Do Dogs Have the Ability to Smell a Ghost?

Dogs seeing ghosts, spirits, or even the Angel of Death is a long-held superstition (click here for more about that). It’s all chalked up to a “sixth sense” that dogs supposedly possess.

The idea that dogs have a connection to the afterlife or a kind of precognition that enables them to foresee dangerous situations is not limited to ancient times. This problem still exists in modern times. Among the findings of a Petside Poll conducted by the Associated Press and the GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications firm with 1,000 pet owners in the United States was the finding that 47% of dog owners say that their dog has alerted them to some impending bad news at some point in their lives. When something bad is about to happen, the dog will show warning signs such attempting to hide, whining or whimpering, acting erratically or hyperactively, or barking incessantly.

Many videos on YouTube purport to show dogs reacting to the presence of a ghost or spirit. Dogs in these movies often display fearful or nervous behavior, such as barking or whimpering, and seem to be looking into nothingness.

There are also several accounts of dogs that seem to be able to sense spirits or even locations related with death. A colleague of mine in the mathematics department at my university told me one of these stories a while back. He had been fortunate enough to purchase a modest home near school that had a view of the lake before the local real estate market began to rapidly rise. They owned a Labrador Retriever called Lambda at the time.

When the weather was nice, he’d take the dog for a stroll down one of the several adjacent routes that wound their way down the steep embankment to the beach below. Lambda enjoyed going on these kinds of hikes very much, inspecting out the area in front of him and sniffing about the surrounding areas. All roads leading to the shore were like that, with the exception of one. When my coworker took Lambda for a walk on that specific route to the water’s edge, the dog would do a really peculiar thing: he’d stop moving for a few minutes about the halfway point. He would fix his gaze on the bushes and let out a roar that appeared to be laced with warbling whimpers. My coworker had to physically take Lambda by the collar and pull him down the trail for many yards before he would go beyond the area where he had stopped.

My coworker thought I may be interested in hearing about Lambda’s antics since, as we subsequently discovered, a student had been discovered dead at about the same location, along the same route, a few years before. No one knew for sure what caused the student’s death; speculations ranged from an unfortunate accident to possible foul play. According to my coworker, Lambda’s strange and anxious conduct was caused by his dog’s extrasensory understanding of the soul of that young guy who had died tragically.

As a scientific skeptic, I tend to look for natural explanations for strange occurrences rather than paranormal ones. When it comes to scent and hearing, a dog’s senses are superior to those of a human being. Many canines also have trouble dealing with sudden changes in their field of vision, such as the appearance of a moving or ambiguous shadow.

I think that many cases in which dogs seem to be alerting to ghosts or spirits are really cases in which the dog detects something via its regular sensory pathways of which the ordinary person is unaware. In such a scenario, the dog’s perceptions, if any, are hazy at best. The dog becomes hesitant and cautious or suspicious since he has no concept what he is feeling. This feeling of insecurity in the face of apparent physical absence is often attributed to supernatural causes by onlookers.

Whether or not dogs can sense ghosts, they may be used to detect hallucinations, another kind of sensory experience that can be problematic and unsettling but is undetectable to the naked eye.

A hallucination is the experience of something that is not physically existent, despite the fact that it seems quite real at the time. Everything the hallucinating individual experiences seems true, and the hallucinations seem grounded in reality. When we dream or experience imagery, we may have vivid visuals, but we know that they do not reflect anything outside of our minds. Although hallucinations may include any of the senses, the most unsettling ones occur when people see frightening sights or hear things that aren’t really there.

Hallucinations are a symptom of a wide range of mental health issues. In many cases, people who have schizophrenia also have the difficulties that are connected to or associated with the disorder. They have also been found in patients with Parkinson’s disease, Charles Bonnet syndrome, epilepsy, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

People with serious stress-related psychiatric issues, such as PTSD, are also at increased risk of experiencing disturbing hallucinations. In these instances, the hallucinations are often linked to the very stressful circumstances that led to the patient’s condition. As a result, a returning veteran may have hallucinations in which he or she is faintly aware of the presence of an armed and frightening individual. However, a victim of rape could enter an empty room and become convinced that a sexual predator is hiding within. The hypnagogic state, which comes just before sleep, is a common moment for people with stress-related hallucinations of the presence of a malevolent person. Experiencing hallucinations like this as a result of stress may be very disconcerting, leading to extreme anxiety or even a panic attack.

Working with a client experiencing hallucinations like this is when dogs really shine. These canines, known as psychiatric support dogs, are educated to cope with this kind of situation. A dog may be taught to help a person with a psychiatric disorder in the most basic ways, such as when they have a hunch that someone is hidden in their bedroom. Once the dog has given the all clear, the patient may relax, resume their daily activities, and go on with their lives without fear of being followed.

Full-blown hallucinations, such as those that suggest someone with harmful motivations or threatening intentions is around, may also be detected with the help of these psychiatric service canines. In these situations, the dog needs just basic training: The dog is taught to respond to a simple command, such as “Go say hello!” which is accompanied by the dog’s owner pointing in a particular direction. The dog’s expected behavior when it detects a human presence is to go in that direction and initiate social interaction. Dogs are often taught to sit calmly while gazing in the direction indicated if no one is around, or to bark briefly if they detect nothing. If the dog reacts negatively, suggesting that there is nothing there, the patient may rest easy knowing that they are just experiencing a sensory hallucination. If a person with this form of mental health issue knows there is no danger, they usually feel better. Knowing that what they are feeling is unreal reduces their anxiety and helps them to go on with their daily lives.

Some people still question whether dogs can really feel ghosts or spirits, but there’s no denying that they can help humans recognize hallucinations by showing that, despite their enhanced senses, the dog doesn’t see anything. That’s a piece of very strong evidence that the danger their owner is feeling is exaggerated, and that they’re safe.