Can Dogs Smell Our Emotions?

Our dogs are always sniffing around for food, potential toys, or the scent of the neighbor's dog (that one means you have some explaining to do). But, can our dogs smell our emotions? If your dog seems to comfort you when you're sad or fidget in fear when you're afraid, there may be a scientific reason for that.

Young woman is resting with a dog at home .
credit: Rasulovs/iStock/GettyImages

An experiment shows that dogs can indeed smell your emotions and adopt your feelings as their own.

Biagio D'Aniello of the University of Naples "Federico II", Italy, pointed out to New Scientist that researchers were already aware that dogs can see and hear the signs of human emotions but not much attention was paid to the sense of smell. This is most likely because us humans don't rely on our sense of smell to detect emotions. Canines, however, have a much stronger sense of smell than we do, and they use it for much more than detecting bad milk.

D'Aniello and his colleagues tested if dogs can detect emotions using only their strong sense of smell. Human volunteers were shown segments of either The Shining or The Jungle Book to cause fearful or happy responses. After the videos were watched, the researchers took samples of their sweat. These samples were then presented to domestic dogs, and their behaviors and heart rates were monitored.

Dogs exposed to "fear smells" had increased heart rates and showed signs of distress unlike dogs exposed to "happy" or "neutral" sweat odors. These dogs withdrew from social settings and required more comfort and reassurance from their owners. Poor pups!

Dog expert Stanley Coren, Ph.D. explains, "It seemed as though their response mirrored the emotion that they were detecting in that they were acting in a fearful manner themselves."

The dogs exposed to the happy sweat were relaxed enough to interact with the stranger that produced the scent and needed less attention from their owner.

Shy dog was hiding its face - Thai dog
credit: APION/iStock/GettyImages

Allowing your dog to sniff around may reduce stress.

You may not realize just how important it is to let your dog smell his surroundings. When out for walks, don't pull on his collar, telling him it's time to go when he wants to stop and smell the roses (and everything else).

Sensory deprivation can lead to potential stress in dogs. Animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. explains, "Not allowing dogs to exercise their nose and other senses could be a form of sensory deprivation that robs them of information they need to figure out what's happening in their world. Being smell-blind can indeed be stressful to dogs because they need odors and other information to assess what's happening around them."

Magyar Vizsla 18 weeks old - Dog puppy is sniffing in the grass and follow a track
credit: K_Thalhofer/iStock/GettyImages

Future studies are needed to know the exact science behind canine emotional adaptation and possible long term effects.

It is still unknown whether this emotional adaptation is an innate canine trait or something that developed over years of domestication. Either way, it's helpful to know just how aware our dogs are of our emotions.

Veterinarian Karen Shaw Becker expresses on Healthy Pets, her desire to investigate whether or not the emotional state of a home has long-lasting effects on a dog's health. She predicts that happy homes foster happy dogs whereas stressed or sick humans may tend to have less healthy pups.

Dogs are wise and have great discernment. They pick up on so many cues around them including feelings of stress, fear or happiness. Dogs can go as far as knowing when something is seriously wrong. Who knew this great wisdom was due in part to their amazing sense of smell? Life gets tough for all of us but always remember there are little puppy noses nearby sniffing out the good and the bad.