5 min read


Can a Dog Smell Fear?



5 min read


Can a Dog Smell Fear?


There are tons of old wive's tales about our pooches out there. One year of a dog's life is seven years of a human's; they feel guilt when they do something bad in the house; eating grass is really bad for your pups; or they can smell fear. 

For as long as pups have been around as our best friends, there have always been stories of their capabilities. Many of these can be written off as myths or stories, explaining something about our pups that we weren't able to conclude with science until now. 

What you may be surprised to learn, however, is that a dog really can smell fear, whether it be in their owner, a stranger, or another pooch! While their understanding of another's fear isn't totally attributed to their nose, as they use visual cues on your behavior, actions, and emotions, your dog will still actually know when you're afraid, and may even react to it! 

So, whether you're dealing with your own dog or a stranger's, it always important to keep your cool so the pup in question can remain happy, calm, and excited to see you!


Signs Your Dog Can Smell Your Fear

We obviously know what signs humans show when they feel fear because we've all experienced it. Maybe our palms start sweating, or we start shaking a little; we may try to make ourselves smaller, or get to a comfortable place where we feel safe; in the scariest of circumstances, we may even scream! 

Dogs can pick up on all of these visual and behavioral clues to figure out when we're afraid. When we're freaked out, our sweat glands will be more active and open, producing a body odor our puppers can smell. Dogs that are "on the hunt" for a specific smell will have their noses up in the air or close to the ground, either to get a better hint of what they're trying to smell or where exactly is coming from. 

Most importantly, though, most dogs who realize that their owner is afraid will react differently to them. If your pup recognizes your fear, oftentimes, they will try to cuddle up with you, or even protect you from whatever is making you afraid. They may also act uncomfortable, putting their tail between their legs and whining, crying, or even barking. Dogs take many of their behavior cues from us, so if they sense our fear and how we're reacting to something, they may believe that they have to react the same way!

As for strangers, many people that are afraid of our pups (even though we know our dogs would never do anything!) often tense up, stop moving, and stare at the "offending" dog in question. Their sweat glands will open up and be more reactive, producing sweat that smells pretty darn good to our pup! 

This type of reaction - staring, freezing, and tensing up - may look like aggressive behavior to our pup. They may react similarly to a person acting this way, either by showing aggression in return, such as growling, leaning forward with their ears straight and showing their teeth; or acting fearful, by rolling over on their bellies, averting their eyes, and putting their tail between their legs. 

It's important that whatever the reason for the fear you're experiencing, you keep your cool around a pup that's going to recognize it. By doing so, we can also keep our doggos calm and happy, too!

Body Language

Some body language that indicates your dog has detected fear includes:

  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Back Hair On Edge
  • Whimpering
  • Lips Pushed Forward
  • Ears Back
  • Exposed Teeth
  • Stiff Tail
  • Freezing

Other Signs

Other signs that your pup has smelled fear are:

  • Showing Fear In Return
  • Being Aggressive
  • Slobbery Kisses
  • Nose Up In The Air
  • Acting Uncomfortable

The History Behind Dogs Smelling Fear


Humanity has evolved with dogs. In looking to our history, there is evidence that dogs have been kept as pets for as many as 15,000 years! As a result, dogs have learned how to read our body language, attune themselves to our emotions, smell specific reactions within our own bodies, and react to them accordingly. 

Because they've been around us for so long, they've evolved to be able to sense our emotions and associate certain smells (like sweatiness) with emotions like fear. As a result, many dogs, depending on their relationship with the person feeling fear, will try to comfort them (if they're an owner or a friend) or react similarly. 

Dogs look to us for cues on how to react to things, so if the big, bad, all-powerful human is afraid of something, dogs oftentimes will think that they should be too!

The Science Behind Dogs Smelling Fear


We all know that dogs have a better sense of smell than humans. They seem to be able to track things for miles, based only on their noses. But did you know that "while human noses have 6 million receptor sites, a dog's nose can have up to 200 to 300 million"!? That's a lot of nose power!

As a result, dogs are better able to pick up on smells than we are. When we become afraid, our fight or flight reaction kicks in, meaning our body produces more adrenaline and sweat. One study showed that dogs actually do pick up on these smells, and react accordingly to what they understand is human fear. 

"First, human volunteers watched videos designed to cause fear or happiness, or a neutral response, and the team collected samples of their sweat." When the odors were presented to domesticated dogs, the ones that were exposed to fear smells "showed more signs of stress than those exposed to happy or neutral smells. They also had higher heart rates, and sought more reassurance from their owners and made less social contact with strangers." 

While this study shows that dogs can indeed smell our emotions using their noses alone, dogs also take visual cues from us as well. When we're afraid, our body will react. Dogs pick up on those things and will react similiarly. 

Training Your Dog to Smell Fear


While you can't exactly train your dog to smell or react to your or another's fear, there are things you can do to make your dog more comfortable in these types of situations. When you are feeling any type of strong emotion, including fear, it's important to show a "strong front" to your dog. An agitated human creates an agitated doggo, so the calmer you are in the face of something that scares you, the calmer your dog will be.

In regards to others, it's hard for your dog to come across a stranger that may be afraid of them. While you know that there's nothing to worry about, a person who sees a big pupper coming at them may think that they're trying to attack! While it's probable that your dog just wants to cover that person in big slobbery kisses, it's important to train our pooches to respect personal space, so that when they come across someone who is afraid of them, they don't do anything to increase that fear. 

Encourage positive behaviors, such as sticking close to you when you're walking by random people on the street, and gently discourage negative behaviors such as jumping up or sniffing at a passersby. 

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By Katherine McCormick

Published: 03/19/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

Wag! Specialist
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