“Do not show fear to a strange dog!”

Yeah, well, can anybody tell me HOW do you do that? Even people like myself who are well versed in dog body language have felt fear of dogs. More than a decade ago I used to volunteer in a Dog Training facility in the outskirts of Dublin City. I had to take two buses and walk for 15 minutes, most of the times while raining cats and dogs (pun intended).

Close to the Dog Facility there was a car scrapping place guarded by a huge German Shepherd. The minute he saw me he would start barking at me, and that was fine until one day I realised the door was opened and so he raced towards me, drooling like a rabid dog and showing all 42 teeth (I could actually see every single one of them!). The dog eventually got me and bit me with enough pressure to cause a bruise.

This may not be a great example in terms of the motivation for this dog to attack me. It was potentially a territorial related aggression not necessarily caused by my physiological fear, but my point is that regardless of what your brain knows and thinks your body will do its part: you’ll start sweating profusely, your heart will be pounding, your legs will turn into jelly and well, you will smell like a “beyond average person in terms of adrenaline levels in the system” aka a “scared person”.

From your dog’s point of nose

As canine cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz mentions in one of her books “To our dogs, we are our scent”. We humans stink at smelling (pun intended too). Compared to the visual information that we take in, smells are mostly irrelevant in our daily lives.

Human noses have about 6 million scent sensory receptors, sheepdog noses over 200 million, beagle noses over 300 million! We humans are visual animals whereas dogs are olfactory animals. We see the world while our dogs sniff it.

Humans stink (and now I mean it :) Our armpits are a profound source of odour, not to mention our breath and other obvious parts of the human body. Our skin? Our skin is constantly covered in sweat. oils and other fluids. You name it! Whatever we touch we are leaving our scent behind, we don’t even need to touch something for us to leave behind a trail of skin cells!

Wouldn’t you agree now that your dog finds it incredibly easy to distinguish you, and thus your emotions by scent alone?

The scent of fear

The feeling of alarm, fear and every other emotion correlates with physiological changes. From changes in heart rate and breathing rate to sweating and metabolic changes.

How does a dog smell your fear as she approaches you? When you sweat your body releases adrenaline, used by your body to gear up for a good sprint away from something dangerous. While unscented for you, it is not for our supersmellers dogs. Given that our odours reflect our physiological changes, and based on the well researched evidence of pheromones in humans, chances are that a dog can tell if we are scared!

Generally speaking, when you are scared you will ACT scared. Remember that dogs are very good at reading our body language, so it becomes as simple as adding 2+2 from the dog’s point of nose (and eyes)!

Take away for humans

Whether is perceived only from the amazing dog’s sense of smell, our body language, our facial expressions or a combination of all of them, dogs are quite attuned to human emotions thus reacting accordingly. But to say that the sense of smell may be the one and only factor it might be stretching it a bit too far.

Further Suggested Reading

-Inside of a dog What dogs see, smell and know. Alexandra Horowitz
-Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour and Training: Adaptation and Learning Volume 1, Chapter 4 “Sensory abilities”. Stephen R. Lindsay, 2000.
-The Canine Kingdom Of Scent - Fun Activities Using Your Dog's Natural Instincts. Anne Lill Kvam