Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Dogs and the Dreaded Sheldrake Question

February 4, 2011

Last week, I taped a radio show on animals and anthropology with Steve Paulson of Wisconsin Public Radio (I’ll post a link when it airs). A seasoned interviewer, Steve put me at ease in making my points….until he asked The Dreaded Sheldrake Question.

In my most recent book, I climbed out on a thin limb and discussed at some length the research of Rupert Sheldrake, who has a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University. Now, you have to understand at the outset how much turbulence this man leaves in his wake. Initially I’d planned to note that he is a “controversial figure,” but then I read this comment on a website discussing Sheldrake, and recognized that it accurately sums up the views of many scientists:

Calling Sheldrake a biologist (or any kind of scientist) is a bit of a stretch. His work on mystic "morphic fields" and other pseudoscience doesn't "spark controversy" any more than Uri Geller's spoon bending does. Yes, Sheldrake has a doctorate in biochemistry, but degrees do not a scientist make; publishing repeatable research in peer reviewed journals does.

Morphic fields? Pseudoscience? What’s all this about?

Sheldrake’s interests and publications are varied. For my purposes, I wanted only to know about the work described in his book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Sheldrake claims that dogs and their owners – at least some dogs and their owners-- have a certain mystical connection that allows the animals to intuit when the owners are about to return home from, say, a shopping trip or air travel, in the absence of an external cues. In other words, the dog runs to the door or window and acts with anticipation even though there’s been no telephone call or other communication to anyone in the home—and thus no way that a human could inadvertently have given speech or body-language signs to the dog of the owner’s imminent arrival.

Now, a lot of the so-called evidence that Sheldrake offers for this claim is weak, such as telephone interviews with people who assess their own dogs’ abilities. Further, the invocation of “morphic fields” as some kind of telepathic force between the dog and the owner, in other words a psychic system in play, leaves me cold. Still, there’s Jaytee and Pam Smart to reckon with.

Sheldrake’s team set up two cameras to capture the behavior that a British woman, Pam Smart, had reported about her dog Jaytee. In a series of controlled experiments, Pam was sent off to a nearby location and only once there, told when to leave and begin making her way home. Pam’s movements were filmed by camera #1.

Pam’s parents were back in the home with the dog Jaytee, but Pam only learned at the last minute the time of her departure and communicated nothing to them. Jaytee, then, could not have been cued by them. Yet time and time again—recorded on 30 videotapes over a 2-year span—Jaytee reacts with alertness and excitement as immediately as 11 seconds after Pam is instructed to start for home. We know this from camera #2.

So, when Steve Paulson asked me about Sheldrake’s work, my scientist’s pulse raced. I do want to entertain reasonable skepticism about Sheldrake’s data. One skeptic, psychologist Michael Heap, writes:

Sheldrake also examined Jaytee’s behaviour in the 10-minute interval prior to his owner’s setting off back home. Although I cannot find any reference to his original reason for doing this, logically one would consider this to be a test of the telepathic hypothesis: the dog should not show evidence of any increased tendency for anticipatory behaviour during that interval since the owner is not even aware when she is going to head off back home. In fact there was an increase in duration of time spent at the window during this period over the preceding period of absence, though not as much as after the decision to return home…..

(see more at Heap)

At the same time, I don’t think that Sheldrake’s results are explained away. And, many credible people do report the dog-knowing phenomenon.

We don’t have to resort to amorphous concepts like morphic fields or psychic systems in thinking about this matter. Emotional connections between animals and people may run deep and lead to unpredictable outcomes. Furthermore, we don’t always understand animals’ abilities in the wild either. To take just one example, why do elephants, crossing the Kenyan savanna, change their travel path and stroke the bleached, old bones of their dead kin while ignoring the bones of strangers?

Not-knowing has always been a motivation for scientists. I may be on the fence when it comes to Sheldrake, but I do hope that more creative-- and tightly controlled-- research is done on phenomena like dogs’ responses to their owners coming home.


  1. February 4, 2011 11:03 AM EST
    I'm not sure if I buy that my dog 'knows' way in advance that I'm coming home (say, when I leave a store miles away), but I will say that by the time my car gets to the top of the hill (maybe 5 houses before mine), I can already see his tiny little head peeking out of the bay window, where I know he's got his tiny paws up on the window seat. For most strangers he stands at the door and barks his head off, but for me and my family members, he takes up his perch and the window, and then goes running to the door when we've disappeared from view (reached the stairs to enter the house), body literally shaking with excitement.

    It's probably due to enhanced hearing, but oh my goodness is it cute and heartwarming. And it's amazing how his hearing is so finely attuned to the different people in his life. He has different physical responses/places he goes/barks/growls based on the individual in question.
    - Jenna
  2. February 4, 2011 2:57 PM EST
    It's so tempting to drop one's level skepticism in the face of a good story. This reminds me of so many of the identical twin studies ("stories"?). You know, the ones where they're separated at birth but then meet later in life and have all the same interests. It's easy to unmask big differences and contradictions if you dig anywhere beyond the superficial level. And yet we often refrain from digging, possibly because it tends to spoil an otherwise good story. The kid in me really wants to believe in Sheldrake's ideas...but I get the feeling that there are very important details left out (unintentional, I'm sure), like the one that Heap supplies, that make all the difference when it comes to validity.
    - Neil
  3. February 4, 2011 3:06 PM EST
    Yes, I think Jenna, you're right to separate acute sensory perception from the 'knowing' phenomenon. I know that our cats can hear the difference between particular car motors and thus figure out who's approaching our house (from a very small sample of familiar cars, of course). So the trick is, as Neil suggests, to separate our sentimental wishes from scientific inquiry. Yet I'm still not entirely ready to give up on Sheldrake's videotapes... I think the work can be improved upon, but I think he may be onto something that needs more exact testing.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.