Can Dogs Smell Fear?
Cynophobia, a fear of dogs, is relatively common. If you suffer from this phobia then at some point in your life you have probably been advised to remain calm when you encounter a dog in case they smell your fear. But can they really smell it and are they more likely to bite you if they know you are scared?
It is clear that dogs have an excellent ability to tune in to humans. They learn to respond our commands and to interpret our tone of voice. They can understand up to 150 different words. Research has shown that they can also interpret facial expressions and body language. If dogs can sense fear then this is likely to be because they are picking up on our body language.
When we are scared we tend to exhibit certain behaviours. We will tense up, our heart rate will increase and our breathing will become heavier. We may begin to perspire and could be frozen to the spot. It would be no surprise to discover that dogs are able to detect these signals and to learn to associate them with fear. They may even have an instinctive understanding of such behaviour.
Sense of Smell
Dogs also possess a sense of smell which is many times more sensitive than ours. It is entirely possible that they are capable of detecting the pheromones that we give off when fear sets in. However, this has yet to be proven.
So it would probably be more accurate to say that dogs sense fear rather than smell it, but it is quite possible that they can do both. If they do pick up on your terror, are they more likely to attack you?
There is no evidence that human fear inspires canines to attack. Indeed it appears to be the dogs’ fear which counts. A 2007 study looked at incidents in which children had been bitten by dogs. This found that the youngsters were most often bitten when the dogs sensed a threat to their territory, food or toys. Children who were noisy or who made unpredictable movements were at the greatest risk of being bitten.
During this study, when aggressive dogs were examined roughly half of them were found to be suffering from medical conditions. These would make them feel more anxious and vulnerable and so would increase their defensive urges.
In the Wild
When we are scared we often have a tendency to fix our gaze on the object of our fear. Many wild animals would interpret direct eye contact as aggressive behaviour. Perhaps dogs sense aggression in a stare and it is this which can inspire them to attack.
When dogs attack it is almost certainly their fear which causes their aggression, not ours. But it is possible that they feel more dominant and therefore more confident to attack if they sense fear in their target. Most dogs are not aggressive and would never attack a person or would only do so as act of defence. Cynophobia is not an irrational fear as dogs can and do attack people. But such attacks are rare and there is as yet no evidence to suggest that being afraid makes you more likely to be a victim.