If you’ve ever been nervous around a dog and told to just be calm because dogs can “smell fear,” you know that that advice is about as effective as telling a pissed-off person to chill. The sentiment behind that guidance, though, appears to be rooted in some truth: While dogs probably can’t smell fear, they do seem to respond to fearful people with more aggression.
A new study published Thursday in the BMJ suggests that anxious, neurotic people are more likely to be bitten by dogs. Further, the researchers found that most victims were bitten by dogs they didn’t know.
Researchers at the University of Liverpool in the U.K. conducted a mail-in survey of over 1,200 households living in the town of Cheshire, England. Along with a standard personality assessment, they asked the respondents if they had ever been bitten by a dog in their lifetime; whether it led to any sort of medical treatment; and if they knew the canine in question beforehand.
Of the more than 600 people who replied, just under a quarter said they had been bitten. Of these bites (301 in total), a third required some degree of medical treatment, while a single bite led to a hospital admission. Men were almost twice as likely to report a bite than women, and dog owners were over three times more likely. But the slim majority of bites—just below 55 percent—happened to people who had never met the dog before the encounter.
Another pattern they found was that people who were less emotionally stable and more anxious were also more likely to get bitten. For each drop in a one to seven scale measuring neuroticism (seven being the most stable), the associated risk of a lifetime bite rose by 33 percent.
“[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,” the authors wrote. But they also noted 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.”
The study is one of the few to try to figure out how often dogs bite people without relying on hospital records. They found that if the number of bites reported in the town in the last year (13) were extrapolated to the general population of the U.K., it would amount to 18.7 bites per every 1,000 people annually. That figure is much higher than official estimates, and is nearly three times higher than an oft-cited figure of 7.5 bites per 1,000 in the U.K..
Though this study was based on a small sample population, its findings line up with other research. In the U.S., the risk of a dog bite seems to be just as common.
“In fact 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,” study author Carri Westgarth, an epidemiologist at Liverpool, told me via email.
The study can’t tell us why the connection between dog bites and anxious people exists, though Westgarth and her colleagues have their theories. Since people often reported being bit more than once, and many bites occur in childhood, it’s possible someone bitten early on in life might have grown up to be more anxious, Westgarth admitted.
“It is also plausible that people with different personality types behave differently around dogs. Dogs may find certain human behaviors threatening and stressful and respond with aggression,” she said. “There is also some suggestion that nervous and anxious people are more likely to have nervous dogs, whether that is through acquiring dogs with similar personalities, or through effects of their behavior on each other.”
“We really do not know what is driving this association at this stage, and the finding also needs confirmation in other studies to know whether it was a one-off,” she added.
If anxiety and other risk factors, like being male, do turn out to be a trigger for dog bites, then that could lead to educational initiatives more tailored to specific risk groups, like men, children, and those less emotionally stable, Westgarth said.
Of course, there are plenty of prudent steps dog owners and admirers alike can take to lower the risk of a bite.
“These include: sourcing a dog that has parents with good temperament; socializing the dog from birth to a variety of people and situations it is likely to encounter throughout life; learning to interpret the subtle signs that a dog may feel uncomfortable and stressed and may escalate to a bite; and most importantly, being sensible about how the dog is managed and supervised,” Westgarth said. “For example, not startling a dog when it is sleeping, feeding a dog separately and leaving it to eat in peace, and never leaving dogs and children unattended together.”
“We tend to think ‘it wouldn’t happen to me’ or ‘my dog wouldn’t bite’ but all dogs can and we need to be realistic at managing situations so that they never feel the need to bite,” she added.