It’s a situation many dog owners have experienced: you’re having a relaxing evening at home when, suddenly, your dog becomes fixated on… nothing.
You’ve double- and triple-checked, but that spot on the wall is totally blank. Yet your dog won’t stop staring at it, pawing at it, barking at it, and doing everything he can to draw your attention to it.
What if he’s so obsessed with it because there’s something there that you can’t perceive — but he can?
And what if that something is a supernatural spirit?
It’s a controversial topic, to be sure, but many people believe that dogs have the ability to sense spirits — a true canine “sixth sense.” Let’s take a closer look at the evidence for and against this theory.
Spirits and the Senses: How Might Dogs Sense Spirits?
Your dog’s senses — and yours, for that matter — translate the outer world into inner perceptions. And spirits are no exception.
So how might your dog’s senses indicate that he can perceive spirits? And are there any other explanations for his odd behavior?
Hearing: The Sound of the Supernatural…
If spirits are real, they don’t seem to make sounds that we can hear — at least, not the quintessential spooky “wooo”s they make in cartoons and ghost stories.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t make sounds at all.
Our ears are evolutionarily tuned to pick up the frequencies that matter most to our survival: other people’s voices, the sounds of dangerous animals, the calls of potential prey out in the distance. This covers a span from around 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
Dogs, however, can hear a range of frequencies from 67 Hz to 45 kHz. This means that, on the low end, our hearing is a little better than theirs — but on the high end, they can hear more than twice as many frequencies as we can.
And at frequencies above 3 kHz, a dog’s hearing is much more sensitive than a human’s. Whether they’re further away or simply too soft to begin with, sounds at those frequencies that are too quiet for our ears to pick up can be easily heard by a dog.
It’s possible, according to proponents of the canine sixth sense theory, that dogs’ natural hearing abilities allow them to perceive the supernatural.
What if spirits make sounds that fall in that upper range past 20 kHz, beyond our hearing capabilities but well within our dogs’?
When your dog’s ears prick up during bouts of silence, what if he’s perceiving the whisper-quiet vocalizations of a wayward ghost or invisible entity?
And when he covers his ears with his paws despite his quiet surroundings, could it be that we’re just not detecting the cacophony of distant spirits that are bombarding his hearing?
…Or Simply White Noise?
As with most things supernatural, there are other potential explanations.
Skeptics attribute dogs’ weird reactions to sounds (or lack of sounds) to the fact that they’re so much better than us at hearing. We’re surrounded by so many things that make sounds that we’re not aware of, simply because our ears aren’t capable of detecting them — but that doesn’t mean the sounds aren’t there.
For example, it’s thought that dogs can predict earthquakes because they can hear the high-pitched scraping and breaking of rocks deep below the ground. This results in increased activity and anxious behavior — like pacing and whining for seemingly no reason — in the days and hours preceding the earthquake.
And though sounds like vacuum cleaners, car engines, and power tools are already loud and powerful to us, they’re even more overwhelming to a dog. Your dog can hear these things from much further away than you can, and he can hear many of the high-pitched frequencies they emit that are beyond our perception.
So when your dog seems to hear something that you can’t pin down, there’s a chance it could be a spirit. But it might also be a car starting a few blocks over, your neighbor’s power drill whirring in his basement… or a seismic event brewing underground.
Seeing: A Ghostly Vision in the Dark…
Common knowledge states that dogs have worse vision than us — they’re red-green colorblind, after all. And anyone who’s watched their dog walk head-on into a table leg or doorframe knows that they don’t always see what’s right in front of them.
But our wide color-vision range and a sharp eye for details don’t seem to help us see spirits. What if dogs’ vision, though seemingly poor to us, is actually well-suited to perceiving the supernatural?
There is some compelling evidence for this. Canine eyes are excellent at seeing in low-light conditions and have evolved to detect and track even the most minute of movements in their peripheral vision.
This is thanks to the high number of rods — the ocular cells that detect light — in a dog’s eyes. The more rods a creature has, the better it can see at night and in other low-light conditions — and the better it can perceive motion.
Though our pupils can widen to increase the amount of light they can take in, dogs’ pupils can widen to a much greater degree than ours. Your dog’s pupils can expand to take up nearly the entire visible portion of his eyes, allowing him to navigate seamlessly in the dark.
Dogs also have something we lack entirely: the tapetum lucidum, a thin, reflective membrane on the eye that increases the amount of light the eye can take in. Though the tapetum lucidum worsens detail perception due to its light-scattering properties, it makes it much easier for dogs to see their general surroundings when light is scarce.
Spirits are often described as faint orbs or blurs of light that move quickly and vanish in the blink of an eye. Between their dimness and the speed at which they appear and disappear, they’re very difficult for our eyes to perceive.
But dogs, with their acute light perception and excellent motion tracking, could spot them very easily. Maybe when your dog jumps up suddenly and runs over to look at an empty corner, it’s because he caught a glimpse of a faint, fleeting spirit.
…Or Just a Trick of the Light?
The spirit hypothesis isn’t the only one, though. There are other potential explanations for your dog seeing things that you can’t, not all of them pleasant.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is simply that your dog is seeing real, ordinary things — they’re just too dim, quick, or low-contrast for you to pick up on. Your neighbor turning his light on at night could cause the tiniest change in shadows on your dark bedroom wall, grabbing your dog’s attention while completely escaping your notice.
Or your dog might become fixated on a tiny spider traveling across your ceiling thanks to the nearly-imperceptible changes in light and shadow as it moves. But to you, the spider is so small and far away that you don’t even realize it’s there.
Another, more concerning explanation is a canine cognitive dysfunction, also known as sundowner syndrome. This is an aging disorder resembling dementia that affects dogs and gets progressively worse over time.
Dogs with sundowner syndrome become confused and disoriented, often reacting to things that are truly not there. They may become restless, bark at nothing, or otherwise behave inappropriately for their surroundings.
For this reason, if you have an older dog who suddenly seems to notice things that aren’t there, don’t settle for the spiritual explanation. See a vet rule out sundowner syndrome and other medical conditions that could be causing the behavior.
The True Sixth Sense: Detecting Energies Beyond Explanation…
The five classic senses may not be all that is at play when your dog seems to detect spirits. Many people believe that there is a sixth sense that we have no explanation for — and what’s more, we may have it, too.
If you’ve ever gotten a bad feeling right before a disaster strikes or met someone who exuded negative energy but you couldn’t put your finger on why perhaps you’ve experienced this sixth sense yourself. It’s a perception of invisible auras, vibes, or energies that explains the intuitive feelings you get when you “just know” something, even if you have no other basis for it.
So many people report these sensations that the “sixth sense” theory seems to have merit. And if we have it, who’s to say that dogs don’t?
Like hearing and smelling, it’s possible that dogs have a stronger sixth sense than we do. A more acutely-tuned sixth sense could explain why dogs are so intuitive: they can know when we’re sick or dying, tell how we’re feeling and detect the presence of spirits because they’re so in tune with the energies around them.
…Or Just a Load of Magical Thinking?
Of course, for every proponent of the sixth sense theory, there’s a naysayer. Many believe that there’s another explanation for all of these anecdotes of energy detection, regardless of species.
For instance, dogs may be able to tell when someone’s about to die because their incredible noses can smell the body beginning to shut down or pick up on tiny changes in hormone production that indicate mood shifts.
Canine spirit detection may be a combination of this scent sensitivity and projection on our parts. If we subconsciously want a spirit to be present — if we’re mourning a recent loss, say, or if we believe our house may be haunted — our dogs may pick up on that and be influenced into behaving accordingly.
In other words: we see what we want to see, and because our dogs are so in tune with us, they may “see” what we want them to see as well.
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So Do Dogs Perceive Spirits?
Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer to this question, largely because we don’t even know for sure if spirits really exist. Compelling evidence is present on both sides of the argument, and the side you agree with is dependent on your individual spirituality and experiences.
One thing is certain: there’s so much out there that dogs can perceive but we can’t. So if spirits are real, it’s certainly possible that our canine companions are able to keep them company on our behalf.
"If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two."
-- Phil Pastoret