Dogs Sniff Stress: Is it Time to Adopt a Four-legged Therapist?

A cute dog sitting on its owner's lap. Can dogs sniff stress?

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The next time your dog is busy sniffing you, it may not be just about food. Perhaps your pet is measuring your anxiety levels and offering itself as comfort. As author Dean Koontz once suggested, “Petting, scratching and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation and almost as good for the soul as prayer.”

Myrtle Beach resident Stacey Kosiek and her dog Gabriella Grace are inseparable for just that reason and more. As a disabled veteran, Kosiek is soothed by Gabby, but she also looks to her four-legged buddy for medical alerts, medical mobility and emotional support – all skills that Gabby possesses. The list of Gabby’s trained responses is impressive.

While Gabby has special training for her role as a service dog, research shows that even “ordinary” dogs are much more aware of and responsive to their owners’ moods than previously realized. Especially where strong bonds exist between owner and pet, many dogs are self-appointed caretakers of their owners’ mental health.

And, whether they admit it or not, many pet owners rely on this emotional support to help them navigate the normal stresses and difficulties of everyday living, particularly if past trauma and PTSD are lurking in the background.

Are dogs really able to read human stress levels? A recent study at Queen’s University Belfast in the United Kingdom demonstrated that by sniffing the sweat and breath of 36 both familiar and unfamiliar candidates, four untrained dogs could pick out the stressed adults with 93.75% accuracy.

In this study, stress levels were measured by increased blood pressure and heart rate after attempting to solve a difficult math problem. The results were published in PLOS ONE in September 2022.

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With the limited intelligence of a human toddler, our four-legged friends cannot comprehend exactly what emotion we are experiencing or its cause. Neither can they differentiate between good stress and bad stress, but they can effectively employ an estimated 600 million olfactory receptors to read our body chemistry and any changes that may be occurring. As much as one-third of a dog’s brain is devoted to decoding smells, producing results that are exponentially better than that of humans.

Trained emotional/medical support dogs can recognize the adrenaline-cortisol emissions that precede a panic attack, the high cortisol levels of an autistic child becoming stressed and the chemical changes that indicate an oncoming migraine, seizure or heart attack. They can also alert for some medical conditions and breast, lung and colorectal cancers.

In addition to their sensitivity to human sweat and breath changes, dogs often use other cues to better understand their owners’ moods and increasing anxiety. They are, typically, astute observers of human facial expressions, posture, movement and tone of voice, and their unconditional love knows no bounds in trying to relieve discomfort, even when they have no idea what is causing stress.

When Gabby senses anxiety building in Kosiek, she places her paws strategically to apply deep pressure therapy.

“She automatically knows where to apply pressure,” said Kosiek. “Also, if I have a phone in my hand, she will take her snout and knock it out of my hand so I will look at her. This distracts me from my pain and has me focus on her. I get the ‘feel good’ endorphins when I get to look at and play with a cute pup that looks like a floppy teddy bear.”

Touch and distraction are two common methods pets seem to use instinctively to help their owners who are becoming anxious or stressed. Offering a paw or a head on the lap are attempts at comforting. Most dogs try to get as close as they can to offer body contact and support; however, some will choose to give space until their owners become more receptive. They stay nearby and wait for the right moment to approach and cuddle.

Whether you own a highly trained service dog like Gabby, a devoted emotional support dog or a mixed-breed mutt that just makes you feel a little less alone, our beloved canine pets cheerfully devote their lives to offering nonjudgmental comfort, to being our trusted confidants as we share our deepest worries and fears, to distracting us from the most painful memories and emotions and to sharing the sad moments as well as the happy ones.

Perhaps it’s time to consider adopting a four-legged therapist.

By Janet E. Perrigo

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