The idea of a simple, inexpensive experiment to test how pets know when their [caretakers] are coming home came to me in a conversation with a sceptical friend, Nicholas Humphrey. I kept coming across stories about this intriguing phenomenon, and I asked him what he thought was going on. To my surprise he did not dispute the phenomenon itself; indeed he told me that his own dog seemed to have uncanny powers. But he was quick to add that there was nothing really mysterious going on; pets were good at responding to subtle cues and often had surprisingly sharp senses.|
....This [conversation] sparked off the idea for a simple experiment. If a pet responds well in advance of the arrival of its [caretaker], the possibility that its behavior is explicable simply in terms of routine anticipation or sensory stimuli can be ruled out by coming home by an unusual means and at an unusual time. Moreover, to rule out the possibility that the pet is picking up the expectations of the person waiting at home, that person should not know when the absent member of the family is due to return....
Further research in partnership with pets
Knowing when their people are coming home is only one of the ways in which pets show surprising powers. There are several others, some of which provide yet more opportunities for fascinating low-cost research.
- Homing abilities, as discussed in the next chapter.
- Finding [caretakers] who have gone away from home, also discussed in the next chapter.
- Apparent telepathic communication. In dramatic cases, some pets seem to know when their distant owner is in danger, reacting with signs of alarm and distress. Other cases are more mundane: for example, some dogs seem to anticipate with uncanny accuracy when they are going to be taken for a walk. Some pets seem to know when their family is going to go away on holiday, even before they start packing. There are many stories about telepathic horses, and even some about telepathic tortoises. I recently received the following account from Ms. Sharon Ronsse of Snohomish, Washington State:
We have not been able to ascertain whether the tortoise knows (or cares) about our comings and goings. However, I have definitely noticed that the tortoise is telepathic when it comes to feeding him. I have concluded that his behavior is not related to a habitual feeding schedule. I often feed him at odd times of the day and evening. When I first noticed that he would come out to the feeding area whenever I thought of feeding him, I started to do my own experiments on him. I found that at any time he was safely tucked in his little shelter and seemed to be snoozing, all I had to do was think about bringing out food. By the time I go to the kitchen and get something for him, he is out in the feeding area waiting for it.
Obviously pets are sensitive to subtle cues from people around them and can pick up influences of which their owners are unconscious. Experiments on apparent telepathic communication would need to eliminate these ordinary channels of communication, such as sight, hearing, and smell. For example, in the case of Ms. Ronsse and her tortoise, the animal could be watched by someone else (or even monitored by means of a video camera). Meanwhile, inside the house, in a room in which she cannot be heard or seen by the tortoise, she thinks of feeding him (and then actually does so), according to a randomized schedule. Does the snoozing tortoise wake before she has started getting his food ready and before she has made any noise or movement?
- Premonitions by animals of disasters. there are many stories about pets who try to prevent their owners going on journeys that turn out to be fatal. Even more dramatic is the behavior or animals before earthquakes. For example:
Before the Agadir earthquake in Morocco in 1960, stray animals, including dogs, were seen streaming from the port before the shock that killed 15,000 people. A similar phenomenon was observed three years later, before the earthquake which reduced the city of Skopje, Yugoslavia, to rubble. Most animals seemed to have left before the quake. The Russians observed, too, that animals began to abandon Tashkent before the 1966 earthquake.
Clearly, an investigation of cases such as these could be of great practical value, and indeed in China such behavior by animals has often been used successfully for centuries as an indicator of forthcoming calamities. However, this is obviously not an area where simple, harmless experiments would be easy.
- Some pets returning from journeys seem to know when they are getting near home, even after a long ride in a car after dark when asleep. My wife and I had a cat, Remedy, who woke up when we were within a mile or two of home after sleeping contentedly for hours. Such a phenomenon could point to a direct connection between the animal and its home, perhaps related to the homing abilities discussed in the next chapter. Or it could simply indicate a response to a well-known pattern of movements and smells as the car approaches home by a familiar route. Or it could be a response to the changing behavior of the people in the car as they get ready to arrive.
Here again simple experiments could be very revealing. The hypothesis that the pet is responding to familiar stimuli can be tested by returning home by an unusual route, preferably one the pet has not traversed before. The possible influence of ambient sights, sounds, and smells can be minimized by keeping the pet in a box or basket, traveling after dark, keeping the windows closed, running the air conditioner, and playing music in the car. If under these conditions the pet shows no response, this would support an explanation in terms of familiar stimuli.
On the other hand, if the pets brought home by unusual routes still seem to know when they are nearing home, the next possibility to try to eliminate is an influence from the other people in the car. One way to do this would be to transport the pet in a van, under conditions where it could not see, hear, or smell its owner in the front. Its movements could either be recorded by an observer who did not know the destination of the van, or monitored by video, tape recorder, or other automatic means. Even better, the van could be driven by someone who did not know where the pet's home was, and who could not therefore emit subtle cues. The driver would simply be asked to follow a particular route which led past the pet's home but would not know in which street the home was.
If the pet still seemed to know when it was nearing home, then the hypothesis of a direct connection between the pet and its home would be strengthened. The nature of this connection and its possible relationship to homing behavior would be a subject for further research. But there would be no point in doing more sophisticated and expensive research until the existence of the phenomenon had been well established in the first place.
The purpose of this chapter is not to try to provide theories or explanations, but merely to show that the basic phenomena are still virtually uninvestigated. A scientific partnership with pets could lead to a great expansion of understanding, and a deeper appreciation of their powers of knowing.