Why Do Dogs Attack When They Sense Fear

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Regardless of whether you are a dog owner or not, you probably at some point in your life heard the phrase “stay calm, dogs can sense fear.” It is a piece of advice that is most commonly shared among people with dog insecurities or those who tend to get fearful around dogs. It is also considered general knowledge that dogs are really perceptive and have state of the art noses - but is there any evidence to support and validate the phrase and can our canine companions actually sense the emotions of other dogs and people? Is staying calm the best advice one can get when in the presence of a potentially aggressive dog or other better tips for not getting bitten and addressing the tricky situation?

The Root of the Behavior

As much as we love our four-legged furry friends who provide us with endless cuddles and tons of unconditional love, we can’t assume that every tail-wagging dog we meet along our way will be as friendly as our own canine family members. Regardless of breed, any dog can cause trouble - their size and strength, however, can determine the damage they can do. Dogs can get aggressive or attack for different reasons. Some have had troubled and hard backgrounds, others don’t get enough exercise to maintain a healthy state of mind, get frustrated and have an excess of pent-up energy. Dogs can also get into fights to test you as their pack leader or to claim dominance over another dog. In addition, some activities or behavior can activate a dog’s prey drive, though that doesn’t necessarily equate to aggression or lead to an attack. It is a dog's natural instinct to hunt and chase, as they are natural predators who need to satisfy that primal instinct in one way or another, usually through playtime and adequate amount of exercise. Some things might trigger dogs to act upon their instinct, such as a person jogging or a squirrel bouncing across the backyard, leading to a chase. But a well-trained dog with no behavioral issues should not actually attack, bite, or go into an uncontrollable frenzy with whatever it is chasing and should be able to stop at your command.

Lastly, dogs can attack when they sense fear. A recent study done by researchers at Liverpool University has confirmed that showing anxiety raises the risk of suffering a dog bite significantly. Though there have been theories about this before, the link was usually attributed to the fact that dogs have an incredible sense of smell and thus can physically smell sweat, as well as adrenaline and cortisol, which are also produced during times of increased levels of stress, anxiety, or fear. In addition to detecting smells, dogs are very perceptible and can observe micro movements and read body language very well which can give them a better sense of whether a person is afraid or not. The new research establishes a definitive connection between personality types and the chance of being bitten by the dog. It concluded that people who are more calm and stable are less likely to get attacked by a dog than people who have neurotic tendencies.

Encouraging the Behavior

Dog biting, regardless of it being triggered by fear or not, is relatively uncommon in domesticated dogs and is definitely something to be concerned about. If you have noticed your dog exhibiting aggressive behavior for whatever reason, especially when around anxious people or dogs, you should seek the assistance of a professional such as a dog trainer’s guidance and support immediately. Needless to say, dog aggression of any kind should not be encouraged or even tolerated by any dog owner and should be the primary focus of dog training.

Just like humans, dogs can get insecure and can try to overcompensate by attacking someone who they feel is weaker, or who smells afraid. This can especially be the case if they did not have the proper dog training while growing up or even more so if they did not have much experience with people or other dogs, been abused, or have been treated poorly by humans. Another reason a dog can attack a weaker dog is due to their natural instinct to maintain their pack as strong as possible by eliminating weak members, this is often be seen in wild dogs or dogs’ relatives. Dogs that are aggressive can be spotted by their behavior. If you encounter a dog that is very still and rigid, is either silent or growling in a threatening way, showing his teeth, and has his ears back, you are probably in the presence of an aggressive dog.

Other Solutions and Considerations

If you find yourself scared and tense up around a potentially aggressive dog, make sure to remain calm and positive. Remember that although dogs have an amazing sense of smell, they also have a pretty great ability to read a person’s body language. Speak to the dog in a friendly and stable tone of voice and don’t turn your back as you slowly back away. Although the dog should be in your sight, you should never stare at a dog directly in the eyes as it can challenge the dog to attack. Don’t raise your arms or make sudden movements, most likely he is scared and waiting for your move before he makes an attack. The dog might be protecting his territory, resources, his pack, or puppy litter. Don’t try to be intimidating but at the same time don’t attempt to look weak either, keep your breath under control and try to remain calm. 


Dogs are incredibly beautiful, smart, and sensitive creatures. They are loyal and provide so much joy and love to their human packs that most people consider them equal family members. However, no creature is perfect. If you notice signs of aggression in your best friend fur-ever get him the dog training he needs before it becomes a more serious problem.