DOGS THAT KNOW WHEN THEIR OWNERS ARE COMING HOME
And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals
By Rupert Sheldrake
Crown. 352 pp. $25
It is with the utmost regret that I must report, after reading this interesting and provocative book, that neither of the dogs with whom I live is more than marginally remarkable. Jaeger, to be sure, will sing along to "Happy Birthday" and other ditties that he favors, and Sophie recognizes -- well, some of the time anyway -- the sound of my wife's car as she pulls into a parking space on the street outside, but otherwise they are simply two little dachshunds, greatly loved by all in our household, totally unendowed with "unexplained powers."
Consider by contrast some of the dogs whose histories are recounted here by Rupert Sheldrake, a British biochemist with a special interest in "morphic fields," which he says "permit a range of telepathic influences to pass from animal to animal within a social group, or from person to person, or from person to companion animal." More on that in a moment. First, here are a couple of stories Sheldrake tells. The first has to do with BJ, a dog whose owner "has no regular schedule to her comings and goings." Her husband realized some time ago that BJ's behavior changed when she headed homeward, as she told Sheldrake:
"As I leave the place I have been, and walk to my car with the intent to come home, our dog, BJ, awakens from sleep, moves to the door, lies down on the floor near the door, and points his nose toward the door. There he waits. As I near the drive he becomes more alert and begins to pace and show excitement the nearer I move to home. He is always there to poke his nose through the crack, in greeting, as I open the door. This sensing seems to be unlimited by distance. He does not seem to respond at all to my leaving one place and moving to another, his response seems to become apparent at the time when I form the thought to return home, and take the action to walk toward my car to come home."
Something's going on there, no doubt about it, as with the "more than 500 reports of dogs that know when their owners are coming home" that Sheldrake has collected. But that's only marginally spooky by contrast with the following:
"During the First World War, Prince, an Irish Terrier, was devoted to his master, Private James Brown, of the North Staffordshire Regiment, and was inconsolable when this young man was posted to France in September 1914. Then one day he disappeared from his home in Hammersmith, London, and to everyone's amazement turned up at Armentieres a few weeks later and tracked down his master in the trenches in a frenzy of delight. Because no one could believe the story, the commanding officer had man and dog paraded in front of him the next morning. Evidently Prince had attached himself to some troops who were crossing the English Channel, and had then found his way to his owner. He became the hero of the regiment and fought beside his owner for the rest of the war."
Maybe both of these stories -- there are many more like them in Sheldrake's book -- are just oddities, flukes, conversation pieces for a slow cocktail hour. Maybe, on the other hand, they have something to tell us about the ways animals communicate, with each other and with us. Maybe what he calls the "taboo against taking psychic, or paranormal, phenomena seriously" needs to be re-examined. Maybe Sheldrake is right when he argues that "telepathy seems the most plausible explanation" for the ability of some dogs, cats, horses and other domesticated animals to intuit their owners' intentions and feelings, to find their way to their homes or their owners across great distances, to have premonitions about earthquakes, epileptic seizures, accidents and other misfortunes.
"It is right," Sheldrake acknowledges, "to maintain a skeptical attitude, ask further questions, and realize that people can be mistaken about their pets' behavior. But some people dismiss all the evidence from dog owners' experience as a matter of principle. This kind of compulsive skepticism stems from the dogma that telepathy is impossible. In my opinion such prejudices are barriers to open-minded scientific inquiry. They are not scientific but antiscientific. I am more interested in dogs than in dogma."
In order to build what might be called a scientific case for morphic fields and the telepathic communication they facilitate, Sheldrake has done substantial and impressive research, though the very nature of his inquiry limits both its scope and its results. Still, by contrast with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, whose "research" for The Hidden Life of Dogs consisted mostly of observing her own dogs and extrapolating wildly from what she saw, Sheldrake and his associates have "interviewed hundreds of people who are experienced in dealing with animals," they have "organized formal surveys in Britain and the United States involving random samples of households in order to quantify the frequency of the various kinds of perceptiveness shown by companion animals," and they have undertaken "experimental investigations" into the behavior of specific animals.
If you are, as I am, at once an animal lover and an old-fashioned rationalist, the evidence Sheldrake offers and the conclusions he draws from it require a certain suspension of disbelief. The communication between animals and humans that he explores is not what most of us are accustomed to: the way a dog, lying on the back seat, perks up when he hears the familiar gravel of his master's driveway under the tires, or the way a cat hurries down the stairs when she hears the key turn in the front door. The phenomena he describes are far more mysterious: dogs that somehow are able to sense, often from miles away, that their owners have turned their minds toward home; cats that start waiting for their owners long before they have any visible or audible sign of their arrival; pets that know when their owners feel grief or loss or pain and attempt to console them with the "healing power" of "unconditional love"; birds and fish that annually travel extraordinary distances to return to the places, always specific and often tiny, that are their homes; animals that show both "a sense for places and a sense for people or animals" and track them down, as in the case of the aforementioned Prince, in distant and unknown parts; animals that have forebodings of calamity and are able to avert it, for themselves and sometimes for others.
Sheldrake goes to considerable but far from excessive lengths to distinguish between animal behavior that can be explained by factors having nothing to do with telepathy and morphic fields and that which cannot. "When people return at the same time every day," he writes, "their dogs' [anticipatory] behavior could simply be a matter of routine." Dogs may be "picking up clues of anticipation from the person waiting at home," or may smell or hear their owners, or their cars, long before people can. Such responses can be clearly identified. But when dogs or cats show signs of preparing for their owners' arrival without any evidence that it is about to occur, something else is taking place.
Sheldrake believes that "we stand on the threshold of a new phase of science," one that "can help deepen our understanding of human nature," in part at least through research into "the unexplained powers of nonhuman animals." He has presented his case as rationally as the evidence permits, he avoids at all costs sentimentality and anthropomorphism, and he eschews wild and/or unjustifiable generalizations. It goes without saying that his arguments will be welcomed by many animal lovers; as for his fellow scientists, they owe him at the least a fair hearing.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.