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Can Dogs Sense When Someone Is About to Die? Facts & FAQ

Dogs have always been humans’ best friends. They’re loyal and loving, and their keen senses of smell make them great partners for all sorts of jobs, from detecting drugs or explosives to alerting people about medical issues. It’s no surprise that dogs are also used in hospice care to comfort the dying. It seems like dogs have an almost “sixth sense” knowledge for when someone is about to die.

If you’re a dog fan, you’ve probably heard tales of canines sitting by someone’s side during their last moments, keeping them company as they pass on. Their quiet show of solidarity is one of those things that dogs do that endears them to our hearts even more.

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What Science Says About Dogs Sensing Death

There are several beliefs about how dogs know when someone is about to die.

We’re all aware of how powerful a dog’s nose is. Depending on the breed, their noses can range from impressive to exceptional, but there’s one thing that they all have in common: they can smell much more than we can.

It’s this sense of smell that makes dogs perfect for a variety of different situations. In particular, they can help us do our jobs or stay as safe as possible. Dogs help with police work and medical alerts, and they can track down prey during a hunt or save someone’s life during a search-and-rescue mission.

How Do Dogs Know When Someone Is About to Die?

Compared to humans, who have a measly 6 million olfactory senses in our noses, dogs have a whopping 300 million, along with a larger area of the brain dedicated to understanding different smells.1 A person who is dying smells different from someone who is healthy, and dogs can likely pick up on this difference, even if they don’t know for sure what it means.

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Body Language

More than verbal communication, dogs rely on body language to talk to each other and understand their favorite humans. Even without their impressive noses, their ability to understand body language gives them a heads up whenever something is wrong. They know when you’re having a bad day and need a cuddle or when you’re feeling sick.

The same goes for when someone is dying. Your dog will react instinctively to even unconscious changes in body language, whether it’s hunched shoulders or trembling hands.

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Sixth Sense

Although the ability to sense death can be explained by the strength of your dog’s nose, many people believe that the reason is as simple as a “sixth sense.” It’s almost as though your dog knows when your soul is ready to move on.

There’s no real way of knowing what your dog is thinking when they stay with somebody on their deathbed, so this sixth sense theory can seem more than a little farfetched. This belief, however, does have historical precedent.

The Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks are examples of ancient cultures that used dogs as guardians of the dead. While the jackal-headed Anubis watched over Egyptian tombs, dogs were believed to guard the souls of Grecians. In fact, in Persia, a dog was often kept close to a dying person to help protect their newly released soul from evil spirits.

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How Do Dogs React to Death?

Depending on your dog’s personality and breed, they may react to death in various ways. Some dogs might only sniff curiously, while others will have a much more obvious reaction. These can include:

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Frequently Asked Questions About Dogs and Death

Do Dogs Understand When Someone Dies?

Although they may react to death in various ways, there’s no telling whether dogs truly understand it. To them, it’s more likely to be a curiosity about a new smell that keeps them close rather than any real knowledge of why someone’s scent has changed.

Can You Train Dogs to Sense Death?

Yes, dogs can be trained to react to death. It’s a similar process to training service dogs to alert their owners to migraines, seizures, or low blood sugar. While they might not understand why they react the way that they do to someone dying, you can train them to give a person understandable signals when they sense death.

Hospice dogs can also offer a great deal of comfort to the dying. Having a loyal friend nearby, even the furry kind, is never a bad thing and can help ease someone’s passing.

What Do Dogs Do When They Sense Death?

No animal has been proven to predict death, but many dogs will show behaviors that indicate an understanding of the situation. We’ve all heard at least one heartbreaking story of a dog that refused to leave the side of their dying owner. However, anecdotal evidence always fails to consider the hundreds or thousands of times a dog didn’t show any outward signs of care or empathy for a dying family member.

Do Dogs Know When They Are Dying?

We can’t say with any certainty that dogs understand their impending doom, nor do we know if they understand the human concept of death. It’s much safer to say that dogs are most likely aware of the discomfort of illness or old age, and they exhibit behaviors that support a situational awareness.

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Behaviors that may indicate an awareness of death include reclusiveness, lack of interest in activities, lack of appetite, and seeking attention from their owners.
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Final Thoughts

Dogs have been humans’ best friends for centuries. They might not realize it, but we rely on them for so many different things, from friendly companionship to work and even our health. With all the other tricks that they can do, it’s no surprise that sensing death is another skill that they have.

We’ll let you decide whether you believe that dogs can sense death because of their sixth sense, uncanny body language reading skills, or powerful noses. One thing that we can all agree on, though, is how awesome canines are.


Featured Image Credit: Annabell Gsoedl, Shutterstock



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