Monday, November 16, 2009

Do Dogs Sense Fear?

By Linda Cole

I have never been afraid of dogs, but I have friends who are terrified of them. Is their fear warranted? Can dogs sense when someone is afraid of them and if so, does it cause them to react differently towards someone who is fearful? Can dogs feel other human emotions too, or is it just a figment of our imagination, or wishful thinking?

Fear is a natural reaction to situations where we feel we have no control. Animals know when to run and when to fight. If dogs sense fear from us, does that mean a dog who is normally submissive can become aggressive towards us? Yes, if he knows you are afraid.

Because dogs are experts at reading body language, they can quickly pick up on someone who is afraid of them. They can actually smell fear. When we are scared, sweat glands are more active which will produce “body odor” a dog can smell. There's even evidence dogs can see fear as well as other emotions on our face. However, our body language sends the strongest and most significant signal to a dog.

Dogs sense fear and can read us like a book. People who are afraid of dogs often stare at them, which the dog interprets as being confrontational. Instead of staying calm, a fearful person will tense up, which also tells the dog this person wants to fight. Someone who is afraid of dogs will likely have no idea what a dog's body language means; therefore, their body language may be telling the dog all the wrong things. A fearful person can put the dog in a defensive state of mind.

If dogs sense fear through body language, the best way to defuse a situation is by understanding both the body language of dogs and your own. Avoid making eye contact, stand still with your arms loosely at your side, remain calm, keep your side toward the dog and never run away. Don't yell or kick at the dog, or try to hit it with a stick or your hands. Slowly back away and keep an eye on the dog without giving it direct eye contact. If you see a dog sitting on the sidewalk ahead of you, walk around him. This tells him you mean him no harm and you're just passing by. A straight on approach signals to the dog you want to meet him.

So if dogs sense fear, do they also know when we are happy or sad? Most scientists who study animals say no, but most pet owners who interact with their pet every day would disagree. I've lived with dogs and cats my entire life, and have always been amazed by their ability to know when I am in a good mood, upset or angry. They react differently depending on my mood. Researchers agree dogs can show primary emotions like anger, fear or anxiety, but other emotions are beyond a dog's range of feelings because they believe dogs don't have a sense of “self.” They theorize that jealousy or empathy could not be felt by dogs. I'm not sure I agree. My dogs do show jealousy and I have the scars to back me up, from breaking up dogfights over who was going to sit next to me.

A video of two dogs was shown on the news last winter. One dog had fallen into a frozen pond when the ice broke under him. The other dog would leave, but kept coming back to check on the one in the water. Did the dog sense fear from his companion? It seemed like he knew the dog in the water was in trouble. He would run up to people standing on the bank as if he was pleading for help. Was he showing empathy for the dog stuck in the freezing water? Both dogs were rescued and returned to their owner. The one in the water had no injuries other than shivering from a dip in a frozen pond.

Those who live with dogs and cats see every day how their pet reacts to them and the world they live in. Dogs who share our homes with other dogs or cats are as individual as humans are. Some dogs are smarter than others and may show more emotions than others. Dogs sense fear as well as anger and anxiety. As for love, empathy, jealousy or other emotions, the jury is still out – but don't be surprised if your dog snuggles up to you the next time you're in a sad mood. It's their way of saying “I love you and I know something is wrong. Can I help?” They may understand us better than we thought.

Read more articles by Linda Cole


  1. I usually have no problems with dogs. I'm a very caring person with all animals. I'm puzzled with my next door neighbor's dog. He always growls at me but he is friendly with other people. I also noticed that the only time he growls at me is when he is with his owners and they don't like me. Is it possible that the dog can sense the owner's behavior and chime in with them? The might be "silently growling in their minds", but their dog growls at me to show me what they're about? Kind of a strange tell-tale sign? I do know that dogs will smell fear because humans secret a very disagreeable odor when scared which antagonizes a dog.

  2. Hi Jan,

    I wonder if he's sensing something from you and not the owners. But it's possible he's picking up vibes from them that puts him on guard. Dogs can pick up subtle body language that we don't realize we're putting out, so if there's tension, both you and your neighbor would be giving him signs in your body language and even your face that the dog could be picking up.

    It would be interesting to see if you tried to be more positive when his owners are around if it would make a difference with the dog.

    This is something I would have to do some research on to give you a definite answer, however.


  3. Is there a term or contition for dogs that act agreessively towards people who are afraid of them?

  4. My cousin has three little girls (between the ages of 5 and 12) that are very afraid of dogs. They like dogs and tend to want to pet them but at the same time they're constantly in fear and are uncomfortable around any dog. I have no idea why. Anyway, when my cousin brings them to our house they gather up the courage to try to pet any play with our two dogs. My rather snappy 7 year old toy poodle usually tries to avoid them, but my 2 year old Powdeerpuff Chinese Crested gives them a chance and let's them pet her....for a while anyway. The last two times they've been over she's snapped at them, or rather, she's barked at them and retreated. I haven't seen it happen, but some of my family members have. Is Taka sensing their fear? Is that. What causes her to be on edge around them? She's never behaved like that around anyone else. She's the most loving dog I've ever met. She doesn't have a problem with children because she interacts with the other young members of my family just fine. The only thing I know that's different about my cousin's kids is their unshakable fear. What should I do to try to solve this problem?


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