I gave a presentation at a school in West Seattle today and a good question from one of the teachers stuck with me. Can a Dog Sense Fear?
My answer to her was something like, “Yes, dogs do seem to be able to sense fear. But just sensing fear won’t make them decide to bite you if that’s not in their personality.” Thinking on it more, I should have said some things that fearful people do that clues the dogs in and what they can do to appear more confident.
1. Staring directly at the dog.
When you’re afraid that a dog might bite you, it’s pretty tempting to stare at the dog to make sure you’re safe. Unfortunately, that stare can be taken as a threat and the dog may be more likely to bite.
2. Freezing or jerky motions.
As hard as it is, if you ‘act natural’ by moving in a relaxed, calm way, that will help. Dogs tend to freeze just before getting into a fight, so if you get all stiff, they may think that you want to start something.
3. Talking Extra Loud.
When we get nervous, humans tend to talk more loudly. That could also freak out a nervous dog.
4. Ignoring body language.
Some people are afraid of dogs and have never learned much about them. (That wasn’t the case with the teacher who asked the question, but I thought I’d mention this part anyway). Sometimes, they don’t understand that when the dog turns away from them, the dog might be asking for a bit more distance, not continued petting. Or the dog rolls over and the person thinks, “He wants a belly rub,” when actually, it’s a Tap Out – the dog saying, “I give, please stop!”
5. Approaching head-on.
You might be thinking, “I’m brave, it’s just a dog, I can do this!” and walk directly toward the dog down the sidewalk. To the dog, walking straight for them means you want to interact. If you don’t think the dog is safe or you just don’t want to stop to say hi, walk in an arc around the dog. That might mean you step off of the sidewalk, but not necessarily. It doesn’t take a huge arc to signal to the dog that you mean to pass right by.
Dogs can probably smell your sweat glands, too, but I’d say the body language is probably your biggest giveaway.
What you can do:
You already have most of the skills you need. Rather than thinking of the dog as a vicious monster, think of the dog as a person you don’t know in an elevator or on the bus. Keep your hands to yourself, blink instead of staring, have your side to the dog rather than going face-on.
Ask the person with the dog (hopefully, there is one!) whether s/he is good with people. If the person says no or even hesitates, skip the meeting.
Note: If you are walking your own dog and you don’t want him to sense your fear of something else, watch your hands. Did you just tighten that leash?