Can Dogs Smell Fear?

If you are afraid of a strange or aggressive dog and you approach it in a fearful manner—your breathing could be elevated, you may be sweating and hormones may be surging through your body—but can that dog smell your fear?

Most animal experts believe a dog cannot literally “smell fear.” They theorize that humans give dogs stronger reasons to bite than odor. The New York Times Science section recently consulted with Dr. Katherine Albro Houpt, a professor emeritus of behavioral medicine at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine on this issue. Dr. Houpt is known as the Grande Dame of veterinary behavioural science.

Expert Analysis

Expert explains dogs’ reaction to human fear Although Dr. Houpt credits dogs with exhibiting “remarkable olfactory ability” (the portion of a dog’s brain used for smell is 40 times the size of the area used by humans), she has found no proof of the phenomenon of canines actually being able to smell fear emanating from a person. If a chemist would isolate the odor of sweat or urine from a frightened person and track a dog’s reactions to it, this experiment might prove something, but, so far, Dr. Houpt said she does not know of any such study.

She has performed considerable investigations of animal behavior for many years and has authored and co-authored more than 100 articles describing pioneering research on equine, feline and canine species and other types of domestic animals. Dr. Houpt has also authored a textbook on domestic animal behavior for veterinarians currently in its fifth edition. The professor points out that the most common victim of a dog bite is the one who reaches out to pet a dog believing dogs would never hurt them.

“Dogs are likely to attack departing people,” she said and explained that the dog is “responding with predatory aggression, not recognition of fear in the victim.” “A dog is most likely to ignore someone who is not moving,” she said and advised children should be told not to run from a dog, but to stand still with their arms at their sides when a strange dog approaches. “Sometimes not being afraid is more dangerous than fear,” she told The Times. “If you look a dog in the eye, especially a confident, aggressive dog, he is more likely to bite than if you avoid eye contact.”
Others weigh in on dogs. Writers at animalplanet.com agree there is not much evidence a dog’s perception of a person’s fear is a significant trigger for an attack. If the dog is anxious, in general, or is afraid of the approaching person for some reason, that could cause a problem, according to animalplanet, whose employees have worked with many types of dogs.

Injury Prevention Journal, reported on a 2007 study of incidents in which children had been bitten by dogs. The study found dogs most often bit children when the dogs perceived a threat to their territory, food, toys or other resources. Children who were noisy or who made unpredictable movements were also at greater risk of being bitten. When the aggressive animals were examined later, it was found about half of them had medical conditions, such as bone or skin disorders, which would tend to cause anxiety in the animal and make him more likely to feel the urge to protect himself by biting. An article in Thrivingcanine.com, a website which focuses on dog training and behavior modification, speculated that a dog can pick up stress-related hormones released by changes in a person’s emotions and can also smell the odor of human body fluids like tears and sweat. But it’s not the emotion of fear that they smell, the website’s authors assert adding that dogs may not even know what’s they’re smelling is fear.

Wonderopolis.org, claims smelling sweat is not the same as smelling fear. Movements and actions of a person may more likely lead a dog to the conclusion that a person presents a threat. In this way, a dog could be “sensing” fear rather than smelling it, the site’s writers acknowledge. Canidae, manufacturers of specialty pet food, maintain on their website, canidae.com, that dogs can pick up on someone who is afraid of them and can actually smell fear. There’s even evidence dogs can see fear and other emotions on the human face. However, these dog lovers say human body language sends the strongest and most significant signal to a dog.

The site advises those who are worried about an attack to keep the side of their body toward the dog and never try to run away. Don’t hit or kick the dog or try to hit it with stick or some other object. If the dog is close, slowly back away and keep an eye on the dog, but don’t directly look it in the eye. The animal may take it as a challenge, the website reveals. If you see a strange dog sitting on the sidewalk, and you have no other way to go, walk slowly around it. Do your best to remain calm in all of these situations, canidae.com advises.

Children are at risk too

Children should also be told not to make fearful noises around a dog, such as squeaky sounds and screaming. This may alert the animal’s predator instinct and trigger the dog to snap at or chase the person who is bothering him.  Petful.com, a website that states it has an interest in pet health and behavior, agrees with other experts that the canine’s outstanding ability to read our body language makes him very skilled at reading our emotions. Dogs are masters of watching us–staring at us for long periods of time–and interpreting our body language, the site claims and says that dogs process speech by tone and word recognition much as humans do.

A psychologist and scientists comment on dogs and fear Psychologist Stanley Coren, author of “How Dogs Think,” writes that canines have great versatility with humans and a strong ability to interact with them. Coren asserts that dogs can comprehend human speech and can understand a vocabulary of more than 150 words. He maintains dogs are able to solve complex problems and that scientific research has shown they’re closer to the intelligence and perception skills of humans and other primates than previously thought (animalplanet.com).

Ancient Greek philosophers believed dogs had almost humanlike minds and moral sensibilities. Over the years dogs have used their superior olfactory abilities for many positive reasons including sniffing bombs in airports, assisting hunters, guiding the visually impaired and cancer research. Coren writes that evidence shows that canines study humans for cues and have some ability to interpret nuances like facial expressions. Researchers at Azabu University’s School of Veterinary Science in Sagamihara, Japan have been successful in training canine subjects to differentiate between a smile and a blank expression using photographs of the human face. Scientists there have also studied bonding mechanisms between dogs and humans and the release of oxytoxin from both species when they gaze into each other’s eyes. It is not much of a leap to assume if dogs can identify a smile, they can pick up on clenched teeth.

Alexandra Horowitz, author of ”Inside of a Dog: What Dogs, See, Smell and Know,” posits that dogs can detect chemicals called pheromones. Humans involuntarily give these off when they are alarmed due to a person’s natural flight-or-fight response. Currently teaching at Barnard College, Horowitz holds a Ph.D. in cognition science and is testing the olfactory experience of the domestic dog. More information about what you and your family can do to prevent dog bites and to treat them in the aftermath of a bite incident can be found on the website, dogbitesohio.com. This site is sponsored by the law firm of Slater & Zurz LLP and features numerous resources concerning canines. Several of the firm’s attorneys specialize in dog bite cases and have provided legal help to victims using their many years of experience.

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If you are in need of assistance with such a case or a loved one has received injuries from a dog, please call Slater & Zurz LLP at 1-888-998-9101 or contact us here.

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