4 min read


Can Dogs Smell Fear?



4 min read


Can Dogs Smell Fear?


Have you ever heard the old saying about dogs being able to smell fear? We know dogs have a pretty keen sense of smell, but smelling your feelings? That might seem a little far-fetched, but is it really? 

If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve been afraid of a dog hurting you, you might’ve noticed that they do in fact seem to sense your confidence level and feed off of it, in a way.


Signs a Dog Might be Sensing Fear

So, what are some signs that a dog “smells fear?” It’s mostly speculation, but the first thing to note is every dog will react differently to someone who is afraid. It also may be that they don’t “smell your fear,” and they don’t want to exploit your fear. It’s more likely, the dog feels threatened by you or is uncomfortable with your body language. 

If the dog feels threatened, they will probably sniff at you first, then they might stare at you, growl, and even bark. Several sources have stated that dogs act out when they feel that something of theirs is being threatened - whether or not you mean to be threatening. Whatever your intentions are, though, if the dog feels threatened, it may bare its teeth at you lunge at you, and even chase you if you’re not careful.

Of course, there have been plenty of instances where people have been startled by a dog, and the dog has reacted in the complete opposite way. They may sniff you, but wag their tail and let you pet them. So, it really depends on the dog and if you’re threatening something that they sense is important to them.zfcx

Body Language

Here are some signs you might notice when a dog senses fear and feels thretened

  • Growling
  • Staring
  • Barking
  • Sniffing
  • Exposed Teeth

Other Signs

These are other signs you may notice if your dog is sensing fear but not feeling thretened

  • The Dog May Sniff You
  • The Dog May Wag Their Tail
  • The Dog May Let You Pet Them

History of Dogs Smelling Fear


Historically, the idea that dogs can smell fear has been around for a very long time - in some cases passed down from generation to generation. Many people have reported that their mother or grandmother cautioned them that dogs can smell fear, so to be careful when they interact with a dog.

In one example, a dog lover reported that they went out to get their mail after dark, and noticed their neighbor’s large dog had gotten out of the backyard. The person was startled by the appearance of the big dog, and the moment this person felt fear creeping in, the dog lunged and began to chase after her. She ran, and she got away. 

The second she got back inside, her mother scolded her and told her not to ever show fear around a dog because they can “smell it” and will take advantage of it. The dog lover reported that she has felt fear of others dogs since then, but has remembered that advice, and tried to follow it. She hasn’t noted any problems since then, either.

Science Behind Dogs Smelling Fear


Scientifically, there are many different theories behind if dogs can smell fear. Most of the theories center around dogs being able to smell a human’s pheromones. Other research has noted that dogs are keen observers, and can observe human’s body language as well. All of this information helps the dog better understand your intentions. If you’re more nervous, you might be rougher with the dog or pose some kind of a threat in their mind. 

So, this might factor into why a dog might not like a fearful person. Another thing to note is that dogs need strong leaders, and many trainers will tell you that you need to establish yourself as the “alpha.” So, perhaps showing fear to a dog might make them unsure of what to do, since you’re not acting as a leader in that instance.

Smelling fear may also not be exclusive to just dogs. Several studies have concluded that different animal species may be able to sense and react to fear, as well.

Training Your Dog If They Feel Threatened by Fearful People


Sensing fear is uncomfortable for everyone, especially to a dog who may not understand why someone is afraid. So, if your dog is overprotective of you, or nervous around people they don’t know, it’s important to be sensitive to that. If you’re not in a bad situation, stay calm, in many cases, dogs will follow the lead of their owner. If you’re comfortable, your dog can sense this, and it might put them at ease. Also, if your dog doesn’t respond well to you and your commands, it might be important to enroll them in obedience school to help the two of you communicate better.

If your dog does happen to get anxious around people, it’s also important to keep them on a leash in public and to keep a close eye on them. If you’re alert, you might be able to help your dog steer clear of issues with other people. If your dog does seem to sense someone is afraid of them, begins to chase the person, or lashes out, it’s important for you to stop the dog. Let your dog know the behavior isn’t okay, and perhaps seek help from a professional trainer.

What should you do if you encounter a dog that isn’t yours, and they look like they feel threatened? Most people say don’t run and stay calm. Though, it’s good to get out of a situation as fast as possible, if you feel it’s going south.

So can dogs smell fear? Many theories point to yes, in a sense, they can, but it is still not 100% confirmed.

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By Katie Anderson

Published: 03/28/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

Wag! Specialist
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