Can dogs sense death? Many dog owners recall their dogs behaving differently when someone has died or is about to die. Beverly Bingham of North Palm Beach, Florida, and her 6-year-old Borzoi, “Krispin,” share similar experiences. “A few days before my mom passed, Krispin would come into Mom’s room after my aide and I had fed and cleaned her,” says Bingham. “He would nuzzle her hair and smell her breath. I do think they at least pick up on changes in the dying person’s body chemistry.”
Similarly, Denise Milko of Ocean City, Maryland, remembers how her Rhodesian Ridgeback, “Hampton,” kept a close watch over her mother. Milko, who’s actively shown Rhodesian Ridgebacks and Italian Greyhounds for over 20 years, remembers that her mother encouraged Milko, to go to a show with Hampton. “Hampton kept looking back,” she says. “We got to the show. He showed two days, then we got a call to come home. Mom was dying. She wasn’t dying when we left. He knew — a brilliant breed. On top of her coffin was a blue ribbon he’d won for her. She would have smiled.”
These are stories that you’ll find pop up everywhere. Paula Johnson of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, can also vouch for this ability that dogs seem to have. “My grandparents owned a Schipperke,” says Johnson. “My grandfather came home from work early one day, not feeling 100%, and went to lie down in the bedroom. A short while later, the dog started bugging at the door to the bedroom. My grandmother tried to hush him so as to let my grandfather sleep. The dog was insistent and so my grandmother opened the door to let him in: my grandfather was deceased. He had a heart attack in his sleep. So yes, dogs know!”
Are these anecdotal examples just a series of coincidences? Or can dogs really sense death? Ancient people seemed to think so.
Dogs, Death, and Folklore
Across time and space, many cultures from all over the world have associated dogs with death. The ancient Egyptian god, Anubis, had the head of a jackal or dog, and is the god of death, mummification, and embalming. He escorted souls to the underworld, and played a role in embalming and protecting the dead.
Dog howling is also said to universally support dogs warning or telling of death. In Irish lore, it is said that dogs could see souls being led to their resting place, led by a pack of hounds leading riders across the sky, and that is why they howl at the night sky.
In the lore of Mesoamerica (spanning much of Mexico and Central America), dogs guided the dead through the eight layers of the underworld. In fact, the name of the Xoloitzcuintli, an ancient Mexican dog breed, combines the name of Xolotl, the god of death, with the Nahuatl term for “dog.” In parts of Peru, some people consider a dog howling at night an omen that a person has died or is about to die.
Black Dogs in Folklore
In the British Isles, the appearance of black dogs, especially members of the hound group, was thought to indicate death was coming. Even into the early modern era, black dogs supposedly haunted remote areas, howling at anyone who came near and foreshadowing that person’s death. Fans of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may recognize these tales as inspiration for “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Could fact lie behind fiction?
Why do so many cultures associate dogs with death? Perhaps it’s simply a morbid observation. After all, stray canids may have once eaten human remains or howled to let packmates know there was available meat. Or perhaps it’s the mournful – or even scary – sound of wild canids calling packs together that stirs some uneasy feeling within us.
Can Animals Sense Death?
No death-predicting dogs have been officially documented. However, a Rhode Island cat, “Oscar,” gained fame in the 2000s for his ability to seemingly sense the impending deaths of nursing home residents. Caretakers at a Rhode Island nursing home noticed that feline resident, “Oscar,” who was normally aloof toward patients, would nap next to some residents. Many of these people died within two hours of his joining them. The staff thought it was as though Oscar was providing comfort to them in their last hours. After Oscar accurately “predicted” 25 deaths, when he began sleeping next to a different person, the nursing home staff would call that individual’s family so they could say goodbye.
We don’t know how animals may sense death, or if it’s really possible. First, we should examine situations where dogs appear to be very attentive to the dead or dying with some scientific skepticism. Perhaps we just notice the times that dogs, especially therapy dogs or dogs visiting nursing homes, sat beside someone who died — and forget all the times they sat beside someone who lived. This observation could be a case of confirmation bias, where people unconsciously notice information that supports views they already hold. Perhaps dogs are simply seeking a quiet bed to snooze in, or a warm blanket, and this happens to be near someone nearing death. Or conversely, perhaps dogs detect scents associated with rest and comfort, like blankets or pillows, and want to be nearby.
Can Dogs Sense Death?
Whether dogs can sense death or not, they will notice the absence of a human or another pet. For example, if one of your other dogs dies or a beloved owner passes away, your dog may well be confused or distressed, wondering why things have changed.
Dying people, as well as dying animals, tend to act differently. Dogs can read each other’s body language and react accordingly, and they also carefully observe human movement, posture, vocal tone, and more. If you are sad or anxious, your dog will react differently than they would if you were happy. Perhaps dogs are actually picking up on human anxiety or sadness. Current research suggests dogs may try to offer comfort to people in distress, which could explain why they’re nearby people in these situations.
One study from Goldsmiths College’s Department of Psychology looked at different reactions in dogs with two groups of people in two sitations. The people were either the owner of the dog, or a stranger. To see the dog’s reaction, both groups hummed or talked (happy behavior), or they pretended to cry (sad behavior). Regardless of whether that person was their owner or a stranger, the dogs more often oriented themselves towards people pretending to cry, nuzzling and licking the individual. It’s possible this behavior is a sign of empathic-type behavior from the dog, that could also translate to seeming like they can predict death.
Scientific studies indicate dogs’ keen noses and even their ears can sense changes in human emotion. For example, people’s smells change based on their mood, and canine noses can detect these changes. One PubMed research study exposed dogs to chemosignals (human pheromones that communicate information to others) of fear and happiness. When exposed to the fear chemosignal, dogs stuck around their owners more than they did strangers. Were these dogs trying to soothe their owners? Or were they themselves becoming afraid and seeking comfort?
Perhaps dogs, with their incredible senses of smell, can detect the slightest whiff of odors associated with dying. Maybe dogs can sniff out scents associated with organs shutting down. After all, some dogs can detect cancer, so it’s possible they can also detect dying cells.
Whether or not dogs can sense death specifcally, evidence indicates that dogs are able to experience some form of grief. Dogs may display behavior consistent with grief-associated emotions when owners die or when other pets, including dogs, die.
What Can Cadaver Dogs Tell Us?
“My dogs see dead people,” a dog owner may joke. But cadaver dog handlers can rightly claim that their dogs smell dead people — or dead bodies, to be exact.
A dead body immediately starts to give off scents that we can’t smell. In one Forensic Science Institute study, three cadaver dogs were exposed to a line-up of six new carpet squares. One carpet square that had been exposed for 10 minutes to a recently deceased person (within three hours of death). The dogs succeeded in picking out the correct carpet square 98% of the time, falling to 94% when the carpet square was exposed to a recently deceased person for just two minutes. As the body continues to decompose, the scents it gives off will change. It’s possible that dog noses can detect differences in how long someone has been dead.
Can dogs sense death? Maybe. They can certainly sense changes associated with humans passing away, and by nature, seek to comfort people. How true is the folklore, and how plausible is it that coincidences like the ones Beverly Bingham, Denise Milko, and Paula Johnson had aren’t coincidences at all? With more research, trained dogs might one day provide clues to answer these questions.