Smart by name, smart by nature

August 27, 1999

Is the idea of a telepathic tabby completely barking? Rupert Sheldrake says his experiments prove that pets have paranormal powers, but Susan Blackmore, right, is one of several academics disputing his methods.

Many pet owners have observed that their animals seem to anticipate the arrival of a member of the household ten minutes or more in advance. The pet typically waits at a door, window or gate. One dog I have investigated is a terrier called Jaytee, who belongs to Pam Smart, in Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester. Pam adopted Jaytee from Manchester Dogs' Home in 1989 when he was still a puppy and soon formed a close bond with him.

In 1991, when Pam was working as a secretary, she left Jaytee with her parents. They noticed the dog went to the French window almost every weekday at about 4.30pm, about the time Pam left work, and waited there until she arrived home. She worked routine office hours, so the family assumed Jaytee's behaviour reflected a kind of time sense.

Pam was made redundant in 1993 and was subsequently unemployed, no longer tied to a regular pattern of activity. Her parents did not usually know when she would be coming home, but Jaytee still anticipated her return.

In 1994 Pam volunteered to take part in my research. In more than 100 experiments, we videotaped the area by the window where Jaytee waited during Pam's absences, providing a continuous, timecoded record of his behaviour, which was scored "blind" by a third party who did not know the details of the experiments. To check that Jaytee was not reacting to the sound of Pam's car, we investigated whether he still anticipated her arrival when she travelled by other means. He did.

In other experiments, in which Pam set off for home at times selected at random, communicated to her by means of a telephone pager, Jaytee still settled at the window about the time Pam set off for home, even though no one at home knew when she would arrive. The odds against this being a chance effect were more than 100,000 to one. The evidence indicates that Jaytee was reacting to Pam's intention to come home even when she was many miles away. Telepathy seems the only hypothesis that can account for the facts.

* For a critical discussion of this experiment, see the paper by Richard Wiseman et al in the British Journal of Psychology (1998). A commentary by Rupert Sheldrake on Wiseman's paper, rejected by the BJP, will be published in the October issue of the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research, which in 1998 published another paper by Sheldrake on this research. Two other papers on this subject by Sheldrake are under consideration by the BJP.

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