Can Dogs See Ghosts? What the Science Says

We know our dogs have extraordinary senses…but can they sense the presence of a ghost? The answer depends, first, on whether you believe in ghosts.

Dogs are extraordinary beings, in part because humans have been breeding them that way for the last 20,000 to 40,000 years. Among their many superpowers, they can sense the presence of actual things that humans cannot, such as impending weather and or the presence of cancer. But can dogs see ghosts?

Lots of people believe they can, including psychic crime solver Kristy Robinett, who shared with Reader’s Digest a tale that may make even non-believers believe. (More on that below). We also posed the question to a number of dog experts, including doctoral-level dog behaviorists and veterinarians. Here’s what we learned.

The question is more about you than your dog

When trauma therapist and spiritual expert Audrey Hope sees her own dog behaving as if he’s seen a ghost, she believes that he has. However, underlying that is Hope’s own belief in the paranormal. Before you get to the question about whether dogs can see ghosts, you first have to address whether you believe that ghosts even exist.

“There is plenty of documentation that could support the notion that dogs can sense paranormal activity,” according to Jesus Aramendi, DVM, a senior veterinarian for Chewy, but it’s only meaningful to the extent you actually believe that paranormal activity exists and is capable of being sensed by the living. After all, there aren’t any scientific studies that prove the existence of the paranormal or dogs’ relation to it. That said, while science loves to spoil ghost stories, a good 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts. In other words, for slightly under half of Americans, the question “Can dogs see ghosts?” isn’t about whether ghosts exist but simply whether dogs are capable of seeing them.

What can dogs see that humans can’t?

Humans are much better than dogs at sensing colors and clarity. However, dogs can see movement far better than humans can—something that’s especially true in low light conditions, says Jill Villarreal, PhD, head animal behaviorist for the pet food company Open Farm. (Here’s the truth about whether dogs can actually see in the dark.) So, if you believe in ghosts and subscribe to the notion that ghosts tend to make their appearance under the cover of darkness, then dogs would be in a far better position to see them than humans. If you believe in ghosts and you’re hoping to see one, consider visiting one of these 12 most haunted places in America.

The doggy version of “ESP”

“Dogs are naturally equipped with one of the best senses of smell in the animal kingdom,” Dr. Aramendi tells Reader’s Digest.A dog’s sense of smell can be 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than a human’s.” So, in that sense, dogs have “ESP”—as in “Extra Smell Perception.” And if you believe in ghosts, then Dr. Aramendi doesn’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that dogs would be able to perceive them via scent.

But if it appears a dog is “smelling” a ghost, there is likely also a logical scientific explanation for it. “After my husband passed, our dog would often sit in my husband’s favorite chair as if he could sense my husband’s presence,” Villarreal recalls. “And it’s likely he could—just not necessarily in a paranormal way, but rather in the sense that my husband’s scent still lingered on the chair’s fabric.”

When your dog’s hair stands on end

“Next time your dog’s hair seems to stand on end for no reason, take a look around and see if you can perceive the cause,” suggests Villarreal. Scientists have been investigating how dogs sense the world around them through their skin (and by extension, the movements of their hair), and it’s well known that dogs can detect movement as well as temperature changes in ways humans cannot.

In addition, dogs can hear twice as many frequencies as humans, according to Dr. Aramendi, and they can pick up sounds that are four times farther away than humans would be able to detect. So, if ghosts exist, dogs could very well have such a powerful sense of hearing that they could recognize them by sound. Check out another 60 things that make your pet tick.

Dogs and humans: The ultimate feedback loop

Over the course of thousands of years, dogs have become not only astute observers of human behavior but also skilled impressionists, veterinarian Matthew McCarthy, DVM, tells Reader’s Digest. So, if you believe in ghosts and you start to sense that something paranormal is afoot, your dog might sense your energy and pick up on the fact that you’re feeling something.

If your reaction is fear, your dog may tuck his tail between his hind legs or growl. If your reaction is excitement, your dog may spontaneously come down with a case of the zoomies. In turn, you may be inclined to react to your dog’s reaction with positive attention (for example, petting and reassuring him). Your dog will then be inclined to continue and repeat his behavior.

Or…it could be that your dog has, in fact, seen a ghost, according to Robinett, who relays the tale of a widow whose dog, Elmer, seemed to be in contact with her deceased husband. In the days following the funeral, Elmer would sleep on her late husband’s side of the bed, laying his head on the pillow in an almost human-like way. As time went on, Elmer took to running to the front door in the evenings and playfully greeting an unseen visitor. To the widow, it was as if her deceased husband were returning home. According to Robinett, that is precisely what it may have been.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.