Can Dogs Smell Fear?

If you've ever been near a growling dog, you've probably remembered that you should stay calm, since dogs can smell fear. Is that really true? Can dogs smell fear? The simple answer: Probably. The real answer, however, turns that old rule completely on its head.

Fact vs. Myth

Really, the advice to remain calm around a scary dog because they can smell fear brings up several questions. The first is obvious: Can dogs really smell fear? Even if they could, does your body produce a particular fear smell? And if dogs know you're afraid, are they any more likely to attack?

When you're afraid, your body does produce a variety of chemicals: sweat, adrenaline, the stress hormone cortisol, sometimes even urine. Dogs have proven the ability to detect all sorts of biological cues — even the telltale smells of cancer. It seems likely that dogs could also smell the chemicals of fear, but no study has been done.

Still, dogs are mind-bogglingly intuitive. They're better at interpreting human cues than chimps are, they know when we're lying, and they can even "catch" our emotions. Studies also show that they can read our facial expressions to know if we're happy or angry. If they can pick up on a smile, it's likely that they can pick up on the tensed muscles, clenched jaw, and wide eyes of someone who's afraid of them.

Just Stand Still

But news flash: It doesn't really matter. Fear doesn't make dogs any more likely to attack — well, your fear, anyway. A 2007 study in the journal Injury Prevention found that dogs were most likely to bite children when they perceived a threat to their food, territory, or belongings. When the researchers examined the dogs that had bitten children in the study, they found that half had a painful medical condition. A dog in pain is likely to be more anxious and protective, and therefore more likely to bite.

So what should you do if you think a dog might attack? Don't run. As Dr. Katherine Albro Houpt, a professor emeritus at Cornell University College of Veterinary medicine, told the New York Times, "We do know that dogs are likely to attack rapidly departing people. They are responding with predatory aggression, not recognition of fear in the victim."

Don't be too confident, either. Dogs often interpret eye contact as a sign of aggression, and that can also make them attack. Your best bet is to stand still, arms at your sides, and direct your gaze near, but not at the dog.

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Get inside your pooch's head with "How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain" by Gregory Berns. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer September 5, 2017

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