Skip to content

New Study: Dogs Can Smell When We Are Stressed

Have you heard this interesting news about dogs? In an experiment, dogs were surprisingly accurate in detecting sweat and breath samples from people who were stressed.

It has been widely believed that dogs can detect extreme emotions by smell. Now scientists at Queen’s University Belfast in the U.K. have proven that a dog’s nose knows.

Acute stress changes the compounds found in human sweat and breath, research has shown. For the new experiment, four dogs were presented with sweat and breath samples collected from human volunteers — before and after the people engaged in a difficult math exercise.

The canine participants were able to detect with a greater than 90 percent accuracy which samples came from before and which came from after the 36 human volunteers had spent three minutes trying to count backward, aloud, according to the report published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS One.

“This study provides further evidence of the extraordinary capabilities of ‘man’s best friend,’” said the study’s first author, animal psychologist Clara Wilson.

“While it is likely that in a real-life context dogs are picking up on our stress from a variety of context cues, we have shown using a laboratory study that there is a confirmed odor component that is likely contributing to dogs’ ability to sense when we are stressed,” Wilson said in an email. 

For their study, Wilson and her colleagues first set out to train a variety of 20 pet dogs to point with their noses at samples from a person who was stressed. (By the end of the training period, 16 dogs had been withdrawn for a variety of reasons, including attention issues and boredom.)

The researchers tested the trained dogs with a machine that offered three choices: an unused piece of gauze, a sample from a stressed person and one from the same person when unstressed.

The researchers also collected before and after measurements of heart rate and blood pressure and responses to the questionnaires that asked about the volunteers’ stress levels before and after the math task.

The dogs’ accuracy at detecting the stress samples — from 90 percent to 96.88 percent — was even better than the researchers anticipated.

Knowing that chemical changes in sweat and breath can result from stress, it was expected the dogs might be able to smell the difference, Wilson said. “However we were still surprised the first time the dogs were shown the pre-and post-math task samples and confidently discriminated between them.”

One thing the research doesn’t reveal is whether dogs feel empathy when a person is stressed.

“Because the dogs were trained with positive reinforcement to find their target, they were visibly excited when they found it in the line-up, rather than showing any kind of stress themselves,” Wilson said.

She compared it to dogs who can smell cancer by picking out breath samples in a line-up. Future studies can investigate whether smell is an important part of a dog’s perception of human emotions, Wilson said.

For further information, please see this article and this article.  

Photo Credit: Queens University Belfast.

No comments yet

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s