Clairvoyant Canines

Clairvoyant Canines
And psychic pooches.

3

One early evening when I was about six or seven years of age, my dog Skipper (who I remember as a Beagle) began to whimper unaccountably.  He was looking with great discomfort at one end of the room where nothing seemed out of place.  My grandmother, Lena, looked up from her knitting and said, "He sees the Angel of Death, Azreal.  When Azreal comes or goes, dogs can see him.  Dogs can see devils and angels and ghosts.  You can see them too-at least sometimes, if you look where the dog is looking. You have to look right over the top of the dog's head through the space between his ears."


My grandfather, Jacob, who had been listening, lit one of the cigars that were his passion in life, and took up the story from there.  "If he is a brave dog, and if he really loves a person, he will bark to call the prophet Elijah.  Elijah might step in to save a good person from the Angel of Death.  Sometimes the barking also wakes the ghosts of family members who have died and they will come to fight Azreal to protect their loved ones.  Other times the noise simply convinces the Black Angel that he'll have a strong fight on his hands and he goes away.

"No matter what, you should never stop a dog from barking since he may be trying to save someone's life-maybe even yours. And make sure that a door or a window is open a crack so Elijah and the good ghosts can get in, and if Azreal wants to make a quick run out of the house he can do it."

The belief that dogs have psychic abilities runs deeply through many cultures. For instance, there is an almost universal belief that the howling of a dog is a death omen. When I was training with the U.S. Army in Kentucky, I spoke with an old woman whom I knew only as Aunt Lila. She told me that if a dog gives two howls close together it signifies that death is coming for a man. Three howls means a woman. "Dogs look in the direction of the person about to die," she said. "My daddy said it was good luck to have a dog howl with his back to you."

Probably the most common example of a dog anticipating an event occurring is the familiar observation that dogs seem to know exactly when their owners are coming home. Rupert Sheldrake, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, argues that "the most convincing evidence for telepathy between people and animals comes from the study of dogs that know when their owners are coming home. This anticipatory behaviour is common. Many dog owners take it for granted without reflecting on its wider implications." Sheldrake has collected more than 500 cases in which dogs appear to anticipate an owner's arrival. He claims that this is not due to some innate ability to tell time, because the dogs seem to foresee these events even when the time is not regular or predictable. And it can't be their sensitive ears picking up the sound of a familiar vehicle, since they anticipate the owner's return even if the person comes by foot or via bus or taxi.

One striking case Sheldrake describes is that of Carole Bartlett from Chiselhurst in Kent, England. She often leaves Sam, a Labrador Retriever-Greyhound mix, with her husband when she goes to the theatre or to visit friends in London. To return home requires a 25-minute train journey and then a five-minute walk from the station. Carole's husband does not know which train she will return on, and she might arrive at any time between 6:00 and 11:00 P.M. Sheldrake quotes Carole as saying, "My husband says Sam comes downstairs off my bed (where he spends the day when I go out) to wait at the front door half an hour before my return." The reason why this report appears so remarkable is that the dog seems to begin waiting for Carole around the time that she is just starting her journey home, when she is still many miles and 30 minutes from her front door.

The most closely studied case of supposed canine ESP involves a mixed-breed terrier named Jaytee, who lived in Ramsbottom, England with his owner Pamela Smart. As with Carole Bartlett's Sam, Jaytee seemed to anticipate Pam's return by running to the window, or outside to sit on the porch, just about the time that his mistress was beginning her return trip home. This anticipation occurred even when Pam's schedule was irregular and her travel times were unknown by other members of her family. In an attempt to verify Jaytee's telepathic abilities, the Austrian State Television network sent two film crews. One crew followed Pam as she walked around the downtown area, and the other stayed at home and continuously filmed Jaytee. After a couple of hours, Pam and her crew decided to head home, and at that very moment Jaytee went out on the porch and remained there until Pam returned. The results of this experiment received a lot of media attention, with television commentators describing the dog as "psychic" and "always correct in his anticipations."

Sheldrake decided to invite a team of researchers, headed by psychologist Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, to test Jaytee's telepathy. The results of this research have been published in the British Journal of Psychology. Wiseman's first task was to eliminate any possible non-telepathic cues that might trigger the dog's behaviour. This meant that Pam could not leave and return at regular times, or use a familiar car. They also had to eliminate any possible cues the dog might pick up from the behaviours of other people in the house. To do this, Wiseman and his team designed an experiment in which no one, including Pam, would know in advance exactly when she would start her journey home. Specifically, they took Pam to a remote location and used a special calculator to generate a random time for her return. Pam was only told that they were going to return home a few seconds before the group actually started back. Meanwhile, another member of the research team remained at Pam's home and made a complete video record of Jaytee's behaviour. This experiment was performed four times.

Wiseman then had an independent researcher judge the video tapes. This individual was not given any information about Pam's movements and simply scored any occasions when it might be reasonable to feel that Jaytee was signaling that his owner had started home. What the researchers found was that Jaytee was an extremely vigilant dog, typically running to the window or out on the porch more than a dozen times during any of Pam's absences.

Sometimes an event such as person walking by or a car pulling up to the curb was the obvious reason for his investigation. Sometimes, however, there was no apparent reason for Jaytee's going to the window. Unfortunately, the majority of these "unexplained" trips to the window did not coincide closely with the times that Pam started home. In an interview, Wiseman summarized his results, saying, "At a randomly selected time the owner returned home and yes, indeed, the dog was at the window at that point. When we rolled back the film and looked at the rest of it we found the dog was constantly going to the window. In fact, it was at the window so much it would be more surprising if it wasn't at the window when the owner was returning home."

So why were Pam and her family so sure that Jaytee was able to accurately predict her return? It likely has to do with some well-known thinking biases that human beings have, involving a kind of selective memory based on what psychologists call "confirmation bias." This refers to a mode of thinking in which people tend to notice, or even look for, events that confirm their beliefs-and to ignore or perhaps undervalue the relevance of observations that contradict their beliefs. The classic example of this is that if a person believes a full moon triggers an increase in crime or accident rates, he or she will take special notice when such events are reported during a full moon, and will be less likely to notice or remember these same events should they occur at other times.

As a scientist all of this makes sense to me. However when one of my dogs starts growling or whimpering at something I can't see, I still open the window a crack. After all, who wants to begin scientific experiments when the Angel of Death might be standing across the room, unseen except by a sensitive and vigilant dog? ■

Stanley Coren is Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of several books on dogs, including How to Speak Dog and Pawprints of History. His website is www.stanleycoren.com.

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