Like most humans, the Shuar and Quichua indigenous tribes of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia have a special relationship with dogs. But in the Amazon, that bond can mean life or death, and dogs are treated particularly well, especially as hunting companions or protection from jaguars. The Quichua believe dogs have souls and will try to interpret their dreams. In some cases, Shuar women will breastfeed puppies alongside their children.
According to Shuar belief, dogs are a blessing from the earth mother, Nunkui, while Quichua view canines as gifts from forest spirits that can protect against mal ojo, the evil eye. And when their dogs become ill, these tribes use the plants around them as veterinary medicine. For example, ficus helps fight parasites, and Anthurium eminens treats botfly infections. In other cases, a mix of tobacco and ginger applied to the eyes can allegedly help dogs become better hunters by improving night vision. Dogs are so sacred in such societies that some peoples will even give them psychedelics. Surprisingly little is known about this practice, only that it dates back several centuries and those who do it believe it to be beneficial.
It’s worth noting that while strange drugs derived from jungle plants are becoming increasingly popular among Westerners, amongst the peoples who first discovered these substances, ritual psychedelic use is an orthodox practice so common, it’s almost mundane. In these cultures, psychedelics are treated with sacred respect, with an emphasis on medicinal and religious use as part of a communal setting, not just as a salve for modern mental ailments.
Dr. Rocío Alarcón, an ethnopharmacologist and researcher at the Iamoe Center in Ecuador, has spent more than 30 years working closely with ethnic groups in the Ecuadorian tropical rainforest and Andes Mountains. She comes from a long line of healers and has childhood memories of family elders, such as her uncle, training dogs using psychedelics — for instance, Banisteriopsis caapi, an ingredient in varieties of the brew ayahuasca, which triggers an intensely emotional, vomit-filled trip that can last eight to 10 hours.
“For me [it] was a normal process to see how he was using plants to teach the dogs different skills or at least allow the dogs to open their senses,” Alarcón told The Outline. The exercise involves careful ritual, often including specialized bathing, and reputedly helps bond the dog to its owner. These ceremonies are done compassionately and are viewed as an integral part of the dog’s health.
During our conversation, Alarcón emphasized that for many indigenous South American cultures, dogs are not simply animals “to be put on a leash and [walked].” She added, “For us, the dog is more than that.” Her own dog, Matthew, also went through training using psychedelics under the supervision of village elders, including an ayahuasca blend specifically meant for animals.
When people take psychedelics, they can experience tunnel vision, time distortion, or synesthesia. It’s possible these types of sensory changes also occur in dogs, narrowing their visual focus and boosting their sense of smell, turning them into über-hunters.
Around 20 years ago, Alarcón met ethnobotanist Bradley Bennett, Ph.D., now director of the Center for Ethnobiology and Natural Products at Florida International University. The two were inventorying flora hectare by hectare in Yasuní National Park, a preserve threatened by Chinese oil and gas development, but brimming with diverse birds, insects and plants.
As they went tree to tree, they interviewed locals for the common names and uses of vegetation. Bennett recalls two 17-year-old boys offhandedly remarked that a certain hallucinogenic extract from a tree called Huapa in the Quichua language, was taken by people, but also given to dogs. He soon learned that dogs were being given all but one of the psychedelic plants in the Shuar pharmacopeia.
Bennett was shocked. “I didn’t believe it at all,” he said. “But then I heard it a second time. And then I heard it a third time, with different indigenous groups.”
Huapa, the tree that started all this, was a previously unknown hallucinogen, at least to Western science. Sap from the tree, which comes from the same family as nutmeg, is typically mixed with two other psychoactive plants: sikta, a tree with pain-relieving and stimulating effects and Brugmansia, also known as “angel’s trumpet,” a flower notorious for disorienting, terrifying hallucinations.
This mixture is often ingested by people as part of their spiritual practice, as Bennett and Alarcón first reported in 1994 for a study published in Economic Botany, but the extract is also smeared on the noses of dogs, reportedly making them better hunters.
“Typically, they mix it with some food item that they give to the dogs, which is kind of unusual,” Bennett said of the many psychedelics employed for pups. “Often, the dogs aren’t fed. Occasionally they get table scraps, but these animals are expected to find food on their own.”
Intrigued, Alarcón and Bennett kept searching for plant decoctions given to dogs. Collaborating with the tribes, they eventually listed 22 species of psychoactive plants used by the Shuar and the Quichua for dog medicine, plus another 43 plant species used in other cultures around the world. The practice exists in regions as distant as Argentina, Solomon Islands, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Just because you give a dog psychedelics doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to trip balls.
The majority of these drugs seem to improve hunting ability and a good chunk of them have psychedelic effects, at least in humans. For example, in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea, some people feed leaves of Schuurmansia henningsii to dogs to improve hunting performance. But there’s next to no info on this plant, let alone what kind of psychoactive drugs it may contain.
Alarcón and Bennett published what findings they could scrap together in 2015 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. There’s very limited data on some of these plants and what trippy alkaloids they may or may not contain. Therefore, it’s hard to say if some decoctions actually work on dog brains the same way they would work on human brains.
Dogs require different dosages of some drugs than people, and in plants, portions of psychoactive chemicals can vary significantly. Quichua hunters will give their dogs small nasal doses of stimulants like Ilex guayusa, a tree in the holly genus, to foster alertness. Yet guayusa contains caffeine and theobromine, which are toxic to dogs. This suggests the doses can be relatively small. In other words, just because you give a dog psychedelics doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to trip balls.
There is anecdotal evidence that seems to support the researchers’ thesis. Bennett pointed out that indigenous tribes like these are so dependent on their dogs for food that if giving these plants to them were hampering their ability to hunt, they would likely starve. “The lowland forest is a tough place to hunt” as a human, Bennett said. “It’s so thick, it’s wet all the time, you can’t see very far.” As for the argument that psychedelics were actively helping the dogs, Bennett made an appeal to common sense. “Why are [these tribes] wasting their time collecting all of these plants if some of the things aren’t having an effect?”
Different plants have different benefits — tobacco could mask a dog’s scent, making prey less likely to detect canine predators. As for the hallucinogens, Bennett and Alarcón proposed in their paper that they could sharpen some senses while dulling others. When people take psychedelics, they can experience tunnel vision, time distortion, or synesthesia. It’s possible these types of sensory changes also occur in dogs, narrowing their visual focus and boosting their sense of smell, turning them into über-hunters.
Jessica Hekman, a researcher specializing in canine genetic behavior at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, noted the challenge of ascertaining a dog’s response to psychedelics. “It would be interesting to assess the welfare of these dogs,” Hekman said. “Of course, then you get into all the questions of us coming in from the outside and trying to tell people of different cultures how to take care of their animals. That’s very problematic and so I’m not recommending that. But I think unless more studies are done, it’s impossible to know how the dogs are responding.”
Bennett said he’s contacted several organizations, including the U.S. Navy’s Expeditionary Canine Sciences program, to see if they’d be interested in pursuing this research further. So far, he said, no one has expressed interest, and added that, to his knowledge, no other studies on the phenomenon of giving powerful psychedelics to dogs have been published since 2015.
Of course, in the days before institutional review boards or widespread animal activism, people used to give all kinds of drugs, including psychedelics, to dogs. But Bennett said these experiments were largely about using dogs as stand-ins for humans. No one has ever tested if, say, ayahuasca can somehow make dogs better at certain tasks.
But this research could have broader value, Bennett and Alarcón suggest. Training dogs with psychedelics could yield superior search-and-rescue sniffers or bomb detectors with greater capabilities than typical mutts. They could also help dogs sniff out certain types of cancer, invasive species or, alternatively, endangered species. Alarcón even suggests this psychedelic training could improve the sensitivities of service dogs that assist people with disabilities. “I think that this practice will offer different opportunities for our Western societies,” she said.
Hekman, on the other hand, said she believes that when it comes to improving the skills of working dogs, “I don’t feel like medication is the answer. I feel like better breeding and training techniques are the answer, [but] that’s a whole ’nother area.”
But more importantly, Alarcón and Bennett want to preserve this indigenous knowledge, which though once widespread, is quickly slipping away, thanks in no small part to industrialization and climate change, including wildfires. Alarcón has been inviting elders to train the next generation at the research center in Ecuador.
“Every time an older indigenous woman dies, it’s like going to the library and taking a shelf full of books and throwing them away,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot of wisdom out there that we ignore, I think, partly because of our academic hubris.”