People who act nervous around dogs are often told to remain calm because “dogs can smell fear.” As it turns out, there is some truth to the matter, a study says.
While dogs can’t exactly smell fear, they do respond to anxious, fearful people more negatively than other, researchers at the University of Liverpool in the UK found. Neurotic, anxious people are more likely to be bitten by dogs, and most victims were bitten by dogs they did not know, the study concluded.
The researchers conducted a mail-in survey of over 1,200 households living in Cheshire, England. They disseminated a standard personality assessment and asked the participants if they had ever been bitten by a dog, whether the incident had led to any medical treatment, and if they were familiar with the dog in question, Gizmodo reports.
Over 600 people responded, but just a quarter said they had been bitten by a dog. Of the 301 bites, one-third required some degree of medical help, while on bite led to a hospital admission. Men were twice as likely to report a dog bite compared to women, and dog owners were three times more likely.
However, a slim majority – little below 55% — said they had never met the dog that had bitten them.
The researchers found that people who were less emotionally stable and more anxious, based on the personality tests, were also more likely to get bitten. The authors said,
[T]his study demonstrates that the most severe dog bites, of highest public health significance, are thankfully a small proportion of overall bites that occur.
They added that it is “essential that previously assumed risk factors are reassessed as this study has revealed that prior beliefs, such as bites typically being from familiar dogs, are contested.”
While the study sampled a small population, the results line up with other research. In the United States, the risk of getting bitten seems to be as common. Carri Westgarth, an epidemiologist at Liverpool and one of the study authors, said, “We found very similar rates of occurrence of dog bites to previous U.S. studies, and it is likely that causes of dog bites have many similarities between the U.K. and U.S., as there are similarities in the ways dogs are kept as pets.”
The study was published in BMJ.