A lot of people insist that their dogs (cats too, for that matter) can sense things that we humans do not. For instance, my friend Debbie from the dog park swears that her beagle, Chuck, knows when she’s even thinking about making some lunch. Debbie has been cutting way back on Chuck’s treats, and his weight issues are slowly improving, but he is apparently possessed of some food-related sixth sense.
So, could your dog be psychic? Some animal behaviorists and researchers dismiss the idea as pure bunk. Others, not so much. I touched on the idea of psychic dogs briefly in my article, What to Do When Your Dog Hates Your Significant Other.
Recently, while looking through Modern Dog Magazine, I came across an article by Stanley Coren, in which he tells a chilling tale. When he was a young child, his dog began to whimper for no apparent reason, while also looking at a particular corner of the room. His grandmother informed him that the dog was whimpering because he saw Azrael, the Angel of Death. His grandfather told him that the dog was trying to call the prophet Elijah, who sometimes saves good people from Azrael if he is called by a dog. He added that Stanley’s dead relatives might also be called to aid in the fight against Azrael.
Now, I have to say that I wonder about the kind of grandparents who would tell a kid this sort of story – Stanley probably had to sleep with the lights on well into his teens. But certainly, some dogs, sometimes, do seem to be agitated by things that are not apparent to us.
Many cultures believe that dogs can make contact with the spirit world. Across virtually every culture, there are legends about howling dogs indicating death. The theory is that if they look at you and howl, then you are marked. If a dog howls with his back to you, though, that means good luck. Now, I have to think that at some point, a dog is likely to howl in your general direction, and at some point, you are going to die, so the chances are that once in a while the two events will occur close enough together that people will say “See, the dog knew.”
One of the most common instances used to support the idea that dogs are psychic is the way that they seem to know when their people are coming home. In fact, biochemist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake actually conducted a study of more than 500 dogs who seemed to be able to anticipate the arrival of their person. He maintains that dogs know when their owners are coming home, even when the arrival time is irregular and unpredictable. His studies also seem to indicate that it is not a matter of hearing a familiar vehicle, since the dog’s reaction is the same whether the person arrives in the family car, by bus, by taxi or on foot.
One of Sheldrake’s research subjects, a Lab/Greyhound mix named Sam, was owned by Carole Bartlett in Kent, England. Carole frequently left Sam with her husband while she visited London. She traveled by train, and her husband never knew which train she’d be taking – only that she could be expected to get home sometime between 6 pm and 11 pm. Carole’s husband claims that he always knew when Carole was on her way home – half an hour before she returned, almost to the minute, Sam would leave whatever else he was doing to wait at the front door. That’s pretty amazing – she’d be still miles away, on a train, and 30 minutes out, but Sam knew.
Now, as a parallel to the Sheldrake study, let’s take a look at the case of Jaytee. Another Brit, Jaytee lives with Pamela Smart in Ramsbottom. Just like Sam, Jaytee always seemed to know when Pam was coming home – he’d run to the window, or go outside and sit on the porch, at the same time Pam was getting ready to come home. Like Carole, Pam’s schedule was irregular, and much of the time her family would not know when to expect her.
Upon learning about Jaytee’s apparent sixth sense, the Austrian State Television Network sent out film crews to observe Pam’s daily movements, and Jaytee’s as well. They were amazed that Jaytee always seemed to be bang-on in predicting Pam’s arrival. Researchers, including Sheldrake, became interested, and set up a scenario where not even Pam knew what her movements would be, and also used one film crew for Pam and one for Jaytee.
From the videotapes, it became apparent that Jaytee was practically always running to the window or out onto the porch, so chances were pretty good he would be doing one or the other no matter what Pam’s departure time from the agreed upon point. So maybe Sam is psychic, but the jury is out on Jaytee.
It could be that Pam’s family were indulging in a type of selective memory that psychologists refer to as a “confirmation bias.” For instance, if you think that bad things happen in threes, then no matter how widely spaced those bad events are in your life (and we know that life is just full of bad events), you will count them up until you hit three, and then say “There’s my proof,” completely discounting number four, and everything else that follows until you decide to start counting again. Or, if you think that people act crazy at the time of the full moon, you will notice more crazy behavior around that time. It doesn’t mean that there was ever any less crazy behavior – it just means that you didn’t notice it until you started looking for it.
Sam’s case sounds like pretty strong evidence. Jaytee doesn’t. I’m not sure about Chuck – Debbie claims that she doesn’t eat regularly, just whenever she’s hungry. But maybe she tends to be hungry at certain reasonably predictable times, and Chuck picks up on that. For sure, though, dogs are highly empathetic creatures, and I do believe that they are very in tune with us, and with things that go on in their world. Whether it’s actual psychic ability or not, I don’t know. What do you think?
If you would like to learn more about Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s study, you can buy his book at Amazon. It’s called Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. It’s a lengthy read at 400 pages, but I stayed up all night with it – I couldn’t put it down. The list price is $15.00, but Amazon has it for just $9.37.