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 Bentley, an English Springer Spaniel, was known in his lifetime for climbing into his family members © (photo credit: Maya Zanger-Nadis) Bentley, an English Springer Spaniel, was known in his lifetime for climbing into his family members

Dogs are known - among many other things - for their acute sense of smell and their ability to raise the spirits of the humans around them. Furthermore, existing research suggests that dogs can sense via smell when humans are experiencing stress.

A recent study out of Queen’s University Belfast published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE tested whether baseline human odors and stress odors were distinguishable to dogs in a double-blind two-phase study.

“This is the first study of its kind and it provides evidence that dogs can smell stress from breath and sweat alone, which could be useful when training service dogs and therapy dogs.”

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Clara Wilson, Queen’s University Belfast School of Psychology

In Phase One of the trial sessions, a dog was presented with a participant's stress sample (breath or sweat) alongside two blank samples. The dog was tasked with identifying the stress sample with an alert behavior. In Phase Two, the dog was presented with the stress sample along with the same participant's baseline sample (taken when they were not stressed) as well as a blank.

Scientists posited that if the dogs were able to exhibit the alert behavior for the correct sample in Phase Two, they could (tentatively) conclude that stress odors and baseline human odors are distinct from each other.

"As the owner of a dog that thrives on sniffing, we were delighted and curious to see Treo take part in the study," revealed Helen Parks, owner of a two-year-old Cocker Spaniel that took part in the study. "We couldn’t wait to hear the results each week when we collected him. He was always so excited to see the researchers at Queen’s and could find his own way to the laboratory."

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What use is an emotion-sniffing dog?

 Clara Wilson from Queen's University Belfast with Leon the dog. (credit: Clara Wilson, Queen's University Belfast) © Provided by The Jerusalem Post Clara Wilson from Queen's University Belfast with Leon the dog. (credit: Clara Wilson, Queen's University Belfast)

"The research highlights that dogs do not need visual or audio cues to pick up on human stress," explained Clara Wilson, a PhD student at the Queen’s University Belfast School of Psychology. "This is the first study of its kind and it provides evidence that dogs can smell stress from breath and sweat alone, which could be useful when training service dogs and therapy dogs."

Results strongly indicate that the physiological response to stress in humans creates changes in the components of breath and/or sweat that are detectable to dogs. The study explains that "these results add to our understanding of human-dog relationships and could have applications to Emotional Support and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) service dogs."

“The study made us more aware of a dog’s ability to use their nose to 'see' the world," Parks said. "We believe this study really developed Treo’s ability to sense a change in emotion at home. The study reinforced for us that dogs are highly sensitive and intuitive animals and there is immense value in using what they do best – sniffing!”

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