Scare-Less Or Scar-Less: How Dogs Interpret Human Fear

Behavior Clips

By Gary Wilkes

I have worked with dogs since 1977. I have handled tens of thousands of dogs—many of them dangerous. There is an old piece of folk–wisdom I have heard hundreds of times. The ‘wisdom’ includes a term that is almost universally accepted and rarely challenged.

What’s the term? Fear smell. Used in a sentence it looks like this…
“Dogs can smell if you’re afraid of ‘em. If a dog smells fear on you, it’s all over. They’ll bite you every time!”

In my personal experience I can tell you the ‘fear smell’ rule is provably false—provable with my scar–less skin. When I worked in shelters and animal control, I was scared routinely by dogs. I have been bitten exactly twice—once by a Chihuahua who ‘pinked’ my little finger nail. The other time was from a Wheaten Terrier that was released from a crate in another room and proceeded immediately to my location to bite me—at more than twice the speed of smell.

This old saying preys on the belief that dogs and other animals have a sixth sense that transcends observation or logic. If you believe that, you are helpless. The more you try to hide your fear the more likely you are to be nervous and fearful. If you are afraid of dogs and you believe this myth, you feel doomed to be bitten no matter what you do. The answer to your problem lies with observation. While smell may have some kind of effect on your chances of being bitten, it’s neither the primary nor probable cause of a bite.

Dogs are social animals. Though capable of great violence, they rarely fight among themselves. They have a series of behaviors that act to reduce violence. If two dogs are challenging each other, they have specific visual and audible signals that trigger a fight. These signals are known to all of us. If there is a groomer who doesn’t recognize raised hackles, bared teeth and low growls as familiar signals of potential aggression, I’ve yet to meet the groomer.

According to the fear–smell myth, there is also an odor that starts an attack. Last time I checked, we humans have pitiful noses compared to our dogs. That means it might as well be infrared light—something we cannot perceive with our normal senses.

To stick to smell for a second, there are two obvious reasons to question the smell–theory. First, at any given moment, you have a 50 percent chance of being downwind from the dog. If you are downwind, the dog cannot tell whether you smell of fear or Pinesol.

Secondly, dogs don’t sweat—but people do. Humans often remark on a scared person having particularly pungent body odor.  How would a dog know that the intense odors in human sweat are connected to fear? For a species that doesn’t sweat to be able to genetically recognize that the sweat of another species indicates fear is a huge stretch—meaning it is incredible.

signs of aggression

The real answer to the problem lies primarily in visual signals, not smells. First, let’s look at the signs of aggression in dogs. An aggressive dog has several ways of rattling his saber; he makes direct eye contact with the other dog, he stands as tall as possible and raises his hackles to look even more puffed up, he moves with stiff, jerky motions, he tries to tower over the other dog, and he will growl deeply and show his teeth. The defender reads those signs as a threat to the territory and will return the signs in spades; his back is to the wall, and he’s simultaneously feeling fearful and sending out signals that offer a threat.

Next, we need to look at the natural signs of fear in humans. Scared humans stare at the object of their fear, tense their muscles and move very stiffly, smile nervously, showing their teeth, and they stand erect, towering over the dog. Sound familiar?  Human fear-signs mimic aggressive displays in dogs. While the human is displaying fear behavior, the dog is reading aggression. That is why scared humans stand a greater chance of being attacked. It’s not their smell, but their body posture and movements! Ironically, scared humans look a great deal like threatening dogs.

The real solution to the problem lies in not giving off visual and audible signals that suggest threats. If you are wearing dark glasses, the lenses look like two large staring eyes—a threat. Do not make any form of eye–contact. Watch the dog with your peripheral vision. If the dog reads eye–contact, it will assume you are threatening it. Don’t face the dog straight on, stand sideways. Talk in a high–pitched tone of voice. Low tones are recognized as growls. I know one very fearful woman who has solved the problem by making puppy noises whenever a dog threatens her. Getting down low to the ground helps, too.

The final thing that you need to know is that when dogs are about to start a fight, they attempt to put pressure on the other dog’s withers. A fearful dog will be very sensitive about being touched on the head, neck and shoulders. That is a very big threat because it confirms that the human is about to attack. That means that if you make eye contact, bend over a dog and then attempt to pat the nice doggie on the head, you have just offered a trifecta of threats. Just watch people hovering over to pet a dog and see the dog flinch. No, not all of them, but the ones likely to bite you will crank their head to the side and target the hand that is coming down toward them. Oops.

Eliminating these visual and tactile cues can tell an aggressive dog that you are not a threat. During a first greeting, squat down and pat your leg. Let the dog come to you.  Do not look down and inadvertently make direct eye contact. A great hack is to fix your eyes on the owner’s face and avoid touching the top of the head or shoulders. If the dog gets very close and looks up, move your eyes away. While the number of dogs that will bite over eye-contact is small, you won’t know which ones do until you are bitten. It is best to avoid the chance.

In the world of dogs, there are old-wives-tales aplenty. To be a successful groomer you have to develop skills that transcend common knowledge and folklore. I have been scared by dogs hundreds of times in my career. I am sure I ‘smelled of fear’ thousands of times, yet remained almost entirely unbitten. That’s because I focused on how I look to the dog. There are some dogs that should scare you. That means it’s ill advised to be scare-less, but very wise to work toward being scar-less. ✂