions on therapy handler and canine screening and assessment criteria, the importance of safeguarding canine well-being during sessions, and an overview of innovative programming that sees therapy canines boost confidence and leadership in young children.

The ISAZ Student Blog is posted quarterly  and each post is authored by a different student member of the International Society for Anthrozoology. Interested in authoring a post? Please see our submissions page for details on how to apply.

 

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