Scientists Investigate If Pets Telepathically Sense When Owners Are Returning Home (+Video)

Many pets seem able to strangely sense when their owners are returning home. Scientists investigate ...
Tara MacIsaac

British psychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman is often consulted by media outlets as a skeptic of parapsychological claims. For almost 20 years, controversy has surrounded his much-publicized “debunking” of an experiment in pet telepathy.

In June, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, who conducted the purportedly debunked experiments, published a summary of the debate in an attempt to vindicate his findings—that a dog named Jaytee displayed an amazing ability to sense when his owner was returning home.

Pam Smart adopted a terrier named Jaytee in 1988. He would stay with her parents while she was away from home, and they noticed that he would go to the window and wait there expectantly before Smart returned home. It didn’t matter what time of day she arrived, and he would be there for minutes before she came within sight of the house.

In 1994, she saw an article in the Telegraph newspaper asking for people whose pets seem to sense they are coming home to participate in an experiment conducted by Sheldrake. Sheldrake has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge University and studied philosophy and history of science at Harvard University; he is known for his research on unexplained animal behavior as well as telepathy in various forms.

In about 100 experiments with Jaytee, Sheldrake ruled out various ordinary explanations. Smart came home at varied times, ruling out routine. She came home in taxis, in friends’s cars, or by foot, all to make sure the dog wasn’t just recognizing the sound of her car from afar.

When Wiseman conducted four experiments, he got essentially the same results, said Sheldrake, but he interpreted the data differently.

In both Sheldrake’s and Wiseman’s experiments, Jaytee would go to the window briefly throughout the day, but only when Smart was on her way home would he stay there and wait a significant amount of time. Sheldrake plotted his own results and Wiseman’s results on graphs showing a dramatic spike in time spent at the window when Smart was on her way home—a rise from about 5 percent to about 80 percent.

While Wiseman has agreed that his data did show this pattern, he said that his criteria were different.

He started his experiment by defining Jaytee’s “signal” that Smart was returning home as the first time in the day when Jaytee went to the porch for no apparent reason. (Reasons other than Smart’s return included spotting other dogs outside, people walking by, et cetera. These trips to the porch weren’t counted.) He wrote, in a response to Sheldrake’s criticism: “Before conducting our first experiment we realized that, to avoid possible post-hoc data selection, it was necessary to determine the criterion that would count as Jaytee’s ’signal.'”

He continued: “Our experiments set out to test the claim that Jaytee clearly signalled [Smart’s] journey home by going to her parents’ porch for no apparent reason. Testing this claim did not require plotting our data and looking for a pattern, but instead simply involved determining whether Jaytee’s ’signal' matched the time that [Smart] started to return home. … We therefore believe that the claim we tested, and the methods used to test that claim, are fully justified.”

In a 1997 special aired on British television, titled “Secrets of the Psychics,” Wiseman discussed his Jaytee experiments. He said he filmed Jaytee continuously for a three-hour period and found that the dog went to the porch about once every 10 minutes; he said it was just a coincidence that Jaytee also went to the porch when Smart was on her way home.

Following Wiseman’s television “debunking,” headlines popped up in many newspapers along the lines of, “Pets Have No Sixth Sense, Say Scientists” (This headline was from The Independent).

Sheldrake maintained that Jaytee’s presence at the window was clearly more prolonged and significant when Smart was returning. Wiseman argued in his 2000 response to Sheldrake’s criticisms that the patterns shown in Sheldrake’s graphs could be explained by Jaytee becoming more anxious as time goes on. This would lead the dog to be at the window for longer when Smart was returning, since that would happen at the end of the experiment’s time period.

Sheldrake wrote in response, however, that: “In a series of control tests when Pam was not coming home during the test period, there was no sign of ‘anxiety’ with Jaytee going to the window more and more as time went on.”

He conducted further experiments on a dog named Kane, and published a study in Anthrozoos in 2000. In the introduction to that study, Sheldrake wrote: “In random household surveys in Britain and the United States, an average of 48 percent of the dog owners said their animal anticipated the return of a member of the household. A fifth of these dogs were said to show their anticipation more than 10 minutes in advance. Many dog owners claim that this behavior occurs even when the person returns at an unusual time and when the people at home do not know when they are returning.”

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