Can Dogs Sense Ghosts, Spir­its or Hal­lu­ci­na­tions?


The be­lief that dogs can de­tect the para­nor­mal is an old one. Here’s what they can ac­tu­ally de­tect.

It seems that one of the old­est and most per­sis­tent para­nor­mal be­liefs is that dogs have the abil­ity to see spir­its, ghosts of the dead, and other su­per­nat­u­ral be­ings. The dog usu­ally sig­nals that such un­canny things are close by howl­ing or break­ing the si­lence of the night with a mourn­ful series of widely spaced barks, or act­ing in a skit­tish, fear­ful man­ner. Some schol­ars trace these be­liefs back to an­cient Egypt, where the god of the dead was Anu­bis. He was even rep­re­sented as hav­ing the head of the dog, and it was felt that a dog howl­ing in the night was call­ing a soul sensed nearby to Anu­bis.

In Ire­land the be­lief is that dogs can hear the noise of the spec­tral hounds that lead ghostly rid­ers on their wild hunt through the sky, col­lect­ing the souls of the dy­ing. My favourite, though, is the an­cient Norse leg­end which speaks of the god­dess Freya. She was the bearer of love, fer­til­ity, and magic, but was also the god­dess of death. She rides the crest of the storm on her char­iot pulled by gi­ant cats. Be­cause cats are dogs' nat­u­ral en­e­mies it is said that dogs start to howl or bark when they sense the ap­proach of this su­per­nat­u­ral be­ing and her mys­ti­cal fe­lines.

The be­lief that dogs are in tune with the spirit world or have some sort of pre­cog­ni­tion which al­lows them to an­tic­i­pate omi­nous events is not just some­thing from the dis­tant past; it per­sists in our modern day. For ex­am­ple, the Associated Press had a public af­fairs and cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions group con­duct what they called a Pet­side Poll, which in­volved tele­phone in­ter­views of 1000 pet own­ers in the US. Among other things, this sur­vey found that 47 per­cent of dog own­ers re­port that at some time or another their dog has alerted them to some im­pend­ing bad news. The dog's re­ported alert­ing in­volves be­hav­iours like try­ing to hide in a safe place, whining or whim­per­ing, hy­per­ac­tive or er­ratic be­hav­iour, or bark­ing per­sis­tently just prior to some­thing dire hap­pen­ing.

On YouTube you can find dozens of video clips which sup­pos­edly demon­strate dogs alert­ing to the pres­ence of some sort of spirit or ghost. These videos usu­ally show a dog that seems to be fright­ened or un­easy, or barks or whim­pers, while star­ing into empty space where there is noth­ing to be seen.

Then there are the many anec­dotes which de­scribe dogs who ap­pear to be sen­si­tive to ghosts or even places associated with death. One of these was re­lated to me some time ago by a col­league in the Depart­ment of Math­e­mat­ics at my univer­sity. Be­fore the real es­tate mar­ket in our area heated up, he had been lucky enough to be able to af­ford a small house which over­looked the wa­ter not far from the univer­sity cam­pus. At that time he had a Labrador Retriever named Lambda. When the weather per­mit­ted he would walk the dog along one of the many nearby paths which wend their way down the steep em­bank­ment to the sandy shore be­low. Lambda al­ways loved such walks, scout­ing out in front and hap­pily ex­plor­ing the ter­rain on ei­ther side of the trail. That was the case for all of the paths to the beach ex­cept one. When­ever my col­league chose to walk the dog along that par­tic­u­lar path­way to the shore, some­thing strange would hap­pen. About mid­way down the trail Lambda would freeze. He would stare into the bush and pro­duce a strange growl which seemed to be mixed with war­bling whim­pers. The only way that he could get Lambda to move past this point was to grab hold of his col­lar and phys­i­cally tug him sev­eral yards along the path un­til he was well away from that place. The rea­son that my col­league felt that de­scrib­ing Lambda’s be­hav­iour might be in­ter­est­ing to me was be­cause he later learned that it was ex­actly at that same place, on that same trail, where a few years be­fore a stu­dent had been found dead. The stu­dent's death was am­bigu­ous and whether it was by ac­ci­dent or foul play had never been de­ter­mined. My col­league be­came con­vinced that some­how or another Lambda was sens­ing the ghost or spirit of that un­for­tu­nate young woman and it was an ex­trasen­sory aware­ness of the sad spirit which pro­voked the dog's odd and wor­ried be­hav­iour.

Be­ing the kind of sci­en­tific skep­tic that I am, I am more in­clined to in­ter­pret such be­hav­iours in a way that does not in­volve the para­nor­mal. Dogs have keener senses than we do, es­pe­cially when it comes to smell and hear­ing. Many dogs are also re­ac­tive to un­ex­pected vis­ual events such as mov­ing or

47% of dog own­ers re­port that their dog has alerted them to some im­pend­ing bad news.

am­bigu­ous shad­ows. I am of the be­lief that many of the in­stances in which dogs are be­lieved to be alert­ing to ghosts or spir­its are sim­ply sit­u­a­tions where the dog senses some­thing through his nor­mal sen­sory chan­nels which the av­er­age hu­man can­not. What­ever the dog is per­ceiv­ing in such cases is vague and un­cer­tain to him. In the ab­sence of a clear idea of what he is sens­ing the dog tends to be­come wary and acts in a cau­tious or sus­pi­cious man­ner. It is this in­se­cure re­sponse in sit­u­a­tions where noth­ing is vis­i­ble to the hu­man eye that peo­ple in­ter­pret as be­ing a re­ac­tion to the pres­ence of some kind of spirit.

Whether or not dogs can ac­tu­ally de­tect ghosts, it is in­ter­est­ing to note that ca­nines can ac­tu­ally be used to de­tect another kind of sen­sory event which may be trou­ble­some and dis­turb­ing and is also in­vis­i­ble to peo­ple ob­serv­ing the sit­u­a­tion—namely hal­lu­ci­na­tions. A hal­lu­ci­na­tion is a per­cep­tion which oc­curs even though there is no kind of ac­tual stim­u­lus or phys­i­cal event present. For the per­son hav­ing a hal­lu­ci­na­tion, what they are per­ceiv­ing seems real, and what­ever they see or hear ap­pears to be lo­cated in the real world. This is dif­fer­ent from dream­ing, or im­agery, in which we might have vivid im­ages but we are also aware that these im­ages don't rep­re­sent some­thing that ac­tu­ally ex­ists out­side of our mind. Al­though hal­lu­ci­na­tions can oc­cur in any one of our senses, it is when they in­volve vis­ual im­ages or are linked to sounds that we be­lieve we are hear­ing that they can be most dis­turb­ing.

Hal­lu­ci­na­tions can oc­cur in as­so­ci­a­tion with many dif­fer­ent psy­cho­log­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. Peo­ple with prob­lems re­lated to, or loosely associated with, schizophre­nia of­ten have them. Peo­ple with Parkin­son's dis­ease, Charles Bon­net syn­drome, some forms of epilepsy, and cer­tain cases of celiac gluten sen­si­tiv­ity may have them.

More com­monly, par­tic­u­larly dis­qui­et­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions can also oc­cur in in­di­vid­u­als with ma­jor stress-re­lated psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems such as PTSD. In such cases the hal­lu­ci­na­tions are of­ten re­lated to as­pects of the trau­matic sit­u­a­tions which caused the pa­tient's prob­lem in the first place. Thus a veteran returning from com­bat might have hal­lu­ci­na­tions in which there is an armed and threat­en­ing per­son that he can vaguely see or hear nearby. On the other hand a rape vic­tim might think that she sees a per­son who is a po­ten­tial sex­ual preda­tor try­ing to hide in the room that she was about to en­ter. Some­times these stress-re­lated hal­lu­ci­na­tions in­di­cat­ing that there is some ma­li­cious per­son nearby oc­cur when the pa­tient is in a hyp­n­a­gogic state, which is that dream-like state of mind that oc­curs just be­fore fall­ing asleep. Such hal­lu­ci­na­tions can be very un­set­tling, and can trig­ger strong anx­i­eties which can then in turn pro­duce bouts of se­vere fear­ful­ness or panic at­tacks. It is here, when deal­ing with a per­son suf­fer­ing from such hal­lu­ci­na­tions, that dogs be­come in­cred­i­bly valuable. Psy­chi­atric ser­vice dogs are of­ten specif­i­cally trained to deal with this kind of prob­lem. For ex­am­ple, where the per­son with the psy­cho­log­i­cal dif­fi­culty seems to sense that some­one is hid­ing in their bed­room, the dog can be trained to search the room and sound an alert if any­body is present. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, when the dog in­di­cates that there is no one lurk­ing about, this gives the pa­tient a sense of con­fi­dence, re­duces their stress level and al­lows them to pro­ceed with the nor­mal course of their life. How­ever, these psy­chi­atric ser­vice dogs can also be used to de­tect full blown hal­lu­ci­na­tions, such as those that seem to in­di­cate that there is a some­one with dan­ger­ous mo­tives or threat­en­ing in­ten­tions close by. In this case the train­ing re­quired of the dog is rather sim­ple. The dog is taught to re­spond to a com­mand, such as “Go say hello!,” which is ac­com­pa­nied by the dog's owner point­ing in a par­tic­u­lar direc­tion. If there is a per­son ac­tu­ally present the dog is sup­posed to re­spond by go­ing out in that direc­tion and mak­ing an at­tempt to greet and in­ter­act with who­ever is there. If there is no one phys­i­cally present then the dog is trained ei­ther to sit qui­etly while look­ing in the direc­tion in­di­cated, or some­times to give a short bark to in­di­cate that they sense noth­ing. If the dog in­di­cates that there is no one ac­tu­ally present, then the pa­tient im­me­di­ately knows that what they are deal­ing with is a sen­sory hal­lu­ci­na­tion and there is noth­ing to worry about. Know­ing that there is no threat gen­er­ally serves to greatly re­lieve the per­son suf­fer­ing from this kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lem. Gain­ing the in­sight that the men­ac­ing pres­ence that the pa­tient is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing does not re­ally ex­ist tends to ratchet down the per­son's stress level and al­lows the in­di­vid­ual to con­tinue func­tion­ing with­out fear or anx­i­ety. So al­though the ques­tion of whether dogs can de­tect ghosts or spir­its may still be de­bated by some peo­ple, it is cer­tainly the case that dogs can alert peo­ple to the ex­is­tence of hal­lu­ci­na­tions. They do this by in­di­cat­ing that, even with their su­pe­rior senses, they do not de­tect any­thing is present, of­fer­ing a clear sig­nal that the dan­ger that their owner per­ceives is not au­then­tic and they are safe. Still, de­spite my sci­en­tific train­ing, in the dark of the night it some­times gives me com­fort to feel that my dogs might warn me if they sense the com­ing of the death-deal­ing god­dess Freya and her fly­ing char­iot pulled by huge su­per­nat­u­ral cats.

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