Can Dogs See Ghosts? What the Science Says

Updated: Jun. 05, 2024

The answer depends on whether or not you believe in ghosts

The belief that dogs can sense ghosts is nothing new. The Aztecs of Mexico believed dogs could not only see ghosts but also protect their people from them. They even buried dogs with their dead so that the dogs could guide the recently deceased in the afterlife. The Mayans shared similar beliefs and the Inuit people of the Arctic believed dogs had a connection to the paranormal.

So can dogs see ghosts? It depends on whom you ask—and whether that person believes in ghosts or not.

To dive deeper into the answer, Readers Digest spoke to a number of dog owners who report their dogs have seen ghosts, dog behavior experts and a pet medium. Read on to learn more about dogs and ghosts.

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About the experts

  • Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, is a senior research fellow and adjunct associate professor at Barnard College where she studies dog cognition. Horowitz has written extensively about dog behavior and is the author of the best-selling book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know.
  • Jesus Aramendi, DVM, is a former senior veterinarian for Chewy and founder of FurLife Vets in Delray Beach, Fla.
  • Stanley Coren, PhD, is professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and an adjunct professor at Bergin College of Canine Studies. He’s the well-known author of several books about dogs, including Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs, on the folklore and mythology of dogs.
  • Charles Peden is a highly respected and sought-after psychic medium and animal communicator who has connected people with animal companions and human loved ones (living or deceased), for more than 15 years. He also works with ghosts and paranormal issues.

Can dogs see ghosts?

Several readers we spoke to shared stories of their dogs’ ghostly interactions, which led them to believe that yes, their own dogs can see ghosts.

“When we first moved into our home that was built in 1940, I could not get two of my Briards (a large herding breed) to leave the mud room—and they’re normally Velcroed to me,” shares Merry Jeanne Key Millner. “We eventually learned we had a grieving mother whose infant son died in the old kitchen (now our mud room), who a year later died herself. Our Briards didn’t want to leave her alone. Minnie (the ghost) has now embraced our crazy family and helps us find lost things!”

Joanna King shares this example about her German pinscher, Parker. “After my father died of pancreatic cancer, at times, Parker would lie down on the floor in the same position as an Egyptian sphinx and I would smell dad’s aftershave. I knew then that the conversation between Parker and my dad was starting. Parker would lift his head up and his eyes would never look anywhere else just at the room’s doorway. The scent of aftershave got stronger, then Parker would tilt his head and respond to dad vocally. When Parker stood up I knew Dad had left. These visits always brought me peace.”

And another, from Margot Keast, who calls herself “a non-professional psychic medium” and shares this story about her late dog, Twinkle, who she believed saw spirits. “I am certain that after my mother died, she would visit and Twinkle was always thrilled to see her. Twinkle would prick her ears and make a high-pitched whistle sound to communicate what she saw. Twinks would behave just like she was schmoozing and talking to her favorite person while I could feel Mum’s energy. Twinkle is now with Mum I am sure.”

dramatic close portrait of a cocker spaniel looking awayAndrew Davies/Getty Images

What the scientists say about dogs and ghosts

Despite what the dog owners above report, our expert scientists remain skeptical, after all there aren’t any scientific studies that prove the existence of the paranormal, such as spirits, demons or ghosts. And there certainly aren’t any studies that prove dogs can (or can’t) see spirits, demons or ghosts.

“What I suspect is happening here is people are looking at dog behavior and wanting an explanation, and being reluctant to look at the more obvious ones,” says Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, a senior research fellow and adjunct associate professor at Barnard College.

Those more obvious explanations may include a dog’s keen sense of smell and hearing. “Dogs are naturally equipped with one of the best senses of smell in the animal kingdom,” Jesus Aramendi, DVM, a former senior veterinarian for Chewy and founder of FurLife Vets in Delray Beach, Fla., tells Reader’s Digest.A dog’s sense of smell can be 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than a human’s.”

As for hearing, dogs can hear twice as many frequencies as humans. According to Dr. Aramendi, dogs can pick up sounds that are four times farther away than humans would be able to detect.

“The human part of the equation is that even when dogs are doing dog-normal behaviors, some people have a tendency to assume there’s something psychic or supernatural about their capacities,” says Stanley Coren, PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and an adjunct professor at Bergin College of Canine Studies. “So instead of just hearing a noise outside that prompts a dog to alert bark, one might get the sense they are barking at ghosts.”

Finally, not every behavior a dog—or person, for that matter—does means something, Coren says. “Sometimes dogs are just looking, or smelling, just as we might sit, look into the distance, and daydream or plot dinner or think.”

What the medium says

Science or not, according to a 2024 poll, 64% of those surveyed believe in ghosts, with 20 percent claiming to have personally experienced them. In other words, for a majority of Americans, the question “can dogs see ghosts?” isn’t about whether ghosts exist but rather, whether dogs are capable of seeing them. To learn more, we spoke to Charles Peden a psychic medium and animal communicator whose clients praise his uncanny ability to provide details nobody else could have known about pets and people who have passed on.

According to Peden, all dogs can see ghosts, but not all humans can see the same spirits. “If we could constantly see all the spirits in our lives, we’d be overwhelmed. Dogs don’t go out of their way to pick up on ghosts, and they learn to ignore those that are around them, just as they would learn to ignore their reflection in a mirror. The spirits are always there, but they don’t really affect them, so dogs pay no attention even though they clearly can see them.”

Peden recalls one case in which his client had two dogs, one of which refused to go near the garage. “The dog communicated to me that there was a big scary male spirit in there … and when I went in, she was right! That spirit then communicated that he was connected with the tools. But when I spoke to the clients they had no idea who I was talking about—until the husband mentioned a man he used to work with as a mechanic years ago, and who matched the description exactly.”

cute Dachshund sitting on a leather couch with face illuminated in a dimly lit, moody interiorCapuski/Getty Images

Do dogs have a sixth sense?

“The sensory ability of dogs, at least in the realms of smelling and hearing, are well beyond those of humans,” says Coren, which may lead some owner to believe their dogs have a sixth sense. We do know that dogs can sense many things we can’t. They can hear high-frequency sounds we can’t, smell an entire world of odors we can’t and see in the dark and detect slight movements we can’t see. Dogs have even been shown to react to the earth’s magnetic field and some can sense impending seizures in their person.

Can dogs see things we can’t?

The human and canine visual worlds are very different. Dogs can’t see the spectrum of colors humans can and have poorer vision for details. But they can see in the dark far better than we can, because their eyes are built to gather more light through their larger cornea and lens, to let more light in through their larger pupil, to detect more light with their greater abundance of light-sensitive cones, and to reflect light that gets past them for a second chance of detection by means of a mirror-like structure at the back of the eye. When you’re out at night tripping over lawn furniture your dog is nimbly galloping and jumping, wondering what is wrong with you. Dogs can also detect flickering light at a much faster speed than we can.

Can dogs sense bad/good energy?

From a scientific point of view, dogs can smell when people are nervous, and even detect when they are lying by sniffing their sweat on their clothing. So in that sense, yes. From a paranormal view, assuming they can sense energy, then yes again, they could pick up on good vibes versus bad vibes, but again, the answer is subjective.

Sources

  • Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, senior research fellow and adjunct associate professor at Barnard College and author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know; email interview on April 2, 2024
  • Jesus Aramendi, DVM, former senior veterinarian for Chewy and founder of FurLife Vets in Delray Beach, Fla.; interview March 2022
  • Stanley Coren, PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and an adjunct professor at Bergin College of Canine Studies. He’s the well-known author of several books about dogs, including Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; email interview on April 4, 2024
  • RealClear Opinion Research Poll
  • Charles Peden, psychic medium and animal communicator; phone interview on April 4, 2024
  • Ecology: “Magnetic alignment enhances homing efficiency of hunting dogs”
  • PLOS ONE: “Dogs can discriminate between human baseline and psychological stress condition odours”