As Halloween creeps closer and the nights get spookier, you might find yourself paying extra attention whenever your dog perks up at some unseen sight, sound, or smell. (And they’re always in the dark corners, aren’t they? You know, the ones where things always seem to go bump at night.) It’s enough to make you wonder, “Can dogs see ghosts? What can dogs see that humans can’t?”

It’s tempting to consider our dogs as paranormal superheroes – sniffing out ghosts and goblins from every corner. In fact, the idea that dogs can see or “sense” spirits has fascinated humans for centuries. But in this post, we’re going to bust some myths – including whether these claims are real or just the stuff of legend.

Because yes, even if your buddy is barking at a dark corner of your room, the reasons are likely way less creepy than you think. Let’s get snooping.

So…can dogs see spirits?

Firstly, no – there’s no scientific evidence that supports the claim that dogs can see ghosts or spirits. (No matter what Hollywood, Netflix, or the Ghostbusters might tell you.) But it’s understandable if you think so. After all, dogs tend to have heightened senses that are way sharper and better developed than our own. So how do you explain it when your dog, say, barks at a dark corner of your house – or continues to interact with the belongings of someone who’s passed away?

What can dogs “see” that humans can’t?

Besides their keen sense of smell, dogs are sensitive to a bunch of stimuli in our environment. Much of which we aren’t really aware of ourselves. Here are a couple.

Movement & motion – especially in the dark

Dogs can see a broader spectrum of light than humans. Their eyes are built to detect more subtle shifts in light and shadow, even in dark, dimly-lit areas.1 Plus, dogs can also see at a distance up to eight times further than humans. Because of this, your dog is better able to navigate in the dark than you are. It’s also why you’ll see wild dogs or wolves active around nighttime. They hunt and travel as they might during the day.

A dog sitting in a field at sunset

Dogs are also highly sensitive to motions in the environment.2 So they’re better at picking up on moving objects than still ones. This, combined with their ability to see better in the dark, means they’re more sensitive to subtle changes in shadowy areas. Besides this, your dog also has a wider field of vision than you. So they can more easily detect a “threat” or prey approaching from a distance or the side. (While you might have to turn your head to spot it.)

So the next time you see your dog barking or even growling at a shadowy corner of your house, don’t fret. It’s more likely to be the movement of some household pest, bug, or a bit of dust. (Or even the pile of laundry you’ve dumped on your desk chair.) Movements that might otherwise be undetectable (or invisible) to the human eye.

Sounds too high-pitched for us to hear

Your dog’s sense of hearing is their next superpower. In fact, it’s close to a hundred times better than that of humans! Dogs are capable of picking up higher-pitched or higher-frequency sounds at much greater distances than us.3 (Like, for example, dog whistles.) Dogs can hear sounds up to 64,000 Hz – humans only around 20,000.

A dog facing away with their ears pricked up

Which is why high-pitched or intermittent sounds might be more likely to spook your dog instead.4 You might’ve seen this watching them bark or hide or whimper when your smoke detector battery signals it’s low. Other examples of high-frequency sounds in your household are doors creaking, indoor alarms, or the humming of your ceiling fan.

So if your dog cocks their head expectantly as if listening to something unseen, rest assured. They’re most likely trying to figure out if there’s a problem with your air freshener. (They just can’t help doing it when it happens to be dark around your house.)

Scents & smells we can’t perceive

Dogs’ noses have close to 300 million olfactory receptors. (While humans, in comparison, have only around 6 million.) In fact, an entire portion of your dog’s brain is designed to pick up and sort out smells alone. But while it’s arguably their ultimate superpower, your dog still doesn’t qualify as the next Ghostbuster. Rather, they’re actually capable of “smelling” out different health conditions – and even our emotions.

A woman hugging a Beagle puppy

Our bodies actually tend to give off a certain scent (or chemosignals) when we’re feeling happy or scared. In fact, a 2018 study even found that Golden Labs and Retrievers are able to “smell” human emotions – including fear.5 The researchers found that when dogs were more exposed to the “scent” of someone in a state of fear or stress, they were more likely to respond with stress themselves. So if your buddy tends to get spooked when you two are walking out late at night together – it’s more likely they’re responding to your fear. (And not Casper the friendly ghost.)

In fact, dogs’ ability to sense emotions are one part of why they’re emotionally intelligent in general. It’s why they make excellent therapy dogs and emotional support dogs. But did you know that some dogs can even be trained to detect health conditions early on? With their sense of smell, they can sniff out the chemosignals from people’s bodies that might indicate the presence of cancer cells.6 Medical detection dogs7 are trained to detect a variety of infectious and non-infectious diseases from people’s breath, bodily fluids, and even blood.8

So while your dog can’t sniff out your neighborhood-friendly Moaning Myrtle, they’re more likely to pick up on the signs that someone might not be well. Which, in the long run, can even help save someone’s life.

Low-frequency vibrations in the environment

You might’ve read stories of how dogs have alerted their parents to earthquakes and other natural disasters. And it’s another one of your buddy’s superpowers. Aka, dogs’ sensitivity to subtle shifts in the wider environment. Which include low-frequency vibrations that we might not “hear’, but rather sense unconsciously.

Low-frequency sound waves cause a physical vibration in the environment.9 (Like, for example the rumble of an airplane taking off or even your air conditioner.) Among low frequency sounds are infrasonic sounds, which fall below 20 Hz. So while your dog can’t “hear” them, they can pick up on these vibrations through sensory organs like their whiskers or even their paws. 

A dog sensing vibrations from the ground with their whiskers

In fact, infrasound is why you might find yourself with “chills” when you’re attending a live concert. It’s just how our bodies react to sounds at a certain frequency. A British study tested how audience members responded to music containing infrasound.10 The participants were more likely to feel anxious, sad, and uneasy when exposed to it. So while you can’t hear it consciously, it’s enough to make your brain let off some alarm bells all the same.

Even the creaking of old pipes can emit low-frequency infrasonic sound waves. Which might explain the creepy feeling you get passing by that old house in your neighborhood. You and your dog both can’t consciously “hear” these vibrations, since they fall just below the threshold of our senses. But since your brain can’t find its source, it’s why you (and your dog) might feel anxious, spooked, or alert instead.11

That said, dogs – and other animals – can still be sensitive to impending natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunamis. It’s why they’re likely to hide or flee before it strikes. (Since they’re sensitive to low-frequency vibrations that signal what’s to come.)

Do dogs have a sixth sense? Explaining your dog’s “gut” feeling

With all their enhanced senses, you might be wondering if dogs have a sixth sense. (Or a gut feeling that alerts them when something is wrong.) But more often than not, it’s simply your dog reacting with their regular five senses. This combines with their attunement to our emotional states – along with some good old fashioned habits they’ve picked up.

Old habits & behaviors

Your dog’s learned behaviors are why you’ll see, for example, them continuing to lie on the side of the bed of someone who’s passed away – or cock their head towards a chair they’d usually sit on, long after they’ve passed.

A dog sitting on an armchair

Rather than “sensing” something supernatural, your dog is more likely following deeply-rooted behavioral patterns. If that’s where a loved one used to sit and interact with them, your dog might continue to go there expecting it without fully understanding they’re gone.

Emotional attunement

Dogs are also keenly attuned to our moods. (Which explains why they just seem to be around just at the right time we need a hug.) It’s why they make such excellent emotional support animals. Besides, your dog is more likely to learn that giving you cuddles when you’re upset gets them cuddles right back. (So win-win both ways.)

Superpower senses

Ever come back home unexpectedly from work and find your dog waiting at the door – as if they’d know you were on your way home? It’s a phenomenon researchers have observed even among untrained dogs. And it can come across as if dogs seem to intuitively know what’s going to happen. But like we’ve covered, it’s more likely the case they picked up your scent approaching from down the block. (And ran to position in advance.)

A dog sitting by a door waiting for their parent

It’s how, for example, service dogs are trained to pick up on signs that their parent might be ill. (Even before they drop by the clinic.) Aka, a combination of training, superior senses, and knowledge of their parent’s regular schedule, routine, and activities. But even untrained pet dogs can show similar behaviors out of instinct. (Like sensitivity to upcoming changes in the weather or changes in their parent’s mood.)

And since dogs are sensitive to fear as our bodies signal it, it’s more likely they’re reacting to you. They can pick up even the subtlest changes in your body language or behavior. (Which might make it seem as though they’re reacting to something spooky – when it might just be our own unspoken cues.)

Why else could my dog hide or get spooked by something in the dark?

It could be the vacuum cleaner – it could be something more serious. But if you’re finding your dog hiding or cowering a bit more than usual – or, on the other hand, bolting off into the dark to investigate something – here are two reasons why.

Your dog might hide because they’re sick

Dogs might hide or cower for as many reasons as they might experience fear or anxiety. But your dog might also be likely to hide because they’re trying to mask an illness or infection.

It’s a tendency that’s hardwired into your dog’s evolutionary history. Aka, wild dogs and wolves are more likely to withdraw to hide any signs of sickness or injury. Doing so would simply make them vulnerable to other predators. And since your dog might hide their signs of sickness from you, it’s easy to miss out on their symptoms until it’s too late. 

Which is why vets always recommend tracking observable behaviors like your dog’s sleep and activity. With this data at hand, you’re more easily able to pick up on dips, spikes, and changes – and pick up on a change in your dog’s behavior even if they seem happy and healthy. So you can take action and get them to a vet before their condition worsens and they hide from you to handle it themselves.

It’s how Tractive pet parents around the world are staying on top of their dog’s health. With its Wellness Monitoring features, your Tractive GPS helps you identify your dog’s regular levels of sleep and activity – so you can catch on to a change quickly.

Here’s a story from one of our pet parents who caught on to a subtle change in her Beagle’s behavior, which helped her catch a medical emergency early on.

dog sleeping in the background smartphone with tractive gps app sleep monitoring in the foreground

When I looked at Ruby’s Wellness profile, the data showed that her activity level was low and that she hadn’t slept well. I was concerned and watched her carefully.

Early the next morning, she had blood in her urine and was lethargic. We visited the emergency veterinarian, and Ruby was diagnosed with a UTI.

She received antibiotics and pain medication and is feeling much better. Her tracker data made me aware that she was not acting normally and that something could be wrong with her.

I love her tracker, and I will always have one for any dog I ever own.

– Katie J, Delaware

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Your dog might bolt off into the dark due to their prey drive

Some dogs have a higher prey drive than others. Breeds like Retrievers, Irish Setters, Border Collies, Pointers, and Australian Shepherds have keen hunting instincts. They’ve been trained over centuries to hunt, chase down, and capture prey. Which makes these dogs a bit more challenging to handle when walking through the neighborhood. (Since they’re more likely to bolt.)

A man chasing a dog that's run away down a street

It’s one of the reasons you might find your dog on alert, ears cocked, listening keenly – while staring into the creepy dark forest or some poorly-lit urban area at nighttime. And if you’re in the habit of taking them out on walks at night, it’s less likely they’re sniffing out ghosts and more likely investigating the local squirrel population instead.

It’s how Imogen, a high-energy Borzoi, found herself bolting the fence from her yard – and crashing through the ice in a frozen lake nearby. But luckily, with a little help from her Tractive GPS (and some neighbors), her mum was able to find her immediately and rescue her from freezing and drowning.

Tractive also has you covered if you find yourself (literally) in the dark, looking for your dog. With its Light and Sound functions, you can locate your dog with an LED light in case they’ve run off somewhere past sunset. And with its LIVE tracking, you can breathe safely knowing that you can track your dog in real-time – every 2-3 seconds and no matter where you are in the world.

packaging of the Tractive GPS DOG tracker

Always know where your dog is

Follow every step in real-time with unlimited range. Get alerts if they wander too far. Keep them happy & healthy with Wellness Monitoring. And let others – like walkers or sitters – keep an eye on your dog too.

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Sebastian Raab, Product Manager at Tractive

Everything we build puts pets and pet parents first. It’s why we’ve built one device that tracks all aspects of your pet’s safety, from location to wellness. So you can holistically keep them both safe and happy.

– Sebastian Raab, Product Manager at Tractive & occasional pet-sitter

Celebrate your buddy’s sensory superpowers this spooky season

So, can dogs see ghosts? Not really. But what they lack in Ghostbusting, they make up for with their incredible senses and their profound connection to us. While they might not qualify as the next Scooby Doo, they’re able to detect subtle changes in the environment, sense our emotions – and even save lives. All of which count as superpowers, if you ask us.

Your dog’s senses, combined with their intelligence, training, and emotional attachment to us result in their “spooky” behaviors. So, for example, if you see your dog bolting off into the woods in the dark, it’s more likely due to their prey drive. (And not them running late to their Hound of the Baskervilles audition.) 

But if you’re noticing your buddy cowering or hiding more than usual, make sure to keep an eye out for any health concerns. With Tractive, you can both stay on top of your buddy’s nighttime wanderings – and also track their activity and sleep patterns. Which can help you catch on to a health problem early.

Your bond with your dog is a special one. And their unique abilities to sense emotions, changes in our environment, and even subtle movements only add to the magic of this connection. So whether or not your dog can see ghosts, their regular old superpowers offer us something that’s way more special than anything supernatural.

Still curious about your dog’s senses? Here are 8 things dogs can sense – that we can’t: