Amanda Maxwell

May 9th 2022

Can Dogs Sense a Bad Person? And Other Tales of Dog Instincts


Dog owners seem to quickly tune into their furry companion’s ability to sense beyond the range of a human’s traditional five senses. Whether it’s watching the hairs stand up in a line along your dog’s back just before you notice a threat or the way they shy away from certain people, pet owners often take heed based on these reactions. But is it genuine: Can dogs sense a bad person? There may be some reasons to trust dog instincts over and above our own.

Dogs’ Reactions to People

At times when you’ve been out and about with your canine companion, maybe you’ve noticed their behavior change when you encounter someone. Dogs are not great at hiding their personal opinions and will show how they feel. As described by pet-service app Wag, dogs are exceptional at sharing what they’re thinking if you know how to spot the signs.

Meeting a “good” person usually gets enthusiastic tail wags and dancing around from a dog. There may also be a few excited woofs as their instincts for welcoming a new member of your pack take over. However, going near certain people — even if you count them as friends — may elicit a less welcoming response from your dog. You might find your dog turning away, hiding behind your legs, unwilling to engage and generally not acting very effusive. Sometimes, they’ll display outright aggression with lunging, barking and snarling toward what they see as the threat of an intruder. Their hackles may rise with hair standing up on their neck and back. As you rein your dog back, you could find yourself asking if you should beware too.

Social Intelligence Smarts

Dogs have an abundance of social intelligence skills. This helps them pick up on your cues and also pick out warning signals from other people. Dogs are pack animals whose survival historically has depended on correctly interpreting behavioral cues from those around them. Dog instincts are survival instincts.

But what is it that dogs are experiencing when they respond to someone else? It could be that they remember an unpleasant experience associated with that person. Ask any veterinarian what it’s like to meet a patient outside the clinic, and you’ll find that not all of them are greeted with warmth and enthusiasm from our four-legged pals who recall their pokes and prods.

However, you, dear owner, are your dog’s pack, so they’re also trying to respond to your cues. A study reported in LiveScience shows the human/dog bond in action. In the experiment, the dogs reached out to their owners when the owners showed signs of distress. And Scientific American notes that dogs can pick out angry faces.

So your dog may be picking up on your subtle behavioral clues when working out how to classify the person you’ve just encountered. If you are not sure of that person or have had tough times in your own interactions with them, your dog may pick up on it and mirror it. If they sense that you’re uncomfortable and your pet-owner bond is strong, then they are quite literally in your corner. Your own behavior influences them and determines whether dogs can sense a bad person.

Evaluation and Judgment

Your dog is also judging those around you in order to decide how to behave. New Scientist describes a study that investigated the reactions of dogs to people who either helped or refused to help their owners. The researchers found that the dogs could pick out antisocial behavior and were more likely to socially exclude or react unfavorably toward the perpetrator.

This kind of judgment might be a foundational dog instinct as well as a human skill that’s essential to community living and developing a sense of morality. Not only does it exclude antisocial individuals, but it can also deter such behavior by subtly threatening expulsion from the community.

Our Super-Sensing Furry Friends

So, can dogs sense a bad person? They have much more acute hearing than us, can pick up subtle inflections in speech and have well-developed social intelligence skills. But the answer is more a question of whether dogs sense when you sense a bad person. These furry companions are constantly reading our reactions and responding accordingly.

From the early days of domesticated wolves to the tail-wagging family members we love today, it is clear dogs will continue to be one of our closest companions. And even if your dog isn’t the best security system, they certainly bring joy to your life.

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