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It is well known that dogs are empathetic creatures that can sense our feelings and reflect them. In fact, it’s one of the reasons we love our dogs so much! However, we often forget that they are very different creatures compared to us and don’t speak the same language.
As a result, some of their actions or reactions may seem strange to us, and vice versa. Sneezing is one of these actions that are often mistranslated between dogs and their owners.
So why do dogs run away when you sneeze?
The short answer is the sneeze startled or confused your dog. Sneezes are loud, sudden noises that dogs may instinctually respond to. Sneezes are also used by dogs to communicate playfulness or to de-escalate a situation so they may be confused about what you are trying to say.
We’ll explain this in a lot more detail but first, let’s make sure we understand how dogs use sneezing to communicate.
How Do Dogs Use Sneezing as Communication?
For dogs, sneezing can be an involuntary reaction like our sneezing, but it can also be used as a powerful communication tool to portray a dog’s emotions. Because dog communication relies so much on body language, many sounds that we may think of as insignificant can mean a lot to a dog.
Sneezing is often used during play with dogs. When dogs play with one another, it closely resembles fighting. To avoid confusion while initiating play sessions, your dog may sneeze to indicate their intentions are friendly and playful.
A calming signal is an action that a dog takes to communicate to deescalate a tense situation. Commonly known calming signals are lip-licking, showing their belly, or even licking each other, but sneezing is often used as a calming signal as well. A dog may sneeze to break the tension and communicate to other dogs that they pose no threat.
In the video below you can see an excellent example of the play sneeze and the calming signal sneeze used. Both dogs let out sneezing while they were wrestling to communicate that they were playing.
At about the 30-second mark, you can see the smaller dog sneeze a few times as a calming signal to let his playmate know that he needs a break. In return, the larger dog walked away, demonstrating just how subtle dog communication can be.
Since all dog-to-dog communication is taken in context with the body language and overall social situation, there may be other reasons that dogs sneeze that we don’t know about yet. For example, a study on groups of wild dogs in Botswana uses sneezing as a voting technique. The pack won’t go out for a hunt unless there are enough sneezes at their rallies.
5 Reasons Your Dog May Run Away from A Sneeze
Now that you know more about how sneezing is incorporated into dog communication habits, we can evaluate the way your dog reacts to a sneeze from a human. Some dogs don’t react to sneezes at all, except for the cursory annoyed glance they may give you for waking them from their nap.
Some dogs will excitedly run to their owners when they sneeze to check on them, but many dogs will also run away when they hear a sneeze from their owners.
This inconsistency in responses only shows just how confusing it can be for a dog to interpret what a sneeze means. For dogs that run away from sneezes, there are several interpretations they may have perceived that triggered their flight response.
Reason 1: Startled By The Noise
Often a sneeze is a loud, sudden noise that may take even the person sneezing by surprise. It’s easy to understand why a dog that wasn’t expecting a sneeze would be startled, but what about a dog that knows a sneeze is coming?
Even if a dog knows your sneeze and can anticipate it coming, the noise could still be a trigger that they can’t ignore. Dog ears are 4 times as sensitive as ours, so loud noises can be a much bigger deal to a dog than to us. There may also be a negative or traumatic memory ingrained in their minds that they associate with the sound of sneezing.
With such powerful ears and no way to really understand a sneeze, it’s no wonder that a dog would run away from your surprise sneeze!
Reason 2: Unfamiliar Odor
Sneezing releases particles in the air called droplets. These droplets can travel many feet, and leave a very distinct scent, especially to dogs who have a much more sensitive sense of smell. This scent may be unfamiliar to your dog and could make them feel anxious, which causes them to flee.
Again, it can be different for each dog and while some pups will be eager to smell your sneeze just like they’re eager to smell your breath others may find the sudden scent unsettling. You can also see how the combination or a loud noise and a sudden new smell could lead some dogs to run away.
Reason 3: They Don’t Want to Play
As explained above, dogs use a form of a sneeze to communicate that their actions are intended to be playful. This, however, is typically paired with playful body language, while our sneezing is not. So why would your dog think you want to play?
Well, a human sneeze can sound drastically different to a dog sneeze. Because human sneezes are loud and sudden, they can resemble a play bark. For most dogs, a sudden and loud play bark when they are not interested in playing can be considered rude, causing your dog to retreat to a quieter space.
Reason 4: Perceived as a Threat
Human sneezes sound different than dog sneezes, so a dog may interpret them in ways that we’d never imagine. Sneezing is loud, sudden, and affects our whole bodies. For dogs, the sound may be akin to a similar canine sound, such as a snort, cough, or tooth snap. With this in mind, it’s not hard to connect why dogs may perceive our unusual sneezing behaviors as threatening.
It’s a normal first instinct for dogs to react to things they don’t understand as a threat and it’s also possible that you’re an especially loud or expressive sneezer compared to what they’re used to.
Reason 5: They’re Confused
Given the fact that this is reason number five, there are clearly several ways a sneeze can be taken.
If your dog doesn’t understand your intent, their confusion may cause panic or anxiety to kick in and cause them to run away from the interaction.
If your dog has suddenly become sensitive to your sneezing but hasn’t been before, they may need to be examined by a vet. Ear infections are common in many breeds and can cause sensitivity to sound. Your dog may also be in discomfort from something else that they don’t know how to communicate, and the sound of sneezing could push them over a stress threshold.
Why Don’t They Run from Other Dogs Sneezing?
Sneezing can be interpreted in a variety of ways, so why don’t dogs react to other dogs sneezing in inappropriate ways? The sound of our sneezes can be confusing, but for dogs that are well-socialized, the actions of other dogs are easy to understand. Because dogs use sneezing to ease tension and communicate play, most dogs have no reason to run from a sneezing dog.
In short, dogs speak the same language as other dogs which allows them to understand everything from a sneeze to a simple ear lick.
It is instinctual for them to give the proper body language with their sneezes to portray their intent exactly. Although, a dog may still be startled by a sudden, involuntary sneeze from their playmate.
Should I Be Concerned?
For most dogs, a small amount of discomfort and a retreat from a sneeze is not a cause for concern. However, if the reason your dog is running from your sneezes is causing him a large amount of stress, it could lead to issues down the road.
Don’t Encourage It
Unfortunately, with the rise of social media, we see several videos that pet owners share, not realizing that their behaviors are hurting their pets. It is well known that stress and anxiety can worsen a dog’s health and possibly shorten their lifespan. When we encourage behaviors that cause stress, such as running away from something scary, we are putting our dogs at risk.
How to Reduce Extreme Reactions
For dogs that have an extreme reaction to the act of their human sneezing, it’s not too late! Because stress affects your dog’s health and lifespan, it would be beneficial for your family to address the behavior. Understanding why your dog is running away is important so you can choose the method of training that will work best for you.
If the reason your dog runs from your sneezing seems to be related to fear or trauma, you may try counter conditioning your dog to associate the sneeze with something positive. To do this, keep treats on hand to give to your dog every time you sneeze.
Since you may not sneeze often enough for this method to make a difference, you can use recordings of yourself or others sneezing to speed up the process.
Act Normal After a Sneeze
If your dog seems confused after your sneeze, you must portray to them that everything is fine. Try to act normal, offer him pets and speak in your usual tone to them. Also, be aware of your body language. Our bodies tense up when we sneeze, which is usually a negative sign in dog behavior.
Loosen your muscles and make the environment a comfortable and happy one, and your dog should relax.
Sneeze As Quietly as Possible
While this certainly isn’t a long-term solution, if your dog is reacting to the loud sound of your sneezes, try muffling them in your elbow or a tissue. You may also get up and move farther away from your dog when you feel a sneeze coming on.
Fake It ‘til you Make It
If a dog is too afraid to even take treats after a sneeze, they will need to be desensitized to the sound much more. Follow the same process of giving them a treat at the sound of your sneeze, but instead of a full-blown sneeze start with a very quiet, low intensity fake sneeze.
If your dog doesn’t react, reward, and praise them. Slowly increase the volume and intensity of your fake sneezes as your dog gets more comfortable.
Teach a Trick Instead
This method is especially useful in dogs that like having a job, such as herding or working breeds. For dogs with high drive, the responsibility of the job can outweigh any stress the sneeze may cause. You can make it as simple as going to their bed when you sneeze, or you can teach them something fun like bringing you a tissue when you sneeze.
Just be sure to always reward them for a job well done!
For the most part, dogs are excellent at interpreting our signals and body language. So much so, that we often forget that our actions and sounds don’t always line up with their way of thinking, which can cause confusion and frustration in both the dog and owner. We can see this happen with the multiple interpretations a simple sneeze can have to our dogs.
If your dog is running away from your sneezes, try shifting your perspective to what they might be thinking. With some training, consistent effort, and lots of patience, you can address the root of the problem and strengthen the bond between you and your dog at the same time!