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Can Dogs Smell Fear?

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It has long been thought that dogs can smell fear and that they adjust their behaviour accordingly. Now, a new study has proved that this is true, at least when it comes to Labradors and golden retrievers.

Italian Research


Researchers from Naples University created a unique experiment to test if dogs adapt their behaviour to how their owners are feeling. Dogs can readily detect airborne odours with their impressive sense of smell. As their ability to smell is so important to them, it should come as no surprise to learn that what dogs smell then influences their behaviour.


To test the dogs’ reactions, researchers took sweat samples from men. Half of these had been taken from men who were watching a cheerful movie, in this case Jungle Book. The other half were taken from men who were watching the Shining which is a scary movie. 40 different dogs were then lead into a room containing their owner, a stranger and one of the sweat samples.

The sweat samples had no effect on the humans in the room but the dogs were a different story. The dogs were able to detect the human emotional chemical symbols in the sweat. It became clear that the dogs were more likely to investigate the stranger in the room when the "happy" sweat was present.

Dogs and Their Owners


When a dog’s owner smells happy, the animal will feel relaxed with a new situation. When a dog smells the scent of fear, it becomes wary of a new person or situation and so will be less willing to explore strangers. The dogs studied in Italy didn’t become aggressive towards strangers when they smelled fear. It is not understood why this was the case and so more research into canine behaviour is required. Scientists are also keen to explore whether the ability to smell fear in humans evolved after dogs became domesticated or whether they have always possessed the ability to detect the emotions of other species.

Few animals are as proficient as dogs at tuning in to the emotions of other species.

Labradors and Retrievers


The researchers at Naples University have been keen to point out that their study only featured two breeds of dog – Labradors and retrievers. These are breeds which are renowned for their sociable natures and low levels of aggression. It is possible that other breeds would display different reactions to the odours. However, anecdotal evidence would suggest that dogs in general are able to tune into their owners’ emotions and even those of strangers.

Many dog owners will have experienced those strange moments when their otherwise friendly dog appears to be wary of a particular individual for no apparent reason. Dogs can smell fear but it is likely that they can also smell other emotions. They are often described as intuitive animals but perhaps their ability to make judgements about people isn’t confined to intuition. If they can smell fear, can dogs also smell aggression, depression and a variety of other human traits and emotions?
Has your dog displayed inexplicable behaviour towards a person which has turned out to be insightful?

Feeling anxious at the thought of meeting your friends new dog?

Well, it turns out that the best way to handle it, particularly when it comes to avoiding any unnecessary nips, could be to switch off those nerves and adopt your most confident stance. A conducted by The University of Liverpool found that people who have heightened levels of anxiety are more likely to be bitten by dogs. This particular study was conducted on 694 people in 385 households in the UK. All participants were asked if they had ever been bitten by a dog and if they had, whether those bites needed treatment. Each person was asked if they knew the dog which had provided the bite. The study also enquired as to whether each participant was a dog owner themselves. One in four people stated that they had indeed been bitten by a dog before, and it transpired that men were almost twice as likely to have been the victims of these bites than women. The study also concluded that those who owned several dogs were more than three times as likely to have been bitten as those who didn’t call themselves dog owners. It was also acknowledged that over half of the participants had been bitten by a dog that they were not familiar with. Doctor Carri Westgarth, Research Fellow in Human-Animal Interactions at the University of Liverpool stated: “Reporting being less emotionally stable was associated with an increased frequency of dog bites.” So it turns out that the behaviour of dogs could well be driven by the initial behaviour of the humans they interact with.

Currently, there are 8.5 million dogs living in the UK and statistics show that more than 6500 people require hospital treatment for dog bite injuries every year in England. The breed most likely to provide that bite? In a potentially surprising revelation, research from pet insurer Animal Friends have indicated that the humble family Labrador claims the top spot.

And the image of the local postie being ravaged as they attempt to deliver your daily post? Well it transpire that this is still very much prevalent. According to research conducted by ,  roughly 14,500 dog attacks took place on postmen and woman over the last five years, with over 2,470 in 2017 alone. This research also found that out of these 2,600 attacks, 36% occurred at the front door, with 35% of them happening in the front garden.

Animal Psychologist, Doctor Roger Mugford, said the best thing for posties to do was befriend the dogs and keep them happy by always carrying a bag of treats. He also stated: “Once a post man befriends a dog, they will be friends for life. To say that dogs can smell fear I am sure is very true. The way we move and the way we think is communicated to a dog.”

Caroline Kisko, secretary for animal welfare organisation The Kennel said that “How dogs react to people is often determined by how people themselves react to dogs, so it is important that people recognise the best ways to interact with dogs and that owners always keep their pets under control and consider that not everyone may feel comfortable being around dogs or know how to interact with them.”

This is not to say that every dog bite is the result of a person with an anxious or nervous disposition as there are various reasons for dog attacks, and ones which result in a person being bitten. Kisko also pointed out that “it is important to remember that any dog is capable of biting just as any dog is capable of being a well-adjusted member of society. It is therefore important that all dogs are properly trained and socialised from an early age to reduce the risk of bad behaviour, including biting.”


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