5 min read


Can Dogs Smell Anxiety?



5 min read


Can Dogs Smell Anxiety?


Dogs are amazing! With their super sniffers, they are able to detect chemical changes in man and animal alike. Some people believe that dogs can smell fear. There are reasons to believe dogs can smell anxiety.

When people are anxious, their body chemistry does cause changes that may be detectable. Some believe that dogs are able to smell those bodily changes as signs of anxiety. Service dogs have been trained to detect signs of anxiety to help the human through the anxiety incident using signals they are able to detect with their senses.


Signs a Dog is Smelling Anxiety

Your dog's reactions to the smells he is taking in are signals for you to observe how your dog is understanding his environment. In a study where dogs were exposed to the scent of different persons, the dogs showed behaviors that were indicative of stress. The animals were pacing, restless, seeking reassurance and acting in ways that made them look anxious and fearful themselves. 

There is an expression that goes, "Dogs smell fear and it makes them more likely to bite". The smell of fear does not make dogs aggressive. If anything, it makes them fearful and, for some dogs, there is some possibility of fear-biting, given aspects of the situation that would cause them to feel provoked and add to their need to protect themselves.

When dogs are feeling anxious, they will show signs of their fearfulness in their physical reactions. A dog that has encountered a "stress" may appear to be cowering. You may see the dog tuck his tail or show a low tail carriage. The dog may actually shake or tremble from the fear. Unlike the notion that dogs will bite when sensing fear in others, it is more likely they will be seeking security rather than showing signs of aggression.

Observers of dogs' reactions to the smell of fear have noted that dogs will seek reassurance and protection from their owners. They may pace about, checking their territory. They may even try to escape or hide. If the dog is a trained service animal, he will follow his training. Dogs who are trained to work with anxiety disorders will assist the anxious human by coming to them and signaling or fetching objects they will need to manage the anxiety event.

Body Language

Here are some signs that your dog will show when sensing anxiety:

  • Shaking
  • Cowering
  • Sniffing
  • Hugging
  • Low Tail Carriage

Other Signs

Here are some more signs that your dog may exhibit when smelling anxiety:

  • Staying Close To You
  • Checking Their Territory
  • Hiding
  • Exhibit Trained Behavior

The History of Dogs Smelling Anxiety


Paleontologists study the skulls of reptiles and animals. They have been able to trace the development of the olfactory bulbs in the skulls of fossils and connect the evolution of the nose to the development of the brain in mammals and the evolution of survival skills. Reptiles do not have an evolved olfactory sense and are limited to coming out only during daylight. 

It is thought that dinosaurs would rest at night, giving mammals the opportunity to come out at night to sniff out food. With the evolution of mammals and the sense of smell, there was an improved and necessary ability to detect changes in the environment and potential danger at night. In studies that compare the skulls of different species, there is evidence that those animals who developed the bigger sniffers and brains were more mobile and had better survival than those with less developed noses. Dogs have this highly evolved sense of smell. Their sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than the human nose. 

The world of early man was one in which they were most likely food to other species. Early man lived in a world of predators and had little ability to defend himself. As a result, man had basic flight or fight responses to the fear of being eaten. Survival meant being sensitive to signs in the environment of threat. Those signs of danger invoke hormonal changes in the body, a racing heartbeat and sweating. 

These survival responses are experienced today as anxiety. In our modern world, we are not afraid of being eaten by animals, but instead, the stressors of our daily lives. The physical reactions to hormonal changes, elevated heart rate, and sweating can be detected by our dogs and signals that something is wrong. 

As man and human came to live together, with the dog's keener sense of smell, the canine had the superior ability to detect danger, sources of food and the well-being of their human companions.

The Science of Dogs Smelling Anxiety


Scientists have tested dogs' sensitivity to the scent of anxiety in humans. In one study, the researchers tested the abilities of Labradors and Golden Retrievers to detect the chemical signals of happiness and distress in humans. 

Volunteers watched videos designed to evoke happiness or anxiety. Their sweat was collected. There was also unscented samples. The dog's owner and a stranger were placed in a room with the scent. The dog's heart rate, movements, and body language were observed. 

The dogs sniffing the happiness sweat spent less time with their owner and more time interacting with the stranger, suggesting they were secure and not needing reassurance from their owners. The dogs who were exposed to the scent of anxiety behaved anxious as well. The dogs in the anxiety condition sought out their owners for reassurance and higher heart rates. The reactions of the dogs mirrored the emotions they were detecting. Scientists believe that humans and dogs have evolved limbic systems that are important in experiencing emotions.

When a person is experiencing anxiety, there is a release of adrenaline, increased heart rate, and sweating. With their super-sensitive noses, dogs are able to smell changes in hormones. It is very possible that dogs are able to smell anxiety in humans. 

Building on this capacity are the trainers of service dogs. While dogs may have instinctive capacities to smell the chemistry of anxiety in people, service dogs are typically trained to recognize other signals of anxiety in the patients they service. 

Training Your Dog to Detect Anxiety


If you have anxiety, you can teach your dog to calm you and help you to manage your anxiety. One method you can use is to teach your dog to lay on you. Your anxiety will be lessened if you are able to spend time with your dog on or beside you. The presence of the dog can actually make you feel safe and lower your heart rate. 

To train your dog to calm you, here are five steps: 

  1. Get some treats and get on the couch
  2. Pat the couch and call your dog to you. Give your dog the command, "Paws Up", and teach your dog to put his paws on the couch with praise and rewards
  3. Call your dog to get off the couch with, "Paws Down". Praise and reward your dog
  4. Lay or sit on the couch, pat your chest or lap and call your dog to lay on you with the "Paws Up" command
  5. Extend the time your dog lays on you with rewards and treats. You have trained your dog to provide deep pressure therapy!

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Safety Tips When Dealing With Anxiety

  1. Avoid situations in which people and dogs are likely to feel threatened.
  2. Use a leash around strangers to more easily redirect your dog.
  3. Handle your dog with confidence to keep your dog calm.

By a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Published: 02/19/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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