There is an old proverb that says that dogs can smell our fear. But is this true? What is it that dogs see when they look at a scared and nervous human? Do they get a whiff of your terror, and if yes, will it have an impact on their behavior toward you? Does the fear of dogs increase or decrease your chances of being bitten?
Such questions have likely baffled mankind from the time the first wolves hung around our ancestors, hoping to get some scraps of leftover meat as they had dinner. Since those ancient times, dogs have evolved quite well and adapted to co-existing with humans. They are useful in many roles – from animal herder to serving as a deterrent for burglars to being a guide for the visually impaired to providing companionship to children.
Opinion of Experts in Dog Behavior
Psychologist Stanley Coren, who authored the book, “How Dogs Think,” opines that the ability and versatility canines display has led many to believe that dogs possess minds almost similar to humans along with moral sensibilities.
He claims that dogs can understand human speech and their vocabulary can comprise more than 150 words. According to Coren, dogs can solve complex problems and even trick other dogs.
Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that dogs study humans for cues and can interpret facial expressions. For instance, scientists at Azabu University in Japan have managed to train canines in differentiating between a smile and a blank look in pictures of human faces.
If it is possible for a dog to identify a smile, then it may not be far-fetched to assume that a dog is also likely to notice the expressions of a frightened person with wide eyes and clenched teeth. Changes in posture and gait will also not go unnoticed in such a scenario.
In fact, in the view of certain canine experts, a dog will be able to detect your fear even if you maintain a calm front and stay still when terrified. The physiological changes that humans experience due to the flight-or-fight response (such as, changes in breathing pattern and sweating) are responsible for this.
When we are fearful, our body involuntarily releases chemicals known as pheromones. According to Alexandra Horowitz, author of “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know,” a dog is quick to recognize these chemicals due to its heightened sense of smell.
But the question foremost in your mind is likely to be – do the chances of a dog attack increase if the animal senses you are afraid? There is no solid evidence to prove that a dog’s awareness of your fear is something that triggers an attack. What is critical is whether the dog is scared of you or generally anxious.
According to a study conducted in 2007 and published in the journal Injury Prevention, incidents of dogs biting children happened primarily when the animals sensed some threat to their territory, food, or toys. Furthermore, noisy children and those prone to unpredictable movements were at higher risk of dog bites.
A detailed examination of typically aggressive dogs indicated that nearly half of them had health issues such as skin problems and bone disorders. These troubles can lead to anxiety in dogs and make them more dangerous.
Research Study Shows Dogs Can Smell Fear
According to researcher Biagio D’Aniello of the University of Naples “Federico II”, Italy, science has proved that dogs can pick up on human emotions, but no one has studied whether they can recognize the scents that humans give out.
He says that dogs have a keen sense of smell when compared to humans and the role of the canine olfactory system has been largely glossed over by experts. This is because humans rely more on the visual system and mistake this to be the case with dogs too.
D’Aniello and his fellow researchers analyzed whether dogs could identify human emotions simply through smell. They got human volunteers to see videos that caused fear, joy, or neutral emotions, and collected samples of sweat. Then, these samples were proffered to domestic dogs while their behavior and heart rates were monitored.
The results showed that dogs who smelled fear displayed heightened stress than those who smelled happiness and neutral emotions. Along with higher heart rates, they needed reassurance from their owners and did not make too much social contact with strangers during this time.
Márta Gácsi of Eotvos Loránd University in Budapest says that it is an established fact that dogs collect sensory data about their social partners while deciding how to respond to different situations. But it is not an easy task to determine which of the senses assume greater importance. The sense of smell has now been identified as the key element in this study, she says.
Dogs Can Read Your Face
Another detailed research study has shown that dogs not only use their sense of smell, but they also process facial expressions of humans.
Researchers led by Juliane Kaminski of the University of Portsmouth, UK have established that dogs faces tend to be most alert when they are aware that people are looking at them.
As part of their study, the researchers placed a few dogs before a human who was doing one of these four things – looking at them, facing away, handing out food, and offering nothing. They assessed the variations in the dogs’ facial movements in all these scenarios.
The researchers concluded that the changes in the dogs’ behavior were most conspicuous when the human subject was looking at them. Kaminski says that this reinforces the theory that dogs are extremely sensitive to human attention.
How Dogs Evoke Sympathy
Monique Udell of Oregon State University in Corvallis opines that more extensive research is essential to fully comprehend the bi-directional facet of the human-dog relationship. Only this will help us understand how dogs visually signal us and how we react.
But there is evidence to support the fact that humans are susceptible to these dog signals. According to Kaminski, dogs often raise their eyebrows in a specific manner when they are being watched. This can make the dogs’ eyes look “sad” and evoke empathy in humans. Shelter dogs increase their chances of finding a new home by using this subtle move.
There is no clear evidence to indicate whether domestication of dogs plays any role in the development of such behaviors. Some researchers believe that the remarkable emotional intelligence that dogs display could be the result of thousands of years of close interaction and co-existence of dogs and humans.
Rationalizing Your Fear of Dogs
If you are someone who believes that dogs are dangerous and you fear approaching them, it is vital for you to learn how to overcome your phobia of canines. This intrinsic fear that every dog on the street will turn aggressive or irritable is more of a psychological problem.
Therefore, in order to overcome your fear, you will need to recognize that you are dealing with a friendly animal and not a vicious beast that only thinks of attacking and biting people.
Yes, it can be tough to learn to control your emotions and reactions in front of a dog, if you are scared of them. But it is necessary to do this in order to prevent your irrational fear from becoming a serious phobia. There are quite a few therapeutic ways in which you can address your fear.
Many people who are afraid of dogs respond poorly in front of the animals making themselves vulnerable albeit unknowingly. Thus, by preparing yourself for a dog encounter, you can lessen your fear while boosting your confidence.
Identifying and Treating Cynophobia
The medical term for fear of dogs is cynophobia. Common symptoms include dizziness, panic attacks, palpitations, difficulty breathing, nausea, sweating a lot, dry mouth, quivering, the temporary lack of ability to speak or think with clarity, lack of control over the body, and fear of dying. Statistics show that animal phobia is the most common of all phobias. Nearly one-third of all people who seek help for a phobia are suffering from animal phobia.
From a psychological perspective, there are three ways of treating cynophobia: systematic sensitization therapy, exposure therapy, and self-treatment in a controlled environment.
Systematic desensitization therapy consists of practicing relaxation techniques in various imagined scenarios. The therapist will ask the patient to conjure a situation where he or she is threatened by a dog and is feeling fearful.
The therapist will then estimate the anxiety level attained by the patient and accordingly suggest breathing and relaxation techniques to help them regain calmness and control. The exercises will be repeated until the patient is competent enough to handle a real situation.
Considered to be the most effective of all treatments for cynophobia, exposure therapy relies on confrontation. Here, the patient is systematically exposed to a dog for an extended period of time until he or she has overcome the irrational responses toward the dog. The time required for such therapy can be an entire day, or even longer, depending on the patient.
Simply being in the same room as a dog is not good enough, so the patient is urged to interact with the animal and ultimately develop an affectionate relationship with it. When this situation is achieved, the patient is considered to have overcome their fear of canines.
Self-treatment is another technique that involves a controlled environment and a supervising doctor. Here, the patient writes down frightening incidents related to dogs in a particular order with the most scary topping the list and the least alarming at the end. Gradually, the patient finds that the number of frightening instances is diminishing.
Cynophobia in Children
Fear is a common feeling among children, and it is also one of the first emotions they feel. It could be fear of the dark, fear of an animal, or fear of being alone. Though you may not like to see fear in your child, feeling fear is an essential part of your child’s development process.
In the children’s world, the line between imagination and reality is quite blurred. Until a certain age, a child does not know how to differentiate between reality and imagination. The fears associated with children can be related to the weather, animals, or imaginary beings. Each of these has some scary element that can bring about fear in a child’s subconscious mind.
For instance, if your child has no problem playing with dogs that are small in size, but is scared of larger ones, it means that he or she is frightened of fangs or might be associating it with some negative scene from a movie or a book.
On the other hand, if your child loves playing with dogs but gets scared when they run or turn extra playful, it might indicate their fear of being attacked. It is also possible for a parent to transfer their cynophobia to their offspring. If you have cynophobia, then it is likely your child might imitate you.
Pictures or scenes of violent dogs or animal attacks can have an adverse impact on a child’s psyche and lead to recurrent fear. But most of such childhood experiences are temporary, and children usually overcome their fears as they grow older.
To protect your children from dog bites, you can also teach them some safety measures. These include staying away from strange dogs as no one can predict how they will react, and not attempting to be friendly with a dog without first seeking its owner’s permission. Tell your child to caress dogs gently on the head and not to make any sudden moves, and also not to approach a canine that is sleeping, eating, or playing.
Be sure to discourage your child from extreme behavior such as petting every dog they come across, while at the same time not teaching them to be afraid of every dog they see. Make an effort to understand your child’s fear of dogs without ridiculing them for it.
Try to boost your child’s confidence in dogs by taking them to visit a friend with a highly affable dog and just let them watch the animal go about its daily routine. After a while, encourage the child to pet or touch the dog. When it comes to dealing with the fear of dogs in children, you can avoid the need for a therapist if you are knowledgeable and sensitive about how to handle the child’s fear and help them overcome it.
Useful Tips to Remember in Dog Encounters
Confidence is your ally when you are confronted by a potentially aggressive canine. It does not matter if you are not really confident; all you need to do is look confident, stand up straight, and be calm. Try to look confident – this does not mean you need to act like you just won some type of prize.
This is the best way to deliver a non-verbal communication to perhaps an aggressive dog because it will see that you have confidence and that if they attack you it will not be an easy victory or a victory at all. Keep your hands in your pocket or let them down along your body. Maintain a decent distance as you walk away from the dog and do not invade its personal space.
When you walk away, do it in as natural a manner as possible without any sign of hesitation. Keep your eye on the dog without being obvious about it. Some experts even suggest that talking on your cell phone leads a dog to thinking that you are distracted and since you are distracted and not paying attention to them then you are not a threat. So they will let you go on your way.
What to do when you are faced with an unknown dog:
- Avoid going too close to a dog that has not seen you arrive.
- Try not to isolate the animal or put it in a spot where it is difficult to escape from (as this can make the dog aggressive).
- Caress an unknown dog only after it has had the opportunity to recognize that you are a friend of its master.
- Do not suddenly move back on seeing a dog.
- Do not quickly retreat if a dog is headed towards you.
- Avoid direct eye contact with a dog.
- Standing frozen before a dog may give it the opportunity to react. So, be calm and keep walking.
- Screaming or acting nervous can cause a dog to think of you as a threat, so don’t do that.
- Never touch unattended dogs.
- You should not run from a dog since you cannot out run a dog.
- Running can also lead the dog to follow you if it thinks you are being playful.
- Maintain an indifferent attitude and pretend like the dog is not there. When the dog understands that you are not interested in it, it will stay put.
- Go to the other side of the street if you spot a dog from a considerable distance to avoid any contact with it.
- If a dog approaches you just to get a whiff of your scent, let it be.
- Calm down by giving yourself an auto-suggestion.
- If you fall or trip, pull up your knees to your chest and cover your neck with your arms. Dogs lose interest in attacking silent and motionless things or objects.
While there is no solution that can guarantee complete protection from aggressive dogs, staying calm, walking away, and ignoring the dog can help you avoid a confrontation. In theory, a dog never attacks without an appropriate reason. So try your best to not give it a reason.