I live with a yellow Labrador retriever who often seems to bark at ghosts. One minute, she's quietly snoozing in her bed and the next, she's barking as if the mailman was stealing all of her treats. So what's the deal? Is something else going on, or is she really sensing something supernatural that humans cannot?
The anecdotal evidence for ghosts has been pretty strong. One day, she barked ferociously at a glittering dust cloud, illuminated by the afternoon sun, thinking it was something alive. However, once I passed my hand through the dust to show her that it wasn't solid, she suspiciously poked her nose through it. And finally, she was convinced that the dust cloud wasn't anything to fear. But I couldn't help but wonder, did it look too similar to the spirits that she sees that I don't? Is that why it freaked her out?
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So what's the deal with dogs and barking at ghosts?
My experience isn't a unique one. Many dog owners swear that their dogs see ghosts and sense the supernatural. In fact, 47 percent of pet owners claim that their pets have warned them that something bad was about to happen. Tons of anecdotal evidence from dog owners suggests that their dog has supernatural abilities. However, according to science, the true reasons behind our dog's behavior may not be as eerie as we thought.
Our dogs' supernatural skills may just be their superhuman senses
Although we don't have any official research on dogs and the supernatural, the most likely explanation is that most of these "abilities" are probably actually just our dogs' incredible sense of smell and hearing. A dog's sense of smell is 1,000 to 10,000 times more powerful than a human's. Dogs can help detect cancer or oncoming seizures by sensing tiny changes in a human's body odor. And in a similar way, science suggests that dogs are just perceiving things that we can't.
But if they're just hearing and smelling slightly unusual things, why do some dogs fixate or freak out so much? Pet psychologist Marti Miller believes that both humans and dogs have a connection to that paranormal. But dogs aren't exactly perceiving it the way we might think they are. Miller explains:
"Dogs don't judge what is going on in the environment. While our own minds start to analyze what is happening, dogs don't do that. They feel the barometric pressure change, and may react by shaking, panting, salivating and feeling anxious, or they may not react at all."
However, Miller also suggests that those reactions might not be supernatural at all. They might be tied to fears developed early in a dog's life. So if a thunderstorm scared your dog as a puppy, sensing a change in pressure that precipitates a storm might make them feel nervous again.
However, even the experts admit that we don't know for sure that our dogs aren't seeing ghosts
Because knowing that our dogs can't see ghosts would mean knowing that ghosts don't exist, and even though most of us are skeptics, we can't say for sure. Plus, there's plenty about dogs that we don't completely understand, yet. In his book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake states, "there is a strong connection between humans and animals that lies beyond present-day scientific understanding."
There's still a possibility that your dog is seeing something spooky and supernatural. Dogs have incredible senses of smell and hearing. And if you can't explain their behavior, maybe you do have your own canine ghost hunter. The truth is, we can't really know. But since our dogs are hyper-perceptive, we might as well listen to them when they notice something.