Mad Dogs and Englishmen

A post by tkingdoll

Whenever the subject of psychic pets is brought up, someone will inevitably mention the studies done by Richard Wiseman and Rupert Sheldrake into whether or not a certain Yorkshire Terrier named Jaytee could tell when his owner was coming home. The owner claimed he could. Sheldrake agreed. Wiseman claimed there was no evidence, and Sheldrake disagreed, publicly, although neither party slapped the face of the other with a white glove or called anyone a bounder, as far as we know.

Fast forward several years, and both studies, plus the ensuing…er…dogfight have become an amusing, and occasionally useful, part of skeptical lore.

The first informal studies into Jaytee’s alleged abilities were undertaken by Sheldrake in 1994, followed by several formal ones in the subsequent years. Poor doggy. All he wanted was a bowl of tripe and instead he got Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake’s seemingly positive results gained a lot of attention from the media. And where there is media attention, there is Richard Wiseman. Interested in the claim, and typically sceptical, Wiseman did four experiments in 1995, all of which showed no evidence of psychic ability in Jaytee. An impasse!

Sheldrake wrote a book about his findings, the snappily-titled Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. The book was published in 1999, a year before Sheldrake published his academic paper on the same research. Make a note of that: the same research, the data of which was used for both the book and the paper.

Why, then, do Sheldrake’s two sources show different versions of the data?

The dog was tested thusly: his owner, Pam, would go out, to return at either a random or pre-determined time, and the dog would be observed in her absence. Jaytee would go to the window, and the claim was that he went there because he knew Pam was coming home. In the book, the data shows one trial as having Pam return early, where in the paper it shows her as having returned late. This strange reversal occurs twice. And that’s not the only discrepancy. As Wiseman points out,

“some of the data patterns appear different in the two sources. In the paper, the data from the trial on the 19/3/97 shows Jaytee spending very little time at the porch in the early part of the trial, whereas in the book he spends a considerable amount of time there. Likewise, in the paper, the trial on the 21/9/97 shows a spike in Jaytee’s activity that appears to be missing from the corresponding graph in the book.”

Read Wiseman’s full commentary here

Now, I can’t offer an explanation for the anomalies. I can’t even speculate. I have no idea why Sheldrake’s book would show different data to his paper.

But I do know this. The trouble with testing animals for paranormal ability is that the concept is absurd to start with, because the animal itself has made no such claim (unless the owner believes himself to be telepathically communicating with his newts). So if we’re testing something vague in the first place, is it not in our best interests to ensure the absolute integrity of our results, wherever they’re published? The idea of a psychic dog raises many questions. And after years of testing, we don’t have a satisfactory answer to the question of whether or not Jaytee can tell if his owner is coming home. In fact, thanks to this discovery of Sheldrake’s errors, we have more questions than ever.

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  1. Well, Cinnamon isn't speaking to me per se– But I just KNOW she's telling me to open that wee tin of Nine Lives catfood.

    Does that mean SHE'S psychic? Or am I?

  2. The dog is not psychic, but the owner is psycho. Wasn't it proved a billzillion-gazillion years ago that all dogs come to the door when anyone (mailperson, owners, any car driving by, Jesus) comes to the door, any and everytime. I'd like to see a study on what cats do when someone comes to the door-oh wait, they don't do anything.

    Lord of the Kriss

  3. My cat thinks she can send me psychic signals. When she's hungry, she goes in the room by her dish, sits quietly, and wills me to come and feed her.

    Actually, the dog probably knows what the owner's car or footsteps sound like, or perhaps he can even smell the owner coming.

  4. If the Jaytee video is the one Wiseman showed during last TAM, then Jaytee is the kind of dog who just walks towards the window for no apparent reason whatsoever. About every 10 minutes or so whenever his owner is gone, the dog would go toward the window and sit there for a couple of minutes, then return to whatever he was doing before.

    The dog didn't actually hear or see his owner (or anyone for that matter), he just happened to be near the window when she returned because statistically, the chance of him being near the window around that time were pretty close to 100%.

  5. Yes, it's the same vid, Exarch. The problem is, Sheldrake's data doesn't correlate with Wiseman's findings. And I believe that Sheldrake disagrees with Wiseman's interpretation of the data in the first place. Or something. I've lost track of who disagrees with whom.

    But to be honest, I don't even mind so much if Sheldrake's data does support the 'psychic dog' hypothesis (although I'm skeptical that it does). I mind that he can't publish the data accurately. How are we meant to know that the paper is correct? Or ANY of his papers? Plus, not only does his book and paper show different data from the same study, he changed the method by which he carves up the data.

    Isn't that one of the things the PEAR study suffered from? Convenient data mining?

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