Can a dog smell fear?

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Many people think that dogs can literally smell fear because they seem to be aware of our actions and feelings in a very intimate way. While it is probably not likely that a dog can smell emotions like fear or happiness, they can pick up on behavior cues from humans. Dogs have olfactory systems similar to humans, although their sense of smell is much more keen than ours. One olfactory system picks up the actual smells in the air, while the other olfactory system interprets what these smells are.

Even though dogs have a very good sense of smell, they are most likely not able to smell fear. Instead, they use contextual cues about behavior, actions and feelings to react accordingly. For example, a person who is scared of dogs may slowly back away from the dog, cower, make a fearful noise, raise their arms, run, scream, act unusually timid or any combination of these actions. A dog learns what these actions are, and what they mean, and acts accordingly.

A dog who is able to recognize fear in people is a dog who can cause danger to people if desired. Just like with prey in the wild, a dog knows that a fearful person is a weaker human in most cases. Inversely, dogs are also able to tell if a person is happy, confident, sick, or disinterested just by interpreting and sensing a person’s behavior and actions.

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