Cap Region Pets

No need to smell fear: Dogs have other reasons to bite

Many owners believe that their dogs bite people because they smell fear, but there is no proof of such a canine ability. It is known that dogs are more likely to attack rapidly departing people, and more likely to ignore someone who is not moving. (Victoria Roberts/The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH STORY SLUGGED SCI Q&A BY RAY FOR AUG. 7, 2017. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED.

Q: Can dogs smell fear?

A: Dogs have remarkable olfactory ability and can be trained to smell a chemical at very low concentration, said Dr. Katherine Albro Houpt, a professor emeritus of behavioral medicine at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

But there is no proof that dogs can smell fear.

In theory, some dedicated chemist might be able to isolate an odor from the sweat or urine of scared people, and then track the reactions of dogs to it, she said. But such an experiment has not been done.

Many owners believe that their dogs bite people because they smell fear. In fact, Houpt said, the most common victim is someone who reaches out to pet a dog while saying something like, “I love dogs, and they all love me.”

So what does set off an attack?

“We do know that dogs are likely to attack rapidly departing people,” Houpt said. “They are responding with predatory aggression, not recognition of fear in the victim.”

A dog is most likely to ignore someone who is not moving, she added. That is why children are told not to run but to stand still, arms at their sides, when a strange dog approaches.

Sometimes not being afraid is more dangerous than fear, Houpt said. “If you look a dog in the eye, especially a confident, aggressive dog, he is more likely to bite than if you avoid eye contact.”