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Can Dogs Sense When Someone Is About to Die?

Dad said the dog howling meant the woman was dying.

Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

There is a persistent belief held by many people that dogs have some sort of "sixth sense" that allows them to sense when somebody is about to die soon. There are some psychological explanations as to why such beliefs come about in the first place, and which behaviors of dogs might explain them. Still, some of the anecdotal reports are intriguing, and regardless of one's belief or disbelief in matters such as extra-sensory abilities, they make for interesting reading.

I recently received a note of this sort from a psychologist named Phyllis Brentzel and I present it to you in its unedited form.

Dear Dr. Coren,

Please allow me to introduce myself. I am a fellow psychologist and dog lover (have three dogs now) who is reading your book, How Dogs Think, and am enjoying it quite a lot. This morning I read the chapter about canine's sixth sense. I too think there could be many explanations for these reported abilities. But I have a beagle story that I thought I might share.

Growing up my dad got a pair of beagles, Maggie and Jigs. We are from Punxsutawney, PA (yes, the groundhog capital place) and my dad was an avid hunter and the dogs were hunting dogs who were always housed outside in a kennel. Jigs had died at a young age for a beagle but Maggie was still living and probably about 8 years old. I would have been around 10 (am 60 now).

One day she started howling. I had never heard her do that. Bark, yes. She had quite a barking repertory as beagles do. This was a sound I never heard before and one I will never forget. I can't really describe it other than to say it seemed mournful. I went to her kennel to see if she was hurt or if I could find out what was wrong. Nothing. No obvious injuries. No problems I could see. The things I tried, petting, treats, playing, did not distract her from the howling. So I asked my dad and he said, "I don't know who but someone is dying." He said he had heard a dog howl like this before and that was the reason.

The howling continued. About an hour later, a neighbor whose backyard adjoined my parents' yard came walking through the yard past Maggie's kennel. Oddly she did not interrupt her howling to give a "pay attention to me" or "warning bark" to the neighbor. She just kept on howling. He told my dad that his mother had recently moved in and was ill and the dog was really disturbing her. Could we do something to stop the howling? Dad told him he would try but that likely his mother was dying and the dog would stop when she died. We put the dog in our basement but the howling didn't stop. That is, the howling didn't stop till about 6 that evening when the woman died.

This dog had no contact whatsoever with the dying woman. Nothing had changed about Maggie's living circumstance nor would she have been lonely or feeling cut off or pushed away.. She could not see the entrance to the neighbor's house to notice any comings or goings. She was not doing any barking to alert us to strangers, rabbits or need for attention. Maggie really had no reason to know about this woman's state of health. She was just howling this continuous mournful howl. It didn't stop when she was taken out of her kennel and put in the basement. Maggie stopped howling when the woman died.

I've got no explanation and I'm not sure how Maggie knew but she knew something and it upset her very much. I have never heard another dog make this sound but I know if I ever do, I will recognize it (the sound is that distinctive) and I bet someone close by is dying. Maggie's story seems to counter your ideas about Eddie in your book. In Eddie's story, he was taken from someone he was very connected to and your ideas probably fit the circumstances well. Those circumstances didn't apply to Maggie.

Just an interesting story I thought I'd pass along. Thanks for writing such an interesting, informative book. I'm buying another copy to pass on a friend who is a breeder of border collies.

Phyllis Brentzel

Stanley Coren is the author of many books, including The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; and more.

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

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