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5 min read


Can Dogs Smell Stress?



5 min read


Can Dogs Smell Stress?


You may remember your parents telling you to stand your ground if you came face to face with an unleashed dog. They would have gone on to say the dog will smell your fear and if you turn and run they’ll give chase like a wolf hunting their prey. Not bad advice as dogs can really sense and smell when you are scared, so high-tailing it out of there is probably not the wisest move. 

A dog might attack if you run as they can smell how afraid you are. This super-sense is handed down from their wolf-ancestors who needed this ability to survive. How should you react when a dog smells your stress? Read on to learn more.


Signs a Dog Can Smell a Person's Fear

Dogs can smell fear and if an aggressive mutt steps in the path of your family pooch,  they will probably sense your terror, seeing their barred teeth and alert body posture. Your family Lab out for a walk with their guardian will understand the play at hand and try to send that bad boy scurrying. If your fear has turned to panic, your body will be sending signals to the unsocial canine, who might be in the mood for a scrap.

If you weren't aware that dogs can read your emotions, you might be in for a rude awakening as this nasty mutt senses you are petrified and starts growling. It's not long before they are snapping at the air trying to intimidate you and your dog.

Both dogs knew you were afraid of the vicious mutt, but one became your protector while the other wanted to attack. Labs are loyal and this ones not about to back down as they bark a warning "Move on punk!" Your lab is in guard mode and will fight if they have too.

Dogs have the upper paw as their sense of smell is far superior to ours. Their nose is a complex apparatus that can smell fragments of a scent, making them outstanding detector dogs. It’s interesting to note that sniffer dogs can sense when a person is stressed and might be hiding drugs on their body. What the handler might not see is the dog has already picked up the fearful scent and is in a wash of human hormones. This worldly traveler might look cool, calm and collected, but the dog is smelling, “I’m Freaked Out!”

Dogs must have a secret chuckle as their ability to smell fear gives them an insight as to how a human is feeling. That dog in the park not only got a whiff of your fear but could see clearly the look of horror on your face. Pooches can easily read our expressions, having gotten used to the way humans smile, frown, and grimace. They can tell if you’re in a state of euphoria or down in the doldrums. An aggressive dog will take all the cues and determine their next move.

Body Language

Signs a dog can tell when someone is afraid:<br/>

  • Growling
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Guarding
  • Scratching
  • Exposed Teeth

Other Signs

More signs a dog knows you are stressed:<br/>

  • Reading A Persons Facial Expressions
  • Responding To Your Emotion
  • Sniffing A Lot More Than Usual

History of Dogs Smelling Stress


The jury is out on the time frame of sociable wolves making peace with early man, but you can bet some of those guys sitting around the campfire would have felt fearful when these colossal creatures knocked on their cave door.

Many moons ago a grey wolf, who is no longer with us, began the lineage we now call dogs. Mankind had high hopes for pooches and began a breeding dance, akin to a quickstep. Dogs were their fun, after-school project and the aim was to design various types for work and for friendship. The breeding program was frantic and the aggressive traits of the wolf were exchanged for a pet that liked being with humans.

Luckily some of the wolf’s sense attributes were retained with their legendary sense of smell ready to start detecting cash, explosives, seizures, and stress. For the people with anxiety disorders, this inherent asset is a godsend.

Service dogs help humans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by sensing they are about to have a panic attack. The dog detects changes in their companion’s mood and helps them navigate through the stress. Our woofers appear to have a 6th sense when it comes to supporting veterans of war and folk traumatized by a life-changing event.

The New York Times tells the tale of a Rhodesian Ridgeback, named Cali whose job is to check cortisol levels in school kids. Every day, Cali waits patiently for students to come through the doors of the Calais School in Whippany, NJ. Cali lets his handler know if one of the kids is registering high-stress. That child then spends quality time with Cali and his handler diffusing their anxiety. Dogs can smell adrenaline and cortisol, the hormones that signify stress!

The Science of Dogs Sensing Stress


Science has been playing ball with dogs, checking out their emotive side and finding they really are cool canines who can dance to the beat of our drum and mirror our feelings.

New Science gets in touch with doggy psychology and verifies woofers can see and hear our emotions - plus actually smell them! Researchers at the University of Naples endured a stinky time to find out if our pooches could sniff the way we feel.

Volunteers were enlisted to watch videos that induced fear and happiness. Specimens of sweat were taken and given to brave dogs to sniff, while their heart-rate and attitude were carefully watched.

Interestingly, the dogs involved reacted to the fear sweat with stress and high-heart rates. They also showed a vulnerability, wanting to be close to their owners. It would seem dogs are super-tuned to us, taking on board our fears as their own.

Woofers have a repertoire of senses to work with, when it comes to recognizing fear and stress. They can observe our body language and sniff out hormonal changes. There’s no hiding how we feel from the family dog!

Training PSTD Service Dogs


There are caring canines trained to look after people who suffer from anxiety disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. These mutts are the silent heroes who devote their time to making life a whole lot better for some of our war-weary soldiers. They are men and women who feel the effects of their time in the service with panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks and emotional distress. This is a lonely journey and is confusing at best, so having a floppy-eared, canine caregiver to share the load can be a turning point toward recovery.

Time Magazine gives mention to an ex-Army captain who served In Iraq and came home with a pile of well-deserved medals, including a purple heart. He also returned with PTSD. This brave-heart soldier has written a book titled Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him

A post-traumatic service dog can be a lifeline for returning soldiers and other people who have experienced physical and emotional trauma. These nurturing pups are trained to assist their handlers with specific tasks while offering a unique companionship and support during the frightening effects of this disorder.

 A dog can be trained to bring medication to their handler, interrupt nightmares by turning on lights plus guide them through episodes of hyper-vigilance. Each pup is specifically trained to meet the needs of an individual. The dedicated dogs suitable for this line of work are required to focus on their handlers and are taught to apply pressure to help calm them during a panic attack. If things get chaotic, a PTSD dog can call 911 on a phone that's designed for a pooch to use.

As dogs can smell stress, they make ideal helpers for all people with stress-related disorders. Their natural ability to smell the chemicals emitted from the body allows them to pre-alert their handler and avert a chronic anxiety episode.

Training can take 1-2 years as there is a lot to learn, but with a canine’s natural talent of sniffing out stress, our woofers are perfect for helping our veterans move on with their lives.

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How to React When a Dog Smells Your Stress or Fear:

  1. Don't make eye contact.
  2. Ignore the dog.
  3. Try to stand sideways.
  4. Cross your arms for protection.
  5. Don't yell, scream, or provoke the dog.
  6. If possible, try to put a barrier between you and the aggravated pooch (a jacket, or bag).
  7. Curl up in a ball and clasp your hands behind your neck.

Written by a Japanese Chin lover Linda Cole

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 04/26/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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