Can Dogs Know About Death?

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Introduction

There's quite a lot of evidence supporting the idea that animals, dogs especially, are quite aware of the realities of death, especially if it's impending or approaching. From pups who have been thought to predict death, to comfort dogs who are kept in hospitals and hospice centers, there's something that dogs understand about death that humans simply don't. 

That being said, though, do dogs know about death to the degree that people do? Do they understand what death is and why it's happening? This is hard to answer. There's evidence of dogs mourning the loss of fellow dog companions as well as owners, and there's also evidence of dogs sensing impending loss. The question of whether or not dogs fully understand death, though, is probably not one we can completely answer. We do have more information on this subject below, though.

Introduction of Can Dogs Know About Death?

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Signs Your Dog can Sense Death

When it comes to how your dog is feeling or what they're sensing, it's not as easy as asking them verbally. Because dogs aren't able to communicate with us with words, we have to develop certain skills that correlate with understanding their body language. If you suspect your dog is acting funny because he or she is sensing a death, you can expect a different type of body language and cues than they're usually subject to display. 

For example, dogs who are sensing impending death will likely cling to and surround the person or animal they're sensing. This happens for a few reasons. Dogs have incredible senses of smell, and when diseases, sicknesses, or other types of physiological changes happen, the micro-smells that are associated with these changes are picked up by dogs. 

You can expect your dog to sniff or lick the sick or ill person, as well as becoming increasingly obsessive about spending time around them. Some dogs might whine, whimper, or howl, while others might try to draw less attention to the dying person or animal and sit quietly with them, taking on a protective role.

Body Language

Here are some body cues to keep an eye out on:
  • Alert
  • Whining
  • Howling
  • Pacing
  • Sniffing
  • Dropped Ears
  • Licking
  • Stiff tail

Other Signs

Here are a few other signs to look out for:
  • Pacing near a dying animal or person.
  • Howling or barking.
  • Being overly protective
  • Excessive licking and sniffing
  • Staying close
  • Mourning and pouting

History of Dogs Sensing Death

History of Can Dogs Know About Death?
While there are plenty of scientific explanations laid out that can explain why dogs are able to sense death before it happens - mostly related to their skillful noses - there have been historical arguments throughout the decades claiming that dogs are simply more in tune with awareness in general. 

Some people claim that dogs have some kind of sixth sense when it comes to encroaching death, with plenty of anecdotal reports that aim to back up these claims, however, it's likely that most of the reason dogs are able to sense death is due to their keen senses and awareness. 

The Science Behind Dogs Sensing Death

Science of Can Dogs Know About Death?
While it's hard to determine exactly what it is about dogs sensing death - whether it's a sense they have that we don't or they have a special knowing way about them - it can be said that one of the reasons dogs have a better idea of impending death is because of their sense of smell.

Dogs have about 300 million olfactory senses in their noses compared to only about 6 million found in human noses. When physiological changes occur in humans and animals, tiny smells are given off and small changes of odor can be detected by your pup. While these might not be evident to humans, your dog, with an olfactory cortex that's about 40 times the size of a human's, is able to detect the tiniest changes. 

When a person or animal is dying, their smell changes, something your dog is able to pick up on much quicker than people.

Training Your Dog to Detect Death

Training of Can Dogs Know About Death?
While it's impossible to train your dog to specifically seek out and detect a person or animal who is near death and alert them, you can train your dog to use their sense of smell and alertness to act as cadaver dogs or hospice care dogs. 

Cadaver dogs are pups who are specially trained to sniff out dead bodies. Training a cadaver dog requires that your dog be familiar with human blood, decaying flesh, bones, and other human decomposition smells. Decaying people produce volatile organic compounds, and because your dog has a gifted nose, they're the perfect detective to help locate missing people and dead bodies. If you're looking to train your dog to be a search and cadaver dog, you'll need to work with a certified trainer who is able to get their hands on these materials. 

If you're interested in training your pooch to be a hospice comfort dog or a therapy dog, you'll first have ensure that your dog is a gentle, well-behaved pup by nature. Next, you'll need to train your dog to pass various, basic obedience tests as well as commands listed in the Therapy Dogs International Testing Brochure in order to ensure that they're qualified to act as gentle therapy and hospice pups. 

How to React if Your Dog is Sensing Death:

  • Don't punish your dog for acting strangely, rather, try to get to the bottom of their behavior.
  • If your dog is agitated, attempt to soothe them to get a better understanding of what's happening.
  • Ensure that if your dog is trying to comfort a dying animal or person, they're doing so safely.
  • If your dog is trying to be overprotective, ensure they're not biting or nipping.