Carlson: Can your dog sense ghosts? Do you care?

I don’t know if I should be proud or worried that I’m starting to recognize an article by Dr. Stanley Coren as soon as I read the title.

Granted, he is prolific. And his submissions to Modern Dog magazine are cogent and fun to read. However, I never aspired to be a Stanley Coren groupie and yet I seem to have become one.

Coren is a professor of psychology and a neuropsychological researcher who teaches at the University of British Columbia. The reason I am familiar with his work is that he frequently writes articles describing research on how dogs think. And he almost always startles me with how much more dogs understand than I give them credit for.

So when I saw a certain article in the spring issue of Modern Dog magazine, I guessed correctly that it was the work of Coren. But even then, I was not intrigued by the title: “Can Dogs Sense Ghosts, Spirits, and Hallucinations?”

Honestly, I have enough to worry about during this particularly crazy part of history without caring whether my dogs can sense the paranormal. Plus, I have something of a laissez-faire attitude toward ghosts and spirits: I don’t bother them. They don’t bother me. However, I decided to finish reading the article anyway and discovered a few fun facts.

Happy Tails

Nancy Carlson has an enduring interest in the bond between humans and animals.

> See her column

The belief that dogs can sense the supernatural originated in Egypt. Indeed, drawings depicting the god of the dead, Anubis, show him with the head of a dog. An old Norse legend describes Freya, the goddess of death, as driving a chariot pulled by giant cats. (Right there, you have to question this myth. What cat ever worked for a living?) The story is that Freya rides around with these cats, and naturally the dogs bark at them — and then you know that someone’s going to die.

Well, my dogs bark (a lot) and I’m not dead yet, so I can’t give a lot of credence to this particular legend, or to the others that link dogs with the afterlife.

owever, the Associated Press conducted a poll with Petside that interviewed 1,000 dog owners, and 47 percent of them reported that their dogs sensed impending bad news and alerted them by whining or barking, or displaying agitated or erratic behavior. YouTube, of course, has many videos that allegedly portray a dog acting fearful in the supposed presence of a ghost or spirit.

However, Coran believes (and for what it’s worth, I concur) that dogs, whose abilities to hear and smell far exceed our own, react to the unfamiliar and if we humans happen to believe the unfamiliar is a ghost, bingo! The dog has sensed it.

At this point, I seriously considered not finishing the article, but I am glad that I read on. So what about hallucinations? Do dogs have a role to play? The answer is yes, and it’s so cool I can’t wait to tell you about it.

Hallucinations are associated with, among other things, Parkinson’s disease and some forms of epilepsy. But the most frightening are traced to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The examples Coran uses are victims of rape and combat veterans. It is not at all uncommon for people who have suffered these kinds of trauma to hallucinate that someone threatening is in a room they are entering, or behind a tree they are walking near. And, of course, to the person with PTSD, it seems all too real and all too frightening.

Enter the psychiatric service dog, trained to help that person differentiate what might be a real danger and what is a hallucination. This is beautiful in its simplicity. Psychiatric service dog and his person walk into a room, and the person fears someone dangerous is already there. But is it an actual person or a hallucination?

Person tells service dog, “Go say hello!” If there is really someone there, the dog goes up to him for pets. If he is, indeed, part of a hallucination, the dog sits by his handler’s side, signaling all is well. The person knows he can trust his dog, his anxiety level diminishes, and he is capable of functioning again. Wonderful, yes?

So I remain incurious about whether my dogs, or anybody else’s for that matter, can sense the presence of ghosts. I am very appreciative, though, that we have found one more way our dogs can help us manage this stressful world.

Nancy Carlson can be reached at nancy.carlson935@gmail.com.


Web Design and Web Development by Buildable