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Can dogs sense a dead owner?

Many dog owners wonder if their beloved canine companions have the ability to detect when they have passed away. There are numerous anecdotal accounts of dogs seeming to sense the death of their owner, even from a distance, but is there any scientific evidence to support this? In this article, we’ll explore what capabilities dogs have to detect human death, whether through scent, behavior changes, supernatural connections, or other means. Read on for the facts and research behind dogs’ potential to know when their owner has died.

Do dogs have an acute sense of smell to detect human death?

Dogs have a remarkably sensitive sense of smell, with up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to only 6 million in humans. Given their evolutionary history as hunters and scavengers, dogs can pick up scents that we cannot detect. Decomposition produces chemical changes in the body, releasing compounds like cadaverine and putrescine that give off a distinctive odor. Given their powerful noses, can dogs smell the biochemical changes that accompany death?

Several scientific studies suggest the answer is yes. In 2011, research conducted by the University of Catania in Italy first demonstrated that dogs can detect the presence of specific volatile organic compounds released during the early stages of human decomposition. The dogs could discriminate between live humans, cadavers, and covert cadavers concealed behind obstructions.

Another study by the University of Bern in Switzerland in 2019 showed trained cadaver dogs could even smell the scent of human decomposition through closed doors and coffins. The odor signature of decomposition appears distinct, even in its early phases, allowing dogs to tell dead bodies apart from live ones.

So based purely on scientific evidence, dogs likely can sense the smell of human death, even days or weeks after a person has passed away. Their keen noses give them an advantage over humans at detecting the distinct scent a cadaver gives off.

Key Facts on Dogs Smelling Human Remains

  • Dogs have up to 300 million scent receptors, allowing them to pick up subtle odors we can’t detect.
  • Decomposition produces chemicals like cadaverine and putrescine with a distinct scent.
  • Studies show trained cadaver dogs can detect human remains by smell alone, even if concealed.
  • A dog’s nose likely allows it to smell chemical evidence of death.

Can dogs sense emotional changes associated with human death?

Beyond their ability to smell death, dogs may pick up on emotional changes in humans and thus detect sadness, grief, or worry associated with a loved one’s passing.

Dogs are highly intuitive and attuned to human emotions and body language. Research shows they can discriminate between happy and angry expressions, recognize smiles, and respond to emotional cues in human voices. Their close relationship to owners means dogs often become finely tuned to an individual’s “normal” demeanor.

When a dog owner dies, remaining family members experience emotional shifts the dog may detect – increased crying, solemn moods, or changes in daily routine. Some scientists suggest a dog may connect these cues and changes in their environment with the owner’s absence.

Whether dogs make the cognitive leap to connect emotional states with the fact that the owner has died, however, remains scientifically unproven. More likely, they are responding to the palpable changes in household mood and routine. But a dog’s sensitivity to emotional cues could allow it to detect changes associated with an owner’s death.

Key Facts on Dogs Sensing Human Emotion

  • Dogs can perceive human emotions through cues like facial expressions.
  • Dogs become attuned to an owner’s typical demeanor and emotional states.
  • A deceased owner’s family likely exhibits more sadness, crying, and changes in routine.
  • Dogs may detect and respond to these emotional changes in the household.

Could dogs have a sixth sense about human death?

There are many anecdotal reports of dogs seeming to supernaturally sense their owner’s death from great distances. These claims remain unproven and without scientific explanation – we have no evidence dogs possess a sixth sense apart from their normal five senses.

However, a few theories attempt to explain how dogs might remotely detect a loved one’s death:

Quantum entanglement – Some speculate human consciousness remains energetically connected to loved ones, even across distances. Dogs may tap into these quantum connections and intuit a distant owner’s passing. No scientific observations support quantum entanglement between live organisms, however.

Electromagnetic fields – Some believe human brains and bodies emit electric fields dogs may detect. Changes in these fields surrounding a deceased owner might be sensed by a dog as a signal. Low frequency electromagnetic waves can transmit information, but no studies verify they relay death messages.

Pheromonal cues – Dogs can smell human pheromones, which communicate emotional states like fear or stress. Pheromones released by grieving family members could signal a problem to a distant dog. But pheromones themselves would not denote the specific circumstance of death.

While we can’t rule out that dogs have unexplained perceptive abilities, no scientific mechanism accounts for how they might remotely sense a deceased owner’s passing. Specific cues like scent or behavioral changes likely explain most apparent canine “sixth senses.”

Key Facts on Dogs Having a Sixth Sense

  • No scientific evidence exists that dogs have a supernatural sixth sense.
  • Proposed explanations involve quantum physics and electric fields, but lack proof.
  • Detecting pheromones or behavioral cues probably explains most dogs’ reactions.
  • A specific perceptive ability for death remains unverified by science.

Do dogs exhibit behavioral changes when an owner dies?

In addition to sensing death through smell or perceived emotional shifts, dogs may display pronounced behavioral changes when their owner passes away. These behavioral signals are the most clearly observable signs a dog may be reacting to the loss of a loved one.

Documented behavioral changes after an owner’s death include:

  • Increased vocalization – whining, barking, howling
  • Alterations in eating habits – lack of appetite, refusal to eat
  • Changes in sleeping routine – insomnia, sleeping more than usual
  • Destructive behavior – chewing, digging, eliminating indoors
  • Depression – lethargy, lack of interest in toys or activities
  • Searching behavior – looking for missing owner, waiting by doors

Dogs are extremely attached to their human caregivers. When that person disappears from their life, they experience profound disruption and stress, which manifests physically and behaviorally. These reactions can persist for weeks or months before a dog adjusts to the absence of their deceased owner.

Key Facts on Behavior Changes in Grieving Dogs

  • Dogs often vocalize more after an owner’s death – whining or barking.
  • Appetite changes are common – either refusing food or overeating.
  • Dogs may sleep excessively or experience insomnia after loss.
  • Destructive chewing, digging and house soiling can indicate stress.
  • Dogs frequently seem depressed, lethargic or withdrawn.

How can dogs detect cancer or other illnesses in humans?

In addition to sensing death, dogs may also be able to smell other changes in human health, like cancer. Their powerful noses can pick up on volatile organic compounds produced by malignant tumors.

Studies show trained dogs can detect lung, breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers with up to 97% accuracy using smell alone. Other illnesses like malaria, diabetes, and COVID-19 also produce distinct odors dogs can be trained to identify.

If a deceased owner had an illness like cancer, the dog may have recognized subtle smell changes before their death. So a dog’s apparent sense that something was wrong with an owner’s health could derive from detecting odors associated with disease.

Key Facts on Dogs Detecting Human Illness

  • Dogs can be trained to detect cancer using smell with up to 97% accuracy.
  • Odors from malignant tumors allow dogs to sniff out prostate, lung, ovarian and breast cancers.
  • They can also detect malaria, diabetes, COVID-19, and other diseases by smell.
  • A dog may have smelled changes in an owner’s health from cancer before their death.

Do dog breeds differ in their ability to sense human death?

Certain dog breeds like Bloodhounds and German Shepherds are renowned for their superior sense of smell. However, most evidence indicates that any breed of dog, when properly trained, can detect odors like decomposition or cancer equally well.

For example, Beagles are commonly trained as cadaver dogs to find human remains, despite having average scenting abilities compared to other dogs. What matters most is training the dog with positive reinforcement to identify a particular target odor.

When it comes to sensing emotional changes around a deceased owner, dogs breeds like Labrador Retrievers that are highly bonded with their humans could have an advantage. But all dogs have the capacity to detect shifts in human mood or behavior that signal a loved one is gone, regardless of breed.

Facts on Death Detection Across Dog Breeds

  • Bloodhounds have one of the best sniffers, but most dogs can be trained to identify scents.
  • Beagles and other non-scent hounds make good cadaver dogs with proper training.
  • Labrador Retrievers are very attuned to human emotions.
  • But any breed can likely sense cues and changes surrounding an owner’s death.

How do dogs typically react to the loss of an owner?

The ways dogs react to an owner’s death vary, but some common responses include:

Searching Behavior

Dogs accustomed to constant human companionship often exhibit searching behaviors, especially shortly after an owner first passes. The dog may wait by the door, pace restlessly, whine, or wander through the house looking for the missing person. This reflects the dog’s urge to be reunited with the departed owner.


Lethargy, loss of interest in food, toys, or activities, and an overall sad demeanor are typical canine signs of depression after losing an owner. Dogs are deeply social animals, so removing their primary human can be traumatic and result in a mourning period.


Some grieving dogs become anxious without the stability their owner provided. Behaviors include trembling, barking, agitation, restlessness, and destructive chewing or digging. New phobias, like fear of stairs or refusing walks, could arise too.


Alternately, some mourning dogs become clingy towards remaining family members, following them obsessively around the home. This provides reassurance as they adapt to the owner being absent.


Puppies orphaned before 16 weeks old may regress to juvenile states, urinating indoors or whimpering at night. Adult dogs could revert to old bad habits, too. Regression reflects their insecurity with the changed household situation.


With time and reassurance from family, most dogs learn to gradually accept the loss of an owner. They establish a new normal routine and no longer actively seek out or wait for the deceased person.

How long does it take dogs to adjust to an owner’s death?

Every dog adjusts to loss at their own pace, but most begin to show signs of acclimating within a few weeks of their owner’s passing. The degree of attachment and the stability of their environment influences how long it takes to adapt.

Highly bonded companion dogs that lose a primary caretaker they interacted with daily tend to take longer to adjust compared to dogs orphaned at shelters or puppies relinquished to new homes, who generally adapt more quickly.

While some dogs show depressed behavior for months, most increasingly resume normal activities within 2-6 weeks post loss. The grieving process is very individualized though, so setting an expected timeframe is difficult. Patience, routine, and providing a sense of security aids dogs’ adjustment.

Factors in How Long Dogs Grieve

  • Depth of attachment to the deceased owner
  • Stability of post-loss living situation
  • Temperament of dog – anxious vs. resilient
  • Transition of ownership – rehomed or remaining family

Typical Grieving Timeframes

  • 1-2 weeks – initial pronounced reactions – searching, crying
  • 2-6 weeks – depression, anxiety, regression emerge
  • 6-12 weeks – acceptance behaviors predominate
  • 6+ months – lingering reactions in some dogs

What are signs my dog is sensing my death?

If your dog seems to react to your serious illness, approaching death, or demise afterward, some of the signs may include:

Nose Signs

– Your dog frequently sniffing or investigating you more than normal. They may detect chemical changes and odors associated with illness or death.

Attention Changes

– Increased clinginess, watching you more intently, reluctance to leave your side. Your dog tuning into your condition and “guarding” you.

Behavior Changes

– Alterations in their typical reactions, playfulness, appetite, or daily habits. Withdrawing or becoming depressed around you.


– Whimpering, whining, barking, or howling – Voluntary vocalizations that seem sad, stressed, or communicate need. Reacting to your condition.

Comfort Seeking

– Physical interactions like nudging, pawing, leaning, and licking you seeking comfort. Dogs do this especially with owners near death.

If your dog exhibits multiple unexplained changes in these behaviors toward you, they may be sensing your impending death or reacting to your loss after you have passed. Their close bond to you makes them sensitive to detecting your changing state.


Current evidence suggests dogs have the capability to sense and react to the death of a human family member in distinct ways. Their powerful ability to detect odors likely allows dogs to sniff out the chemical changes bodies undergo soon after death. They also read human emotional cues remarkably well, perceiving the signs of grief or depression in the household associated with an owner’s passing. While the mechanisms behind supposed psychic canine abilities remain unproven, their observablesniffing, attention, vocal, and behavior changes indicate dogs do grieve the loss of owners they are closely bonded with. With sensitivity and time to adjust, most canine companions eventually are able to accept the departure of a loved one.