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Can dogs smell fear?

by Lana Paws on September 13, 2022

can dogs smell fear

“Don’t be scared, dogs can smell your fear,” you have definitely heard someone say this at least once or have said it yourself to someone who's scared of dogs.

But is this true? YES! Dogs can smell fear, among other emotions and so much more!

If you've ever been in a position where you were worried that a dog may hurt you, you might have observed that dogs actually appear to be able to detect your level of confidence and, in a sense, feed off of it. Pet owners have occasionally spoken of their dogs having a "sixth sense," knowing when to approach their pet parent, lick their hands, and console them after getting a traumatic phone call or while they were watching a spooky movie. Whether this was a coincidence or not, it appears possible that dogs may sense when a person is scared.

What is the science behind dogs detecting fear?

can dogs smell fear

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell. Can dogs, however, detect emotions? A dog's sense of smell is 14 times stronger than that of humans, so they can detect stronger and more intense odours. According to research, dogs spend a significant portion of their brains detecting olfactory senses. Dogs have a system for decoding smells that includes pheromones and other chemicals. A dog's olfactory senses are what help them understand and decode emotions.

Sweat, on the other hand, is a factor that shows fear in humans and is easily understood by dogs. The human body has two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine.

The apocrine gland secretes fatty sweat, which when in contact with bacteria produces an odour. When people are afraid, they sweat more. Our reflexes prepare us to flee from frightening situations. Dogs detect this strong odour when we become nervous or scared around them.

Dogs are excellent at detecting physical cues. They can tell the difference between our emotions based on our body language. In comparison to when we are happy or excited, the composition of our blood changes in response to hormonal signals when we are afraid.

According to a study published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research in 2016, a dog's heart rate increases when they sniff sweat from people who have been exposed to a frightening environment, indicating that dogs can definitely smell fear.

When dogs detect fear, they become anxious and seek reassurance from their owners.

What role does body language play in helping dogs understand human emotions?

can dogs smell dogs blog post

People with good instincts are able to successfully communicate with dogs on their first encounter. Using body language to make a dog feel comfortable in your presence is a real art. If your body language is unintentionally intimidating, erratic, or contradicts the cues you are trying to give, the result can be a very confused, uncertain and frightening to a dog.  If you are scared of animals, it can be frightening if you come across an unknown canine. Don't make any threatening, sudden movements in this situation.

Canines are quite sensitive to human movement, especially dogs that aren't entirely accustomed to us. Fast, abrupt, and unpredictable motions can be ominous, especially if they are coupled with inappropriate hand reaching and direct eye contact.

Also read - Teach 'em Young - A guide for children (and adults) when dealing with dogs

Do all animals smell fear in humans?

Until very recently, the idea of animals smelling fear was just a theory. But not all animals can sense fear in humans. Horses are one species of animals who like dogs, can sense fear and happiness. Horses tend to examine their surroundings for the possibility of a threat.

When in the same surrounding as someone who is afraid or is nervous, horses understand a changed body language. Swift movements, loud voices and heavy breathing, all of these factors make horses sense fear and be more aware of their surroundings.

How to deal with a fear of dogs?

We all know someone who is terrified of dogs. As pet parents and dog lovers, it may seem odd to us that someone could have a fear of these wonderful animals, but helping out such people in the smallest way and being empathetic is important.

Dogs can be quite intimidating to people who have had unfriendly and unpleasant experiences with dogs in the past.

Cynophobia, a fear of dogs, can lead people to behaving in ways that dogs or any animal in general would find threatening. It is important to know that animals react to our reflexes with the sole intention of protecting themselves.

How to deal with a fear of dogs?

Now, what must one do when they come across a dog and a sense of fear takes over?

First off, if you have a fear of dogs, you are not alone.

You may be taking a stroll in the garden one day when you encounter a dog all of a sudden. Remember, DO NOT pickup any stones, twigs or branches to throw in the direction of the dog. In some serious cases people may experience disorientation, nausea and may freeze. Remember to breathe and not indulge in any sudden movements. Our flight or fight senses suggest that we run at the first sight of danger but in this case it may sometimes backfire.

Face the dog firmly without making any eye-contact. You can turn your head sideways or start yawning to convey you don't mean any harm.

If you have any food items, you can throw it in the direction of the dog (but not directly at the dog as it could be misunderstood as a stone making the dog feel even more threatened); If possible, calmly engage with the dog in a soft voice reassuring the dog or simply start walking away without any sudden or swift movements. It's critical to remain calm and composed, as hard as it may sound. 

Dogs, by nature are not predators. They do not attack until they feel a threat to their surrounding or their pack.

On the bright side, these fur babies are also equipped to sense happiness in people.

Dogs truly are man’s best friend. While they do not communicate with words, they do understand emotions in people and constantly give signals through their body language. Your dog will react similarly by jumping up or barking in enthusiasm if you are speaking or acting energetically. Dogs are able to perceive our moods and our varied emotions thanks to their extraordinary senses. They have an excellent sense of smell and can read our body language and facial expressions to determine whether we are pleased or unhappy.

In conclusion, it makes plausible that dogs would be able to detect fear in people given that they emit powerfully odorous fear hormones and can read body language quite efficiently. So, if you have a fear of dogs and the next time you come across an unknown dog, remember to stay calm and take deep breaths. It’s that simple.


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