Most dogs are people pleasers. And if your dog is normally a friendly fellow, you naturally feel alarmed or worried when your dog is anything other than their usual happy-go-lucky tail-wagging self when they meet someone new, whether it’s a visitor, a new partner or one of the neighbors. Their defensive or fear response can make you wonder: Can dogs sense bad people?
What does it mean when your dog doesn’t like someone?
You might get suspicious if your canine becomes uncharacteristically defensive or aggressive with a visitor — hackles up, tail extended, barking, stiff posture, growling or snarling. Or maybe your dog became alarmed or spooked, and started to tremble, cower or even tried to hide.
Can dogs pick up negative energy, bad vibes or just an all-around bad character? The short answer is, not exactly. Canines do excel at reading humans. But your dog’s defensive or fearful response doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog can instantly pick out the bad guys walking among us.
The first thing to do is keep your dog and visitors safe by ushering your pup to their kennel or some other safe place until they become calm. And tell the visitor: Now’s not the time to try and win your dog’s love. They should ignore your dog and give them time and space to come around.
To uncover the root cause of your dog’s mysterious behavior, it will take some understanding of why dogs react the way they do, along with some detective work on your part.
Can dogs judge character?
We’ve all heard some variation of the saying: If your dog doesn’t like someone, you shouldn’t either. But the answer to the question of whether your dog can sense bad people is complex.
By nature, dogs are close observers of human emotion and behavior, and you can chalk that up to the fact that dogs depend on us for everything: food, shelter and companionship.
If something that isn’t obvious to us sets off a reaction, they might be picking up on something. What that is depends on your dog — their breed, temperament, preferences, even their past experiences. A place to start is by understanding how dogs take in information about us.
Can dogs smell emotions?
When we’re feeling strong emotions, your dog’s acute sense of smell gives them access to another avenue of perception — one that is hidden to humans. It’s not just an old wives’ tale: Dogs can smell fear. When we get scared, or have some other strong, sudden emotional response, like anxiety or anger — our body releases adrenaline, a fight-or-flight hormone that gives our muscles a quick hit of energy to spring into action and survive the threat. Adrenaline also sets off sweat glands, which emit a unique chemical scent that dogs detect.
Can dogs read facial expressions?
Surprisingly, reading human facial expressions isn’t considered a canine specialty, because experiments show that dogs have a stronger response to other dogs’ facial expressions than those of humans.
However, there is a specific category of human facial expression that grabs our dog’s attention, and that’s the arousal state. An aroused state can mean we’re feeling angry, fearful or happy. Usually it means our eyes are wider and our teeth may be showing. On their own, wide eyes and teeth signal “threat!” to dogs and puts them on alert. In fact, researchers found that a dog’s heart rate elevates when shown images of their humans expressing fear, anger and joy.
But don’t hide your smile. Conditioning and experience teaches dogs that your big happy grin isn’t a threat, especially when they’ve had all kinds of positive reinforcement with that smile, such as a warm voice tone, treats, ear scratches and play time.
Can dogs read our body language?
Dogs are pros at interpreting human cues. Ever notice how your dog can just tell whether you’re getting up from the couch because you’ve suddenly decided it’s time for a walk vs a bathroom break? In the research lab, dogs outperformed small children, chimps and even wolves in reading subtle human cues to choose the correct container hiding the treat. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense: A get-with-the-program canid would have more success with their human pack than an independent-minded canid. [[[[[insert hyperlink to Element campaign blog #2: What natural instincts do dogs have?]]]]]]]]
Bottom line: Dogs care about how we’re treated!
If your dog detects something’s off about a visitor, it’s possible your dog is picking up something in their body language and social behaviors that’s triggering concern.
And that brings us to one final thought: Dogs do notice and care how others are treating us. In a different experiment, dogs refused treats from a stranger who, moments earlier, didn’t help when their person was struggling with a simple task. (The nerve!)
Is your dog picking up on your emotions?
Let’s say you’re greeting someone who has caused difficulties for you, say, a former partner, an unpleasant neighbor or your annoying one-upping sibling. And your canine immediately assumes a defensive posture — tense body, low growl, hackles up.
Their response may be all the confirmation you need that your dog is an excellent judge of character. What’s more likely is your dog senses that person is making you feel tense, anxious or angry. It’s all there in your body language, facial expression, tone of voice and scent. Some breeds, particularly guarding breeds like German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Dobermans, are just doing what they’re bred to do, and their protective instincts kick in.
If you are truly surprised by your dog’s defensive response, pay attention to what’s happening in your body. Someone can be making you feel tense and uneasy without you realizing it. In that way, yes, dogs are great judges of character because they’re so good at reading us. Trust their cues, and ask yourself some questions to help you understand your emotions.
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