The smell of fear may make it hard for dogs to track some people

a white labrador dog wearing a red harness is trotting on a green lawn, its head is lowered as though sniffing the ground
Being stressed or afraid may alter a person’s usual scent. That can throw dogs off the person’s track. People with a particular version of a gene may have a bigger change in odor when stressed, data show.

BALTIMORE, Md. — Some police dogs may smell fear. And that could be bad news for finding people whose genes make them more prone to stress, new data show.

Trained police dogs did not recognize stressed-out people who had inherited a form of a gene linked to managing stress poorly. The dogs had no trouble sniffing out these people when they weren’t under stress. Francesco Sessa reported their new findings here, February 22, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Their findings might help explain why dogs can perform flawlessly in training but have difficulty tracking people during real-world hunts.

Sessa studies genetics at the University of Foggia in Italy. He and his colleagues wondered whether fear might change someone’s normal scent. They focused on a gene called SLC6A4. It makes a protein that helps move signaling molecules in the brain and nerves. Studies had already linked different forms of this gene to how well someone manages stress. Those with a long version of SLC6A4 tended to handle stress better than did people with the short version, Sessa notes.

For its new study, his group recruited four volunteers. One man and woman each had the long version of the gene. Another man and woman had the short version. Each participant…

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