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Dogs Really Can Smell Fear

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?


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