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22/09/2016, 10:00

Dogs can't smell fear - but they have other ways of telling if you're scared of them

It's a well-worn saying that animals can smell and sense our fear - but is there any truth in it?

To be fair, WE'RE scared

While snakes and spiders unsurprisingly top the list of animal phobias, cynophobia(the fear of dogs) affects tens of millions of people around the world. 

Our canine chums may not have eight legs, venomous fangs and lurk in dark corners, but that's the thing about phobias - they're often an irrational fear. 

Of course, some people have just cause to be wary around dogs, and for others, the 'fear' may be more of an aversion. 

But can dogs themselves sense this fear?

It's a long standing theory that animals can indeed smell our fear - dogs included - but is this the case?

Well, yes and no.

Having conducted years of laboratory and field research on canine olfaction (the action of smelling), Quora user Jim Johnston has provided some insight. 

"It is possible that a fear reaction changes human chemistry in ways that dogs might detect.

"If this were true, individual dogs might well learn to detect it without explicit training because it may be to the dog's advantage to do so."

"However, I doubt that science has isolated off gassing compounds associated with fear reactions."

But the saying is not completely redundant - they do have other ways of detecting fear.

"I suspect it is more likely that if some dogs respond to human fear reactions it is on the basis of visual cues associated with human behavior.

"When people are afraid, their behavior often changes in some common ways, regardless of otherwise varying circumstances.

"For instance, our muscles usually tense up, our breathing changes, and our movements are likely to become quicker.

"Dogs are very sensitive to subtle aspects of human behavior and are likely to respond to such changes, especially because such circumstances have in the past had a significant impact on the dog's behavior."

So although we DO sweat more when afraid, secreting chemicals, 'smelling fear' is more a handy phrase.

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