As Hurricane Sandy made its way up the Atlantic coast last week, forecasters predicted that communities in the Mid-Atlantic region would likely experience a catastrophic storm surge and massive power outages. While residents in the storm’s path hurriedly prepared their properties for a worst-case scenario, pet owners in the target areas may have noticed subtle changes in their animals’ behavior.

Though we tend to think of dogs as members of the family, our canine companions most definitely experience the world quite differently than we do. Whereas we rely on satellites and Doppler radar to predict changes in the weather, our four-legged friends seem to take their cues directly from the natural world. Exactly how they do it is not entirely understood by science, but behavioral changes suggest that animals have an intuition – a kind of sixth sense – when it comes to predicting the weather.

Or maybe it’s just that animals have more highly developed senses than we do. Perhaps they simply smell the rain long before the first drop hits the ground.

Dogs’ five senses are vastly superior to our own by most measures. Their ability to detect movement is greater than ours and, although they cannot see color as well as we do, they possess superior night vision. They hear at roughly four times the distance that we do, and they’re able to distinguish variations, for example, between the sound of their owner’s car engine and those of similar make and model.

A dog’s senses can distinguish friend from foe, and often signal that a favorite person is on the way home. Photo © Korgathegreep/Dreamstime.

The sense of touch is also well-developed in dogs. The skin between their tough pads is quite sensitive to the world around them, and the whiskers of their faces are extremely acute. Although their ability to taste may not have them craving salt or sweets as we do, dogs nonetheless have extremely good taste receptors for the meat and fat that make up the bulk of their natural diet.

Of course, the dog’s ability to smell far and away exceeds ours. It has been estimated that its sense of smell is roughly 100,000 times greater than our own. A heightened olfactory sense allows some dogs to follow a trail for days over many miles, and also helps our spoiled pets to distinguish each of the ingredients in a pot of chicken soup.

Dogs use their sense of smell to communicate too. They take in information to find out who’s been in the neighborhood, and they leave calling cards to let others know they stopped by. They recognize each other (and us) through chemical pheromones, and are able to distinguish friend from foe this way.

The scientific community may not agree as to the existence of a sixth sense in dogs, but plenty of dog folk seem convinced that our canine companions possess more than just heightened physical sensitivities. The symbiotic relationship we share, some say, provides all the evidence they need to prove that dogs have ESP.

Stories abound about how dogs can find their way home and alert to dangers unseen. Whether this behavior is instinctive or due to an extra sensory perception remains for science to determine and dog fanciers to believe.

A dog’s change in behavior can signal the approach of a storm. Photo © Annette Shaff/Dreamstime.

When I heard the reports that Hurricane Sandy was making its way toward my New Jersey town, I did what I could to prepare for high winds and heavy rain: I put the lawn furniture in the garage, tied down equipment too large to bring inside, and picked everything up off the basement floor.

As I hastened to get the property hurricane-ready (an impossibility, as we’ve all learned), I noticed how my Water Spaniel started to hide under the kitchen table and wanted to get in her crate. Whenever I walked into the room, she just sort of looked at me as if to say, “Hey dummy, you’d better get down here with me!”

Some readers might suggest that her behavior was simply a response to my somewhat frantic movements in and out of the house. Perhaps she simply wanted to stay out of the way. I’ll likely never know if she was being cautious, or just responding to the drop in the barometric pressure.

With mere hours to go before the hurricane made landfall, I looked out the kitchen window and noticed how the neighborhood ducks also seemed responsive to the approaching storm.

When it first began to rain, the ducks seemed delighted, splashing about in the pools that quickly formed in the street. But as the wind speed increased, they stopped their play and hunkered down on the lawn, heads tucked under their wings.

I wondered why they hadn’t gotten out of the wind by going under one of the evergreens, but as trees began to fall throughout town, I realized the danger this would have imposed. Maybe ducks have an animal intuition too?

At the height of the storm, I (foolishly) went outside to see if the cars should be moved farther from the old hickory tree. As I looked up at the enormous branches bracing against 80-mph winds, I noticed a pair of squirrels clinging to the tree’s trunk. I wondered why they weren’t settled into their cozy nest instead. Their decision became clear the following morning when I went outside to gather up the branches and noticed the nest had been blown out of the tree.

Can squirrels also predict the weather? I’m not so sure, but the little critters in my neighborhood certainly displayed good sense last week.

Exactly how animals experience the world around us is for the experts to determine. Until we know for sure, dog people like us get to decide if they’re simply intuitive or extra-sensory.