Psychic Pets -- What the hell?

My wife and her friend have been telling me about some nonsense they saw on Oprah about pets being psychic–specifically, the ability of animals to know when their owners are coming home.

Allegedly, the pets will get excited, start waiting at the door, etc. (observations made by camera/housekkepers/other non-owners), when the owners are about to arrive. To prove it wan’t just a really good time sense on the part of the animals (the obvious explanation–that they know what time of day their owners come home), the “psychic” ability was shown to exist even in pets whose owners came home at very irregular times–not on a specific daily schedule.

Has anyone heard of such stuff? Anything to back this up? I, naturally, am having a little trouble believing it.

I’ve had my share of pets that were psycho, but psychic?

At the risk of being called skeptical, I would suggest more prosaic explanations. Could it be the pets could single out the sound of their master’s car from a distance? Or their tread on the stairs? I recall reading that a dog clearly smells you through the door.

We were recently discussing something along the same vein.

I feed my dog every morning soon after I wake up - around 5:30. I get home around 5 p.m. just about every day, and Daisy is almost always right by the door. Weekends I sleep somewhat later.

Couple of weeks ago we went on a trip, and the in-laws watched the beast. Grandma said every morning M-F the dog would wake her up around 5:30, wanting to be fed. Then on Sat and Sun, Daisy didn’t wake her up. And every evening M-F she would get bummed out around 5 when I didn’t show.

An explanation that makes sense to my wife and me is that both we and the in-laws live near the commuter tracks. It does not seem impossible to me that my dog can tell weekends from weekdays because the trains run on different schedules. And the time I wake up for work is just about when the 1st inbound train passes through town.

Can’t explain how she bends spoons, tho.

Here’s your man - Rupert Sheldrake.

He’s big on simple experiments that could indicate weaknesses in traditional science. I’m not sure if I buy any of it, but my wife is convinced. This makes for interesting conversations in our household.

Anyway, he did experiments with video cameras in the house, and a video camera following the owner around, and at some random time the owner is told to go home and as if by magic, the dog goes to the window to wait.

The way Sheldrake describes it it sounds like we should all be burning our physics books, but other folks seem to be a bit less enthusiastic about what the results demonstrate.

A trip to his ‘comments and controversies’ page is worthwhile IMHO.

I’m with Dinsdale…the sound of the car, the approaching smell, the consistent timing (getting home from work at the same time each day), or (since the dog is being observed to get excited) various cues from other people in the house that the person is returning home. I’m not familiar with Sheldrake, but it would take more than one person and one experiment to prove such a claim.

my cats seem to do the same thing, jumping onto the window sill just as i approach the door, sometimes even waiting by the door for me, but i wonder if it’s not just the sound of anyone approaching when no one is home. when i am home, if someone approaches, they don’t do that. I figure they just don’t want to be alone, and they like attention and can’t wait to get it.

I think it’s the sound of the owner approaching. One of my parents’ two cats, George, knows when someone is about to come home, and is usually waiting by the door when you walk in. He knows you’re coming even if you don’t normally arrive at that time. The other cat, Petunia, doesn’t behave like this, and is never at the door when you arrive. Based on various observations, we think she has a hearing impairment. My observations lead me to conclude that George can either hear our footsteps outside, or he can recognize the specific sounds our cars. Petunia can do neither, presumably because of her hearing loss.

Dice, good observations, and along the lines of exactly the sorts of control experiments that should be performed. (I didn’t read Sheldrake’s book or read his website too extensively, so he may have done just that.) Take pets with hearing, vision, or olfactory defects and see if you get the same results.

I find it astounding that someone could take two animals with remarkable adaptations in the areas of sight, sound, smell and agility, combined with instincts honed by millennia of natural selection, and come to the conclusion that they know when their owners are coming home by magic. It really trivializes what animals are capable of.

This page explains a little about feline behavior.
http://www.discovery.com/stories/nature/cats/communicate.html

In it, this guy thinks his cat is pyschic because one minute the cat is sleeping, the next he runs away frightened, the some plaster falls from the ceiling right where the cat was sleeping. A doctor explains this as the cat’s ability to hear the breaking plaster and put together that his master isn’t causing the plaster to break. You can read the article to understand it better.

Anyway i think this explains one situation and other “psychic pet” situations can be explained scientifically.

Exactly! Some people seem to need magic in their lives. I find the natural world to be amazing enough.

Oprah’s full of shit.

These are all points I’ve raised with my wife, but apparently the data is well beyond that. The dog reacts when the decision to come home (at some remote location) is made, not when the car pulls up outside, or even when the car pulls around the corner 2 miles away. We’re talking about someone at the mall and someone saying “It’s time to go home” and the dog perking up at home.

Very strange. There are some other more tricky scientific explanations that need to be addressed, e.g. the dog just goes to the window more often as time goes by. Sheldrake claims he has addressed all these concerns, enough to intrigue me but not enough to convince me.

What I am convinced of is that these are cool experiments and more should be done. I’ve always wanted this stuff (ESP, whatever) to be real, but it never turns out to be so. I’m pretty sure this will also not turn out to be anything out of the ordinary, but science is all about trying stuff like this out.

Of course, if it takes money away from cancer research, I don’t think it’s worth it. But I can think of a few more wasteful uses of money…

My girlfriend raised our dog from a puppy to his current age of seven years. (In people years.) Just today, he got all antsy and started hanging out by the front door. 10 minutes later my girlfriend arrived. She’s gone right now, and the dog about 10 minutes ago got up from a nap and got all antsy and started hanging out by the front door. My girlfriend isn’t due back for hours. My dog has since returned to his nap. I guess he’s only psychic once in a while.

The psychic pets thing sounds like people are remembering the times it works and forgetting the times it doesn’t.

I read two of Sheldrake’s papers on his site. The first was a paper reporting the results of a telephone survey. I thought that the questions were pretty poor. The first question was something like, ‘Have you or has anyone in your family ever noticed your pet anticipating the arrival of a family member?’ To which about 38% of dog and cat owners said yes. Well, if we think about what our pets have ever done, they do weird things all the time. If I remember one time that Fluffy ran to the door ten minutes before my wife came home, I answer “Yes” to the question. The fact that Fluffy didn’t run to the door 99.9% of the time doesn’t come across in the survey.

Sheldrake does admit that the survey is potentially unreliable. This, however, did not stop him from conducting at least four of them.

The other was the paper about Jaytee, the dog which “knew” its owner was returning. According to Sheldrake, the dog’s behavior has been documented over four years or so. At first by the owner’s parents, and later in a series of experiments by Sheldrake. Apparently, the dog would exhibit a particular behavior at nearly (plus or minus 10 minutes) the same time as its owner set out for home. Where there is a greater discrepancy, Sheldrake explains this away as saying that the dog may have reacted to when its owner started thinking about going home. Sheldrake’s experiments involved random times for the owner to start back, multiple ways of getting home (e.g. taxis, bikes, walking, etc.) all in an effort to isolate the dog’s reaction.

Sheldrake claims that an skeptical and independent researcher replicated the results, but still refused to believe them.

One problem that I see is that the experiments were not done in a “controllable” environment, like a lab, but rather in the dog’s home. If the ability were really there, the dog should be able to perform it anywhere.

Again, Sheldrake says that these observations don’t prove anything, and that more research needs to be done.

The phone surveys seem very useless and poorly designed to me. The observations with Jaytee are interesting, but they would need to be replicated independently, in a controlled environment, with a different dog, before I would believe there was anything to them.

I’m pretty doubtful about Sheldrake’s claims, although I haven’t read his pet papers.

A lot of clever-animal cases, more or less similar to his Jaytee situation, fall into the “Clever Hans” category. Clever Hans was a horse who could do arithmetic and spell out the answers to questions by stamping his foot - as long as somebody he could see knew the answer. Those who studied him decided he was picking up signals from the people around him, by observing tension and relaxation as he approached the right number. See, for example, http://www.parascope.com/en/psychors.htm or http://www.thoemmes.com/psych/psy/pfungst.htm .

It would be interesting to see some properly controlled double-blind studies.

I have a psychic dog.
She goes outside about 5 minutes before my dad walks in the front door.
How could I ever have been so stupid as to think she hears his car coming down the road?

Seriously though, I think my dog knows whos coming by the sound they make. If my dad comes home in his work car, she barks, which is a totally different reaction to when he comes home in his ‘normal’ car. If she was psychic, surely the reaction would be the same no matter what he was driving.
Also, if there is loud music playing, she doesn’t react at all until his car actually pull into the driveway.

I wish she was psychic, though.

Our dog is psychic. Just before she gets table scraps, she starts drooling all over the floor.

I’d bet that a lot of ‘psychic’ behavior in animals disappears when they lose their hearing. Our drooly dog used to ‘predict’ when I got home, going apeshit, running all over the house. Now that she’s going deaf, she sometimes has the decency to NOTICE me when I step over her.

The “drooly dog” reference reminded me of Bowser. Thanks. What a pleasant way to start a Friday!

Bowser NEVER took food off a table (but if it hit the floor, buddy, watch out!) And I NEVER fed him from the table. But he would sit right next to the table staring intently at every bite. Tho I didn’t notice it, it tended to unnerve meal guests who were not an inured to it. (He was a BIG dog.) That’s why we eventually taught him “other room.”

Had him put to sleep after 12 years. As he was going under, my most fervent wish was that just once he would succeed at telekinesis, and cause a bit of food to levitate off my plate into his mouth.

This month’s Discover has an article on Sheldrake. A bit superficial, but may be a good introduction. I personally found his theory of “morphic resonance” a little out there.

Representative quote:

“A carrot seed grows into the shape of a carrot because it is directed by the cumulative morphic resonance of all previous carrots. … A newspaper crossword puzzle is easier to solve late in the day, because the morphic resonance broadcast by thousands of successful solvers facilitates the task.”

The article also references the question of whether you can feel someone staring at you, discussed in the March/April Skeptical Inquirer.

Here’s another psychic dog observation - recently went on a 4 hour road trip to a family vacation home. On both ends of the trip, my dog became more alert as we approached our destination. Wow! Do ya think she recognizes roads around the vacation home after a many month absence? Or maybe she can tell the difference when the car gets off the interstate, and is eager to get out of the car?