Sensory Abilities: Extrasensory Perception

By | May 19, 2010

Do dogs possess a sixth sense? Many authors writing to a popular audience, among them trainers, veterinarians, and behavioral consultants, have suggested that dogs may use information derived from sources other than the normal senses. These beliefs have been reinforced in the publics mind by animal psychics claiming to communicate with dogs telepathically and to perform extraordinary feats, ranging from locating lost pets (both dead and alive) to diagnosing behavioral and medical problems by psychically “talking” with the distressed animals. Such extraordinary abilities have not been successfully demonstrated under controlled laboratory conditions; nonetheless, they are widely held to be real abilities and supported by the testimonies of many satisfied customers. Some dog trainers, most notably Woodhouse (1982), claim that a very active telepathic linkage exists between trainer and dog:

It is extraordinary how dogs pick up praise straight from your brain almost before you have time to put it into words. A dog’s mind is so quick in picking up your thoughts that, as you think them, they enter the dog’s mind simultaneously. I have great difficulty in this matter in giving the owners commands in class, for the dog obeys my thoughts before my mouth has had a chance to give the owner the command. (1982:72)

What makes such statements so difficult to accept without a high degree of skepticism is that such abilities would be so easy to confirm or disprove through a series of simple experiments. If confirmed, a whole new vista of human-animal communication would be opened up, but to the best of my knowledge such confirmation has not been obtained. Although impressive anecdotal evidence has been collected over the years, together with some inconclusive scientific evidence (especially by J. B. Rhine and colleagues at Duke University), overall the picture provides little in the way of confident support for the existence of extrasensory activity. Nothing seems very authoritative or conclusive about this literature, although defenders believe that it is enough to “prove” the existence of such phenomena. Undoubtedly, subtle links of communication exist between humans and animals that are not fully understood, but these links are most probably examples of extraordinary senses and empathetic exchange rather than extrasensory mediation and arcane abilities.

Clever Hans

To study extrasensory perception (ESP) from a scientific viewpoint, one must approach it with the same methods and attitude used to investigate natural phenomena. In essence, this means that adequate experiments must be devised to test the claims of persons attributing events and experiences to paranormal causation. Without such investigation, no conclusions regarding such phenomena can be legitimately drawn.

The story of Clever Hans (Pfungst, 1911/1965) provides an edifying backdrop for appreciating the need for safeguards and a scientific method when studying such phenomena. Hans, a Russian trotting horse, belonged to Wilhelm von Osten, a retired German schoolteacher and amateur horse trainer. Von Osten appears to have honestly believed that he had discovered a training method for instructing animals to communicate on a more sophisticated level with humans. He was able to convince many critical observers of the legitimacy of his horse’s extraordinary ability to tap out answers with his hoof to mathematical problems, and to respond to other questions posed to him. This latter feat was accomplished by von Osten assigning numerical values to letters, with which Hans could spell words by tapping out their numerical equivalence.

Hans’s fantastic abilities were received with far-reaching international astonishment and interest. Various explanations were proposed to explain the horse’s amazing abilities. Taken together, these accounts form a virtual monument to Ockham’s razor (Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity) and the law of parsimony. These accounts ranged from trickery on the owner’s part to telepathy. One of the scientific investigators of the Clever Hans phenomenon was O. Pfungst (1911/1965), who reported his observations in a book devoted to the subject. He described several of these theories, including one posited by a researcher (he refers to as a “natural philosopher”) who wrote, “On the basis of most careful control, I have come to the conclusion, that the brain of the horse receives the thought waves which radiate from the brain of his master; for mental work is, according to the judgment of science, physical work” (1911/1965:28-29). This rather absurd concatenation of pseudo-science and mysticism echoes some of the current ways unexplained phenomena are explained in paranormal terms. The mystery of Clever Hans was finally solved when Pfungst demonstrated that the horse was actually responding to subtle cues emanating from his owner that told him when to stop tapping. The cues involved were slight and subtle upward head movements, barely perceptible upward movements of the eyebrows, and the flaring of the owner’s nostrils. The size of the movements were estimated to be on the order of less than a millimeter and, in some instances, a mere deflection of one-fifth of a millimeter was accurately responded to by the horse.

Nora, Roger, and Fellow: Extraordinary Dogs

As Hans’s fame spread through Europe, two dogs — Nora and Roger — also appeared on the scene, exhibiting fantastic abilities similar to those of Hans. Nora, a spaniel type, belonged to Emilio Rendich (an artist). After observing von Osten and Hans in action, the observant painter noted that von Osten constantly watched Hans’s hoof tapping, while Hans, for his part, constantly observed his trainer. He surmised, like Pfungst, that Hans was responding to subtle cues emanating from his trainer: in particular, forward-leaning and backward-leaning movements. Also, Rendich believed that Hans had learned, more importantly, when to stop tapping rather than when to start. To test these hypotheses, using subtle forward and backward body movements as signals, he set out to train Nora (sometime before 1905) to paw and to stop pawing on cue. Reportedly, Nora could perform many of the same feats that Clever Hans exhibited.

In 1907, Century Magazine published an article titled “A Record of a Remarkable Dog,” which was written about a dog named Roger under the pseudonym of B.B.E. Roger, a 3- to 4-year-old spaniel mix, came into B.B.E.’s possession with a history of trouble and problems. Before being adopted by B.B.E., Roger had been rejected from two previous homes as an “impossible” puppy. Withdrawn and depressed, Roger had apparently received some abusive treatment, but after 3 months of gentle handling, he gradually emerged and slowly began to exhibit an increased interest, attentiveness, and trust toward his new owner and surroundings. As his confidence improved, B.B.E. commenced efforts to educate him, starting with simple parlor tricks and progressing to more elaborate objectives as the dog’s ability permitted. Roger proved to be a very intelligent and willing learner. For example, B.B.E. was able teach Roger to pick up individual playing cards from a pile of eight cards laid out in front of him. His method was crude but effective. He simply grasped Roger’s paw and placed it over the selected card and then repeated its type and suit — for example, “That is the ace of clubs, Roger — ace of clubs.” This was repeated four or five times. Roger was then given a cookie as a reward for his cooperation. Gradually, Roger learned to voluntarily place his paw on the selected card for which he would receive a treat.

B.B.E. carried out these training activities daily for 10-minute periods over 2 months. In the beginning, the correct card was kept in the same position, but as Rogers skills improved, it was placed in random locations relative to the other eight cards. After an additional month of training, Roger was taught to locate another card — this time, the ace of hearts. However, to B.B.E. s amazement, Roger learned this new card trick after only a single trial of training. Subsequently, Roger learned to locate all eight cards in rapid succession, apparently having acquired a “learning set” that made variations of the task progressively more easy to learn. The next training goal was to teach Roger how to spell his name. This task was accomplished by placing Rogers paw sequentially on the various cards spelling out his name. Each trial was followed by the appropriate command “Where is the first letter?” and then “Where is the second?” and so on. Amazingly, Roger learned to spell his name within five or six sessions. B.B.E. also taught Roger how to add every combination of 2 up to 12. For example, B.B.E. would command “Show me 2 + 6” and would then place Rogers foot on the correct card containing the number 8. B.B.E. commented that Roger at this point in his education seemed never to forget, even after a single exposure. Finally, B.B.E. discovered to his great astonishment that Roger could spell “dog” and could even translate it into German (hund) and French (chien) — tasks that he had learned with no previous training!

B.B.E. performed a series of experiments to determine how Roger was performing these incredible feats of learning. In one of these experiments, he instructed Roger to add 2 + 3; however, instead of looking at the correct card, he looked at another card with the number 8 drawn on it. As he expected, Roger placed his foot on the card marked 8 instead of the one marked with the number 5. B.B.E. erroneously inferred from the evidence that Roger was responding to a visual image produced in his mind. He conjectured that this visual image was somehow unconsciously transmitted to the telepathically receptive dog: “All the time when he seemed to be learning rapidly, he had been simply getting the cards of which I thought” (B.B.E., 1907/1908:601). B.B.E. adopted the now familiar ESP explanation for his dog’s remarkable abilities, speculating that he had tapped some previously unappreciated channel of in-terspecies communication with Roger:

May it not be possible that between our minds and the minds of the lower animals there is a deep and quite subtle connection which may yet be explained in the future, but only by the use of the utmost sympathy and love? (1907/1908:602)

Century Magazine asked R. M. Yerkes of Harvard University to investigate. During Yerkes’s initial observations of B.B.E. and Roger, he was unable to detect any obvious signals coming from B.B.E. that might explain the dog’s extraordinary abilities. On a later occasion, however, following a 6-week separation between B.B.E. and Roger, Yerkes observed that B.B.E. did, in fact, provide Roger with subtle guidance. These movements were made more evident since Roger had been out of practice and apparently needed extra help. However, Yerkes (1907/1908) noted that “these movements were not readily seen by the observer when Roger is in practice and does his best. It is highly probable that the dog’s visual sensitiveness to movement is greater than ours.”

Another dog that attracted considerable fame and notoriety as the result of his remarkable learning abilities was a German shepherd named Fellow (Warden and Warner, 1928). The dog was owned and trained by J. Herbert, an avid fancier and breeder. Fellow appeared in a number of movies, playing the typical roles assigned to dogs during the 1920s. What made Fellow special among dogs was his reputed ability to understand over 400 different words, forming definite associations between them and specific objects, places, and actions. According to Warden and Warner, Herbert made no extraordinary claims about the possible operation of higher reasoning powers or extrasensory abilities underlying Fellow’s proficiency at understanding commands. In fact, it was Herbert who contacted Warden and Warner — both psychologists at Columbia University — to evaluate the extent of Fellows accomplishments. The researchers conducted a number of tests with Fellow, concluding that he did possess most of the abilities attributed to him by his owner. In one series of tests, the experimenters and Herbert concealed themselves behind a screen from where commands were issued to Fellow. Even under such difficult conditions, the dog was still able to respond accurately to over 50 verbal commands of the type “Sit,” “Down,” “Take a walk,” and “Step back.” Although these so-called type I responses were readily performed by Fellow, other commands that required him to move toward some specific place or object — type II responses — were performed much more poorly and hesitatingly under such conditions. They observed that Fellow made few mistakes performing type II tasks (e.g., “Jump on the table,” “Go and look out the window,” and “Put your head on the chair”) as long as he remained in full view of Herbert. However, when signaled to perform these same tasks from behind the screen, he made many more errors. Consequently, Warden and Warner performed an additional experiment to isolate the pertinent visual cues influencing Fellows performance:

It was now decided to make a deliberate attempt to confuse the dog, by having Mr. Herbert come from behind the screen and issue the commands, at the same time looking away from the place or object which the dog was supposed to approach in performing, with the following result:

1. “Go put your head on the chair” — dog jumps up on table at which Herbert is looking.

2. “Jump over the chair, good dog” — dog goes over to window at which Herbert is looking.

3. “Go over to the door” — approaches table at which Herbert is looking.

4. “Go over to the door, now I say” — goes to window slowly, toward which Herbert has turned.

5. “Go take a walk around the room” — dog goes to door at which Herbert is looking.

Mr. Herbert was then blindfolded and the test repeated to see whether Fellow got his cue from watching his master’s eyes or from the general orientation of head and body. Similar results were now obtained showing that the latter factor is most likely the important one. (Warden and Warner, 1928:22-23)

These various tests and experiments confirmed that Fellow had attained an extraordinary ability to understand and respond to a variety of verbal and gestural cues. However, the most important question remains unanswered — How? According to Herbert, Fellow’s successful training resulted from a regular practice of speaking to him “constantly almost from birth” onward in the manner of a parent to a child. Herbert claimed to have refrained from the use of corporal punishment, and only occasionally scolded Fellow when discipline was necessary. Unfortunately, little more was written about Herbert’s accomplishment as a trainer and the finer details of his methodology.

Although the foregoing examples may lack the mystery and excitement of ESP, such extraordinary perceptual and learning abilities are of tremendous significance in themselves for an appreciation of the dog’s perceptual abilities and the dog’s relationship with humans. In all of the aforementioned cases involving extraordinary abilities, one factor seems to stand out above all others — the importance of close familiarity between the performing animal and human trainer. Hediger (1981), for example, argued persuasively in this regard that the crucial factor in Clever Hans’s success was the high degree of familiarity existing between him and his trainer von Osten. Without the medium of intimate familiarity, unconscious gestures of such refinement as those employed by von Osten would never have been observed by the horse. Clearly, Hans’s ability to read the unintentional cues of his trainer was an inadvertent outcome of the close relationship resulting from the training process itself and not dependent on extraordinary abilities or telepathy. Likewise, in the cases of Nora and Roger, a high degree of familiarity and affection was also evident, with B.B.E.’s revealing attribution of “sympathy and love” serving as a testimonial to the relevance of such factors in the development of remarkable animals. Finally, Herbert’s method for instructing Fellow depended on close interaction and intimate communication between himself and the dog. These observations emphasize the relevance of enhanced affection, communication, and trust in the training process. Without such familiarity and affection-informing training activities, both dogs and trainers suffer a great loss. The dogs, on the one hand, will likely never reach their full potential and, on the other, the trainers are cheated of the full range of benefits and joy derived from affectionate companionship with dogs.

Extrasensory or Extrasensitive?

Although not all psychic phenomena can be explained by appealing to familiarity, intimacy, and affection; undoubtedly such factors do play a role in some forms of “telepathic” communication between intimate friends or human-animal companions in which the parties appear to know what each other is privately thinking or feeling without actually needing to communicate it directly. However, such connectedness may not depend so much on extrasensory abilities as it does on extrasensitive abilities. Many examples of animal ESP (e.g., amazing tales of psi trailing, anticipating important events like earthquakes before they occur, and experiencing the distress of a loved one suffering at a remote location) have been noted and discussed in various contexts, but to my knowledge none have fared very well under scientific scrutiny. Even though some experts in the field have expressed affirmative opinions concerning the possible existence of psychic phenomena, it remains a highly speculative area needful of much more research. Obviously, the many questions regarding ESP and animals are not going to be answered without such study. In the meanwhile, perhaps, the best one can do is maintain an open but critical mind with regard to such claims and phenomena.

Finally, it should be noted that at least some “paranormal” phenomena may be the result of sensory abilities not yet identified. For example, bats use echolocation to navigate around objects in their flight path and to locate prey insects, but before Griffin’s discoveries concerning how this process actually worked, it remained unknown and liable to unprofitable speculation. The echolocating apparatus is incredibly sensitive. Even under conditions of pitch darkness, bats can recognize prey insects from similar nonprey insects on the basis of shape differences derived from echo information alone. Humans, too, can derive significant information from echoed sounds:

Blind people, and blindfolded volunteers who have had considerable practice, can detect and classify objects in their vicinity by emitting audible sounds and hearing subtle differences depending on the presence of the object. But, curiously enough, many of the most proficient do not consciously recognize that they are accomplishing this by the sense of hearing. Instead they report that they simply feel that something is out there, and a common term for this ability is “facial vision.” … Nevertheless the feeling and the alleged “vision” cease almost totally if they can make no sounds or if their hearing is blocked. (Griffin, 1992:238)

It is not hard to see how these abilities could be wrongly interpreted as being the result of paranormal causation by persons wishing to interpret them as such. In addition to echolocation, many similar examples can be cited that testify to the phenomenal and varied sensory abilities of animals, including the fascinating dances of bees described by von Frisch, the remarkable migratory journeys of animals navigated by electromagnetic information, the infrared-radiation-sensing abilities of snakes, the electricity-sensing ability of some fishes, and the olfactory sensitivity of moths — many of these abilities might have been (and were) considered extrasensory 50 years ago and accounted for by various supernatural explanations instead of being recognized as belonging to the animal’s special sensory accoutrements.

Perhaps dogs do possess some not fully understood extrasensory ability, but only scientific research will answer the question definitively one way or the other. Actually, all of the canine senses are capable of extraordinary sensitivity and incredible feats without resorting to extrasensory help. Besides the quality of the dog’s inherited sensory abilities, ultimately the most influential factor in the actualization (or degeneration) of the dog’s sensory and mental capacities is experience. Sensory abilities are both dynamic and conservative. Although they appear to remain the same from day to day, they actually change under the demands made upon them. These various changes are often slow and imperceptible, but changes do occur, educating the dog to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and to move about with precise coordinated movements. The mind of the dog obtains a clear awareness of the environment through the effortful exercise and training of the senses. The refinement of sensory acuity and intelligence depends on these actualizing influences and the organizing functions provided by daily training and practice. Some experiences reported by scientific observers, though, simply cannot be so neatly explained, so I offer the following anecdote provided by Worden to remind the reader that the book is not yet closed on the issue of extrasensory perception in dogs:

Belief in the popularly termed “sixth sense” of the dog is widespread, and one is always coming across almost incredible stories — told usually in an attempt to demonstrate the dog’s “intelligence”. It must be conceded that we have not as yet adequate explanations of homing behaviour or of many other surprising canine feats. I can add one bonafide case, in a Scottish terrier, Sheila, who was devoted to me and who remained with my parents at East Barnet from 1940 onwards, when she was seven years old, while I was working at Cambridge. As often as I could — but sometimes at intervals of some weeks — I would return home, or call in on my way to London, but my visits were usually unannounced, at different times of the day, and by any of a considerable number of local trains with which I had connected at Hatfield. Yet almost invariably Sheila would rise in pleasurable anticipation when the particular train bearing me was heard, some half a mile away, approaching the local station, and thereby inform my mother of my coming. There were over thirty stopping trains a day traveling in that direction. (1939:973)