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What Can German Shepherds Sense? (Fear; Danger; Emotions?)

Last Updated: February 3, 2024

As a German Shepherd owner, I often think, like other dog owners, that our furry friends have a bonus sixth sense that makes them detect realities we humans can’t and act upon them promptly. But is that really true? Exactly what can a German Shepherd sense? 

German Shepherds can sense human emotions like sadness, fear, happiness, and anger. They can also pick up scents of family members after periods of separation, sense danger before it happens, sense when a woman is pregnant, and detect illnesses like cancer and migraine with their noses.

To help you understand the power of the German Shepherd’s senses, this article explores the different human situations and realities that a German Shepherd can sense, including fear, sadness, and family. Let’s get started on answering these questions.

What Can German Shepherds Sense?

Do German Shepherds Have Good Senses?

German Shepherds, like other dogs, have five documented senses: touch, taste, see, smell, and hearing. These are the same senses we humans are endowed with. However, dogs are often thought to outdo us in using these senses. 

German Shepherds have good senses: 

  • They see better in dim light and darkness and detect fine movements. 
  • They have an excellent sense of smell, >10,000 better than that of humans. 
  • They can hear higher-pitched sounds from longer distances than humans. 
  • They have a good sense of taste, and their sense of touch is as good as that of humans. 

Also, German Shepherds and dogs, in general, are thought to have a sixth sense. It’s that gut feeling or intuition that combines dogs’ astute ability in the other five senses to help them perceive realities that are not obvious. 

Even though research is slim on the German Shepherd’s sixth sense, real-life situations have served to make us keep insisting that dogs really do have a sixth sense: 

  • When your typically friendly GSD shows an outright dislike for a new friend who turns out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 
  • When your German Shepherd waits for you at the entrance, even though you’ve come home earlier than usual, suggesting it’s not just a routine controlled by time. 
  • When dogs manifest strange behavior before an earthquake or other natural disaster. 

What Can German Shepherds Sense?

So, let’s get specific. Exactly what can German Shepherds sense? Can German Shepherds sense fear, danger, sadness, emotions, pregnancy, and family? 

Let’s find out!

Can German Shepherds Sense Fear?

German Shepherds use their sense of smell to detect body odors known as chemosignals that humans emit when they are afraid. German Shepherds are better at detecting these odors because their olfactory senses are better developed than in other short-nosed dog breeds

Several recent studies have demonstrated that dogs detect body odors produced in humans under fear and happiness emotions. 

Also, these same emotions are reproduced in dogs once they detect them in humans. 

In a study with Golden and Labrador Retrievers, the fear odor in humans caused dogs to display stressful behaviors. This was not the case when the happy chemosignal was detected. 

Can German Shepherds Sense Danger?

German Shepherds can sense danger and will communicate their perception of danger by acting in unusual ways, such as excessive barking, being hyperactive, shaking, or hiding under furniture for no apparent reason. 

Like many other dog breeds, German Shepherds sense when their owner is in danger and may use some of these behaviors to try and warn their owner about the danger. 

German Shepherds and other dogs and animals also sense the danger of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. For example, in the 2004 Indonesia tsunami, dogs were among animals seen to portray unusual behavior by running to higher grounds before the tsunami happened. 

According to Psychology Today, dogs perceive natural disasters before their occurrence because they can detect variation in magnetic fields and minute changes in geomagnetism. 

This is why they will act strangely before natural disasters or even move away from places prone to these disasters. 

A study assessing unusual animal behavior before the 2011 earthquake in Japan reported that owners of many dogs had noticed unusual behavior in their dogs, especially a sense of restlessness. 

German Shepherd. Can German Shepherds Sense Danger?

Can German Shepherds Sense Sadness?

German Shepherds can sense sadness, thanks to the close bonds they create with their owners. What’s more, German Shepherds will often respond to sadness in their owners with canine sounds that mimic crying or with facial expressions that communicate sadness. 

According to a study that focused on physiological reactivity in dogs’ response to human emotional faces, dogs had a slight tendency to turn their head to the left side when they detected sadness on human faces. 

This was also the case when other strong emotions, such as fear and happiness were detected. 

In the same study, dogs also manifested higher rates of stress behaviors when they detected sadness in humans. 

In real-life situations, German Shepherds and dogs of other breeds will place their heads on their owner’s laps, lie or sit next to them in similar facial expressions as those portrayed by their owners when they are sad. 

These behaviors serve to confirm that German Shepherds and other dogs are sentient animals who can experience feelings of sadness or joy, even as a reflection of their owner’s emotional state. 

Can German Shepherds Sense Emotions?

German Shepherds can sense emotions of fear, anger, sadness, and happiness using their hearing, vision, and smelling senses or a combination of these. While a lot of human emotion reading by dogs is facilitated by chemosignals, research suggests that dogs read faces to detect perceptual cues

This is primarily facilitated by dogs’ readiness to look at human faces after years of living with humans. 

Dogs also combine sight and hearing to match visual expressions with vocalizations. They will look at your face when you are happy or angry and notice the vocalizations that accompany these expressions, so they can detect them better the next time they happen. 

Besides, dogs can also link gestures to facial expressions and vocalizations. For example, your German Shepherd can link the gesture of extending a hand in intense motion to an angry face and angry vocalizations. 

Studies have also shown that your German Shepherd and other dogs will use their hearing to determine your emotion of fear, happiness, and sadness. At the same time, they will turn their head in a particular direction depending on whether the emotion is negative or positive, which also corresponds to the opposite side of the brain.

Here’s how that works:

  • Human negative emotions are processed in the right side of your German Shepherd’s brain. Your dog will turn its head to the left side in this case. 
  • Human positive emotions are processed by the left side of your dog’s brain. Your German Shepherd will turn its head to the right in this case. 

Because human emotions are contagious for dogs, your German Shepherd will show similar emotions as those detected in the owner. These transmissible emotions are especially detected in cardiac activity, such as a fast heart rate, and behavior responses, such as agitation and restlessness. 

German Shepherds are a popular breed chosen as emotional support dogs for people struggling with mental health issues.

Can German Shepherds Sense Pregnancy?

German Shepherds can sense pregnancy from the changed body odor in the first weeks. In the following months, German Shepherds will sense pregnancy through a woman’s changing physiological structure, change in moods, and new behavioral routines. 

When a woman becomes pregnant, several hormonal changes happen in the first weeks. 

These alter your body scent. Because dogs, specifically German Shepherds, have an acute sense of smell, they can tell that you don’t smell the same way you usually do. 

What your dog smells during pregnancy is largely elusive. However, some dog owners have testified to their dogs being extra protective or affectionate, even before they themselves could know they were pregnant. See the testimony of this Redditor as an example: 

“My dog knew I was pregnant before I did.”

Dogs will also notice your changed routines, posture, and walking pace. For example, they may notice that you wake up more frequently than usual to go to the bathroom, sit with your enlarged belly up, or walk with smaller strides. 

Your German Shepherd may also detect your unborn child’s heartbeat earlier than you can due to their better sense of hearing.

While the mother or father will need a fetal Doppler in the early months to detect the baby’s heartbeat by placing the ear on the mother’s belly, your German Shepherd will detect the heartbeat earlier. This is because German Shepherds have a pronounced ability to pick fine and distant soundwaves. 

All this, however, needs scientific backing but is entirely possible. 

Can German Shepherds Sense Family?

German Shepherds can sense family members when they see them. However, their sense of smell is precise in identifying family members. Like other dogs, German Shepherds etch the body order and the scent of family members’ clothing in their brains, which helps sense them even from afar. 

Some dogs have recognized family members such as siblings of their owners who they never met even when their owners were not close by. That has been used to suggest that dogs can detect similar chemosignals in the body odor of related people. 

In addition, lost dogs have been reunited with family by simply smelling and recognizing their owners. See in the video how happy a lost dog who was brought to a shelter (three years earlier) gets when he recognizes his owner by sniffing him. I love this video: 

Research has also demonstrated that the owner’s scent is the most preferred by dogs. 

What’s more, the owner’s scent elicits a sense of pleasure. In a study, dogs presented with the scent of their handler, an unknown human, and a known and unknown dog singled out their handler’s scent and had a positive association with the scent. 

My German Shepherd amazes me when she can’t actually see, yet senses a family member come to the rear of the house via the side gate. I’ll hear the sound of the latch being opened, and if she stays rooted to the couch and doesn’t even raise her head, bark, or show other concerning German Shepherd body language, such as raised hackles, I just know it’s not a stranger or intruder.

It always makes me laugh how she knows this every single time.

Can German Shepherds Sense Sickness?

German Shepherds can sense sickness because the human body’s chemistry changes when we are sick, making us emit a different scent from the usual. Research focusing on dogs’ ability to smell specific illnesses in humans has proven their capacity to anticipate illness or detect existing diseases. 

For example: 

  • Dogs can sniff certain cancers in humans, including breast, ovarian, prostate, lung, and bladder cancer. Specifically, German Shepherds were able to detect breast cancer on women’s clothing with 100% accuracy, according to a study by a French team. 
  • 53% of female dog owners recorded unusual behavior in their dogs at least 2 hours before they experienced a migraine. The behavior mostly manifested unusual attentiveness of the dog towards the owner. 
  • Dogs detected and alerted patients of type 1 diabetes about hypoglycemia
  • Dogs accurately detected the presence of bacteria in the urine (bacteriuria). 

Can German Shepherds Sense Ghosts?

So this may sound a little weird if you don’t believe in ghosts or the paranormal. But hear me out as I find this stuff fascinating.

German Shepherds may or may not be able to sense ghosts. There is no scientific proof suggesting that German Shepherds can sense ghosts or have paranormal experiences. What is certain is that German Shepherds and other dogs can sense realities that are elusive to us. 

According to the dog expert Stanley Coren, the widespread idea that dogs detect ghosts refers to situations in which dogs sense realities and situations with their normal senses, but humans are not aware of these realities. 

If these realities are vague for the dog, such as not being able to make out a smell or sound, he will become wary and act in unusual ways, making us interpret that as an experience with ghosts or the paranormal. 

Ultimately, it may not be your German Shepherd sensing ghosts but your own perceptions playing a part and creating imagination. 

Can German Shepherds Sense Death?

German Shepherds may or may not be able to sense death. Dog experts do not have a precise answer to whether your German Shepherd can sense death. However, real-life stories of dogs barking and howling continuously when someone was about to die are intriguing. 

Even though most scholars hold that dogs don’t have a concept of death, some others suggest that it would be possible to determine if dogs and other animals do really have a concept of death using two methods

  • Study the cognitive capacities of dogs and other animals by observing dog/animal populations over long periods of time to gather data on their behavior around death and interpret it for answers. 
  • Conduct experiments in which captive dogs are assessed for behavior, emotions, and physiological reactions under varied encounters with death. 

Until that is done, we’ll just have to keep wondering if our German Shepherds can sense death. I’m certainly not in a rush to find out!

Final Thoughts

The German Shepherd has good senses of smell, vision, hearing, taste, and touch. Even then, GSD owners often wonder if their dogs have a sixth sense that aids them in sensing realities elusive to humans. 

What’s certain is that most of your German Shepherd’s senses are more refined than yours. 

So, the next time you are wondering, “what can German Shepherds sense?” you’ll need to remember that your dog can hear fine sounds from a further distance than you, detect smells you can’t, and see and feel movements you wouldn’t. 

Sharon Waddington
Sharon Waddington is the founder of World of Dogz. With over 30 years of experience working with dogs, this former Police Officer has seen it all. But it’s her trusty German Shepherd, Willow, who steals the show as the inspiration behind this website. As Sharon’s constant companion Willow has played a pivotal role in shaping her passion for dogs. Recently, Sharon has become deeply passionate about the plight of rescue dogs and is an active advocate for dog rescue, striving to make a difference in the lives of dogs in need.

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