Why are dogs scared of smoke?

I own a beautiful golden retriever who for some reason or other is full of anxiety.

This has led me to become more interested in how anxiety and fear works (or doesn’t in dogs.)

Other articles that I have written around the topic are scattered throughout this post.

And this article deals specifically with a fear of smoke.

And so, let’s get straight to the heart of the issue…

Why are dogs scared of smoke?

There are lots of reasons why a dog can be scared of smoke. 

Smoke is a very sensory experience. 

Most smoke has a very strong smell to it and thick smoke interferes with or blocks vision. 

Not only that but smoke also moves and swirls around, a dog can move away from smoke only to be covered in a few seconds later.

And finally, lots of smoke also comes with fire and flames.

This adds heat into the sensory mix as well as that eerie sound that fires makes. 

And so perhaps we should be more surprised when a dog isn’t scared of smoke rather than when they are. 

Before we dig deeper how we can help our dog to become less scared of smoke, I want to take a step back and look at what exactly fear is…

Fear vs phobia

Fear is a very healthy reaction in dogs. It is a defence mechanism which when triggered properly helps to keep the animal alert and alive.

For instance a fear of smoke is obviously a great fear to have when a dog finds themselves in the middle of a house fire and it prompts them to run away.

But it is when a healthy fear morphs into a phobia and reactions change from helpful to very unhelpful that problems begin.

A phobia is an exaggerated or irrational sense of fear related to one very specific situation or context.

For instance, in relation to smoke, a phobia becomes an irrational response when a dog panics it any situation where there is a bit of smoke whether it is bacon being fried on the grill or meat being cooked on the BBQ.

In most of those situations, there would be no reason for your dog to be scared but they can’t help themselves but your dog is so scared that it wants to bolt out of your kitchen or escape from your yard at any cost.

The strength of the fight or flight response is also its greatest weakness.

The reaction happens so quickly, that our brains can’t keep up.

Before a dog has had time to think, they have acted or reacted. 

The brain plays catch up and then works out if the reaction was the right thing to do.

It is the same for humans as it is for dogs. 

Having tried to define fear and phobia, let’s take a look at some of the basic reasons that dogs get scared. 

Four reasons why dogs get scared 

Dogs get scared for four different reasons

  1. Lack of socialisation
  2. Traumatic experiences
  3. Genetics
  4. Medical Conditions

Lack of socialisation

This happens when a puppy isn’t exposed to enough different people or places or other dogs as they are growing up. 

And when I say growing, I mean a very limited window.

It is thought by some that these experiences need to happen by the time a puppy is sixteen weeks old.  

After this age, young dogs become “set in their ways” and view new experiences with trepidation not excitement.

I am not sure how relevant this is to a dog’s fear of smoke because I’m not sure that too many puppies will have been exposed to smoke by the time that they are four months old. 

[2] Prior traumatic experiences.

This is a huge factor in why a dog might be afraid of smoke.

The fear or phobia is a result of a very frightening previous incident involving smoke.

It could be that as huge as a house fire or as small as being left alone for a few seconds next to a bonfire that was billowing thick smoke.

The dog might also have got it wrong and made the wrong association.

For instance they might have been standing next to a BBQ and got hit by a tiny burning ember.

But it is not the fire that they focus on going forward but the smoke that went with it. 

[3] Genetics

I can already hear the cynics amongst you start to groan…

How can a dog’s parents or grandparents be responsible for their fear?!

And it is very complex and not as easy to understand as why trauma would help to shape fear, but there is some evidence for it.

Take this study in Finland, which looked at anxiety and fear in dogs.

It was a large study that received responses from nearly fourteen thousand owners.

It found that not only were anxious behaviours quite common in dogs (such as that over 30% of all dogs were scared of one sound or another) but that dogs of the same breed did display anxious behaviours that weren’t present in other breeds.

Although it is very interesting, it is unlikely that a dog could be afraid of smoke because one of its ancestors did. 

[4] Medical condition

A final reason that dogs become scared is because of a medical problem that might cause pain, inhibit mobility or impact on their sense of smell or hearing. 

Whatever it is, the net result is that your dog is less tolerant in a situation.

As well as a medical condition, the decline and resulting intolerance might also be caused by the aging process. 

I think that this explanation might be very relevant for dogs that are scared of smoke. 

Next I want to look at why a dog that is scared of smoke can be such a big issue for owners. 

My dog is scared of smoke- who cares?

Dogs that are wary of the odd bonfire because of the smoke are one thing, but what about a dog that is terrified of entering a kitchen?

Many of us only have the occasional bonfire or if it is a BBQ there are plenty of safe places within a house that a dog can escape to.

But if the fear of smoke becomes a fear that is related to being in your kitchen, or being there when the oven is on, your dog’s fear of smoke becomes a much bigger issue.

After all, we could stop having bonfires or even BBQs if it caused our dogs too much distress.

But how many of us could seriously stop using our ovens because of the terror that it triggered in our dogs?!

Not many…

And now to more fully understand what a huge impact being scared has on our dog and us, I want to quickly look at the most common ways that dogs show fear. 

Top five signs that show my dog is scared

Your dog is an individual and so they might express being afraid of smoke in a whole variety of ways but some of the most common ways are:

  1. Running away
  2. Growling, snapping or biting
  3. Barking or yelping
  4. Cowering and shaking
  5. Defecating

All of these behaviours are incredibly stressful for a dog to experience as well as for being very upsetting to witness for any of their human family. 

Not only are they upsetting but they are very difficult to live with. 

If your dog has any of these reactions to smoke, particularly if they are related to a fear of your kitchen, it will impact your quality of life.

How long could you cope with a dog that is so scared of smoke that he tries to run out of your front door or snaps at one of your children? 

You need to act fast and in the following section I want to offer some helpful tips. 

How to stop your dog being scared of smoke

I want to state the “bleedin’” obvious here.

If your dog is displaying a behaviour that is so extreme that it is putting their safety or your safety at risk, you should contact your vet.

You might want your vet to physically examine your dog to rule out any medical or physical reasons for the behaviour.

But, more importantly the vet will be able to recommend a behaviourist: someone who can help you fix your dog’s quickly. 

If your dog is showing a behaviour that isn’t so dangerous but clearly shows that they are very scared of smoke, you might try modifying your dog’s behaviour yourself.

It won’t happen overnight and you need to remain positive at all times but by successfully helping your dog become less afraid will give you both a real buzz!

Important ingredients apart from patience and praise is the need to break the process up into very small steps.

Similar to the process explained in this article

Closing Thoughts

I hope that this post has helped you understand why your dog might be scared of and some of the ways that you can help your dog overcome this fear.