How do dogs sense fear? Do they actually smell fear, or are there loads of behavioral indicators that make them afraid? We do know that dogs have a sense of smell that is about one million times more sensitive than humans. It is believed that dogs identify humans based on their individual smell. It’s possible that dogs sense fear in a situation when they smell sweat coming from a human who is in distress.
Two olfactory systems in dogs have been identified. The main olfactory system allows dogs to recognize smells such as a newly opened can of tuna fish, or freshly baked cookies. These types of smells release airborne molecules that attach to olfactory receptors. The accessory olfactory system begins with the Vomeronasal organ, or the Jacobson’s organ, which is located at the floor of the nasal cavity. This system detects emotional states such as territory, aggression and reproduction. Animals communicate with each other by giving off different scents.
Many dogs are fearful of loud noises, such as humans screaming, thunder, the vacuum cleaner and construction equipment. They are also sensitive to the body language of humans. For example, if we run towards a dog he is likely to cower or take a defensive stance. Dogs are superior observers. They probably sense a situation is out of the ordinary just by the way a human behaves.
How can we soothe a dog that is fearful? It isn’t wise to overly coddle a scared dog, but it is helpful to reach out and offer comforting pets and a reassuring voice to calm them down. If too much attention is given then the fearful behavior might be reinforced. It is also a good idea to try and redirect their attention away from the fearful situation. Offer them something to chew on or engage them in play. There is a product called the Thundershirt that has shown to effectively reduce anxiety and fear in dogs, almost instantly. It works by constantly providing gentle pressure on a dog’s nervous system. Often just reassurance by the owner will help to calm your dog until their fear has passed.