How do some dogs know when their owners are coming home?
A Distant Feeling
Have you ever answered the phone and said, “I was just thinking about you!” Have you ever had a gut reaction to someone because you felt they had a bad “vibe?” Has anyone you know experienced a sinking sensation that a child of theirs has just been in a terrible accident, which turned out to be true? These are all examples of telepathy, the ability to sense or feel things about friends and loved ones without direct physical contact.
One of the biggest mistakes in understanding telepathy is that it involves direct communication of thoughts and ideas, transmitted from one brain to another. There is actually no such thing as mental telepathy. The word was coined in 1882 by Frederick W. H. Myers, and comes from the Greek for distant (tele) feeling (pathy). So telepathy is a visceral process, not a mental one. This is one reason scientists have found it difficult to design experimental research on telepathic communication.
Sigmund Freud, who was a successful neurologist before focusing on human psychology, theorized that telepathy may have been an ancient form of communication, one that became unnecessary once humans developed the ability to use and understand language.
According to Dr. Stanley Coren, “Freud felt that dogs had a special sense that allows them to judge a person's character accurately. For this reason his favorite chow-chow, Jo-Fi, attended all of his therapy sessions; Freud admitted that he often depended upon Jo-Fi for an assessment of the patient's mental state. He also felt that the presence of the dog seemed to have a calming influence on all patients, particularly children.”
Coren points out that Jo-Fi “also helped the great psychoanalyst determine when a therapy session was finished by unfailingly getting up and moving toward the office door when the hour was up.”
When Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was a kid his mother told him that dogs can tell if a person has a good vibration or a bad one, an idea that stuck with Brian, who was also a big dog lover, and became the inspiration for his biggest hit, “Good Vibrations.”
In Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, biologist and philosopher Rupert Sheldrake of Trinity College at Cambridge, writes in great detail about his research into telepathy in animals. And in a 2012 article for Britain's Daily Mail, Sheldrake tells the story of a cat whose owner was a sailor in the merchant navy. According to Sheldrake, this sailor didn't like to tell his mother when he 'd be coming home “because he was afraid she would worry if he was delayed on the way. But his mother always knew anyway — thanks to the family cat. This pet was very attached to this young man and, an hour or two before he arrived home, the cat sat on the front door mat and began miaowing loudly as if equipped with some sixth sense which told it that he was on the way.”
Long before I read Sheldrake's book, I found evidence of telepathy in dogs. The first time this happened was early one morning in Central Park, in February of 1994. I was playing fetch with my dog Freddie when a woman with an English springer spaniel named Brandy approached us. The two dogs sniffed each other for a bit, while Brandy’s mom and I engaged in small talk about dogs and dog training (my favorite subjects).
After a few minutes we noticed that Brandy had wandered down a hill toward the park drive. There are no cars allowed on weekends, except during the holidays. But still, Brandy had wandered too far away.
The woman called her dog, but Brandy kept moving away.
“I was afraid of this,” the woman said. “Now I’ll never get her back.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell Freddie to go get her.”
Surprised, she asked, “Will he do it?”
“I don’t know, but it’s worth a shot.” As a joke, I said to Freddie, “Go get Brandy’s leash and bring her back here.”
Freddie just stood there a moment, then turned, looked at Brandy, trotted down the hill, grabbed her leash in his mouth, and brought her back to us.
The woman was astonished. “You must be a really good trainer to teach him that.”
“Honestly, I didn’t think he’d actually do it. He’s never done it before.”
And he never did it again.
So was this a random event?
Apparently so. But after that incident, I started to notice ways that Freddie behaved oddly in certain situations. For instance, when we walked around our neighborhood he’d sometimes pull me toward a store that was part of our usual routine. Then one day he pulled me toward a dry cleaners we’d never been to. This was really weird. I thought he must have gotten his signals crossed. Then I remembered that a few moments earlier I’d had a passing image in my mind about going into that store and asking what they charged for dry cleaning. Was Fred confused, or was he obeying my semi-unconscious desire?
I started to wonder if maybe I could do this deliberately, you know, picture him sitting and seeing if he’d sit. It never worked.
I also had a similar, seemingly telepathic experience while playing fetch with a Jack Russell terrier named Mack. Our usual routine was that after the first couple of throws, I’d give Mack a treat in exchange for dropping the ball. On this particular day, I was preoccupied, lost in thought, and forgot to give Mack his treat right after the first throw. I didn’t notice the change in our routine until about the twentieth toss. Then, I had a sudden, vivid image of myself reaching into my training vest and taking out a treat. When Mack brought the ball back that time, he dropped it but didn’t back away or get ready for the next toss. He just stood there, staring a hole in my pocket, waiting for me to give him a treat.
Another interesting phenomenon takes place at boarding facilities. Some owners of such establishments report that a dog who’s been boarded for a few days or weeks will start acting “strangely,” whining and barking for no apparent reason. And, almost invariably, the dog’s owner shows up fifteen or twenty minutes later.
I’ve had a similar kind of experience when some dogs board with me. The first time I pick up some dogs for boarding and take them home, as soon as we arrive on my block, they pull straight toward my building even though they’ve never been there before. (This doesn't happen with all dogs, but it happens often enough to be of some interest.) Some dogs have even started running up the stoop, as if they already know exactly where we’re going. And since they usually have their backs to me, they’re not doing it because they’re reading my body language.
Sheldrake’s book is full of stories, and meticulous scientific data, showing that many dogs will get up and go to the door or window at the exact moment that their owners decide to come home. Sheldrake was very careful to do his experiments in a way that ruled out such things as hearing the owner’s car, (sometimes the owners were asked to take a cab home), or smelling the owner from a distance (in some cases the dogs would anticipate their owner’s return a half an hour or more before the owner was anywhere near the house).
Most scientists find the idea of animal telepathy absurd. Some readers may agree, and believe that animal communication via something like a primitive form of language is far more believable and understandable than the ‘new-age’, mumbo-jumbo of telepathy. But Sheldrake says that “telepathy is not specifically human. It is a natural [biological] faculty, part of our animal nature.”
I would go even further and say that telepathy is more specifically an animal, not a human form of communication; language has superseded telepathy as our default-mode of conveying information. I believe this is why I was never able to (consciously) tell Freddie what to do telepathically because there are two different brains that separate our ability to form conscious thoughts (the big brain in head) and tune in to our gut feelings (the little brain in the gut). And just as it’s impossible for a radio dial to tune into both AM and FM frequencies at the same time, it’s very rare for these two types of cognition to operate simultaneously in the human brain.
In order for any form of communication to work, it has to have at least three working parts: a sender, a receiver, and a medium of transmission.
Audible forms of communication—speech, bird calls, wolf howls, whale songs—, have, as their medium, the transmission of sound through vibrations originating in the vocal chords of the sender. Visual forms—written words, smoke signals, body language—, operate through how the receiver’s brain translates wavelengths of light into internal representations of written words, or actual objects located in three-dimensional space.
What sort of medium would telepathy require?
Invisible Fields of Transmission
Sheldrake calls this medium a morphic field. Dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan proposes that it’s an emotional field, which may be consonant with research done by pharmacologist Candace Pert, the scientist who discovered the existence of opiate receptors (not only in the brain, but in every molecule in the body), and UCLA’s Valerie Hunt (though her area of interest is more specific to bioenergetic fields).
We can't see these invisible fields of telepathic communication any more than we can see radio waves, broadband, WiFi, etc. The world around us if full of invisible vibrations of energy. We know they exist because we’ve invented technology that not only proves their existence, it puts them to work for us. But since spoken and written language are the default forms of human communication, particularly in Western Civilization, most mainstream scientists have little interest in investigating how or if telepathy exists, how it works, and what its transmission medium might consist of.
Candace Pert writes: “Whenever something doesn’t fit the reigning paradigm, the initial response in the mainstream is to deny the facts.”
Though the “facts” I’ve related about my personal experiences are hardly proof that telepathy exists, there is no other rational explanation for these events except coincidence. There is also no rational explanation for how dogs can behave in ways that suggest that their minds are able to operate independently from the most basic principles of evolution and neuroscience, i.e., the ideas that dogs are smarter than chimps, or that their understanding of language is on a par with three-year old kids. This is the quandary that mainstream dognitive scientists now face. Do we rewrite evolution and neuroscience? Or do we explore the idea that something else—something wonderful and miraculous—may be going on, right under our noses?
As Hamlet tells his best friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
If you ask me, dogs are fetching a new philosophy for us to see and marvel at.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1.) Sheldrake’s work was repeated by Richard Wiseman, Mathew Smith, and Julie Milton, who conducted their own experimental study on one of the dogs featured in the book. And despite getting nearly the same exact results (their percentages were actually a little higher) Wiseman et al still concluded that the data did not support the idea of telepathy.