Do you believe that your dog can sniff out a good person?
Some dogs seem to love everyone they meet, while others take forever to warm up to anyone. You might notice that you and your dog always seem to get along with the same people… or, you might wonder why your dog has a bone to pick with your best friend.
Though dogs are not always able to tell us who we should and shouldn’t trust, we can’t underestimate how perceptive they can be. New research gives us some interesting insights on how dogs judge people and what influences the way they behave around strangers.
Dogs Are Constantly Reading Facial Expressions
In 2013, researchers at the University of Vienna taught dogs to look at a screen and evaluate photos of human faces that were either angry or happy. The dogs were able to easily identify facial expressions, even if the facial features were isolated – dogs could perceive not only smiles and frowns, but more subtle details like tension around the eyes or a relaxed face.
Can Dogs Actually Smell Fear?
Have you ever been told that if you were afraid of a dog, they would smell your fear and become more likely to attack you? It’s unclear where this belief comes from, but it surely has done nothing to help people feel comfortable around dogs.
Researchers tested this idea by collecting sweat samples from people while they were experiencing happiness, sadness and fear. Dogs exposed to the “fear sweat” samples actually became more stressed. Their heart rates increased, they avoided contact with a stranger and sought reassurance from their owner.
So, it’s true that dogs can smell fear. However, they will not necessarily respond with aggression. They may simply be more timid around people who are anxious. If you’re anxious around someone, your dog will probably react accordingly.
Dogs Notice How Other People Treat You
Another interesting behavioural study showed evidence that dogs can judge people based on their body language and their actions. In this setup, the dog’s owner would try to open a container. A person next to them, a stranger to the dog, would either help the dog’s owner open the container, or turn away, refusing to help. After the stranger either helped or didn’t help the dog’s owner, they offered the dog a treat.
When the stranger was helpful, the dogs happily accepted the treat. When offer a treat by an unhelpful stranger, however, the dogs often hesitated or refused the treat.
Do You Think Your Dog Is A Good Judge Of Character?
These small studies suggest that dogs can use their ability to read facial expressions, understand social interactions and even their sense of smell to judge people. Even so, some dogs struggle with anxiety around strangers and may not be able to settle down long enough to make a fair judgement.
So, do not feel bad if your anxious dog does not warm up to your favourite people right away. A combination of genetics, socialization and training will determine how your dog will react to different people.
Also keep in mind “trigger-stacking”. Meeting a stranger is at least a little bit stressful to most dogs. If that stranger is their new veterinarian, who might look scary in their white coat, and your dog is surrounded by anxious dogs in the waiting room, plus picking up on your own nervous scent… all of these triggers can make your dog more likely to act fearful or act out aggressively.
Do your best to minimize triggers when introducing your dog to new people. It might be easier for your dog to meet people in public places than at home. Allow your dog to warm up to people at their own pace, rather than rushing an interaction.
Powerful Dog Training Starts With Behavioural Science
If you’re working on socializing your dog, reducing problematic behaviours, or teaching new skills, it’s important to understand how your dog thinks. Modern, reward-based training techniques revolve around creating positive experiences and setting your dog up for success.