Barney Wrightson photo - Creative Commons License
Source: Barney Wrightson photo - Creative Commons License

One of the oldest and most persistent paranormal beliefs is that dogs have the ability to see spirits, ghosts of the dead, or even the Angel of Death (click here for more about that). All of this is attributed to some kind of "sixth sense" that dogs are supposed to have.

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 today. When the Associated Press had the GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications group conduct what they called a Petside Poll, which involved telephone interviews with 1,000 pet owners in the U.S., it found, among other things, 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 alerting involves behaviors like trying to hide in a safe place, whining or whimpering, hyperactive or erratic behavior, 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 act frightened or skittish, or barks or whimpers, while staring into empty space where there is nothing to be seen.

Then there are the many anecdotes that 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 mathematics department 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 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 wended their way down the steep embankment to the sandy shore below. Lambda loved such walks, scouting out in front of him 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 my colleague 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 spot.

The reason my colleague felt that describing Lambda's behavior might be interesting to me was because he later learned that it was at exactly that spot, on that same trail, where a student had been found dead a few years before. The student's death was ambiguous; it had never been determined whether it was by accident or foul play. My colleague became convinced that somehow or another Lambda was sensing the ghost or spirit of that unfortunate young man, and it was this extrasensory awareness of the spirit that provoked his dog's odd and worried behavior.

Being the scientific skeptic that I am, I am more inclined to interpret such behaviors 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 ambiguous shadows. I am of the belief that many of the instances in which dogs are apparently alerting to ghosts or spirits are simply situations in which the dog senses something through normal sensory channels that the average human is not aware of. 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 when nothing is visible to the human eye that observers interpret as a reaction to spirit-related events.

Whether or not dogs can actually detect ghosts, it is interesting to note that they can be used to detect another form of sensory event, which may be troublesome and disturbing and is also invisible to the average person — hallucinations.

A hallucination is a perception which occurs even though there is no actual stimulus or physical event present. For the person having the hallucination, what they perceive seems real, and what 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 the sensory modalities, it is when they involve visual images or apparent auditory events 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 non-celiac gluten sensitivity may also have them.

Particularly disquieting hallucinations can also occur in individuals with major stress-related psychological problems, such as PTSD. In such cases, the hallucinations are often associated with aspects of the stressful situations which caused the patient's problem in the first place. Thus, a returning veteran might have hallucinations in which there is an armed and threatening person that he can vaguely see 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 empty room she was about to enter. Sometimes these stress-related hallucinations of the presence of some malicious person occur when the patient is in a hypnagogic state, that state of mind that occurs just before falling asleep. Such stress-related hallucinations can be very unsettling and evoke major stress symptoms, which in turn can produce bouts of fearfulness or panic attacks.

It is 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. At the simplest level—for example, when 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.

These psychiatric service dogs can also be used to detect full-blown hallucinations, such as those that seem to indicate there is a someone with dangerous motives or threatening intentions nearby. In these cases, the training required of the dog is rather simple: 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. 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 responds in this negative way, indicating that there is nothing there, 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 relieve the person suffering from this kind of psychological problem. Gaining the insight that what the patient is experiencing does not really exist tends to ratchet down his or her stress level and allows the person to continue functioning.

Whether dogs can detect ghosts or spirits may still be debated by some people; however, they can certainly alert people to the existence of hallucinations by indicating that, even with their superior senses, they do not detect anything there. That is a clear indication that the threat their owner perceives is not authentic, and that the individual is safe.

Stanley Coren is the author of books including Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

Facebook image: Yuriy Koronovskiy/Shutterstock

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