Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Can dogs tell the time?

Dogs are remarkable creatures. To realise this, you only have to watch one cleaning his own... well, you know what I'm talking about. But can dogs tell the time?

The reason I ask relates to a rather long story surrounding a small dog, called Jaytee, who was apparently able to reliably predict when his owner would return home by going to wait for her by the window in his flat (well, it wasn't "his" flat, it was the flat of his owner's parents). The seemingly impressive thing about it was that the moment he went to go and wait by the window coincided with the moment that his owner, Pam, began to return home. Pam might have been at work or shopping in town several miles away, but as soon as she headed for home Jaytee would go to the window to wait for her to return home. Jaytee's amazing "psychic" ability was even caught on camera by an Austrian television crew. They filmed what Jaytee was doing at home at the same time as filming his owner Pam in the town centre a few miles away. A split screen showed Pam and Jaytee side by side. About six seconds after the TV presenter (or researcher/producer type person) tells Pam that they are about to head home, Jaytee gets up from where he was lying (by the feet of Pam's mum who was sat on the sofa) and meanders over to the window! I think the Austrian TV clip dates from around 1994, and in the mid-late 1990's it was shown a fair old bit on various TV programmes. When it was shown on The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna, we were told "he does it every time Pam goes out!". So maybe Jaytee really was psychic! Maybe all dogs, indeed all animals, are psychic?

One of the problems with jumping to such conclusions from just one short film clip is that there could be other explanations for what we saw. Most notably, we were only shown what Jaytee was doing at the moment that Pam begins to return home. What was he doing during all the other time that his owner was out? Does he spend all the time up to that point snuggled up to Pam's mum's feet? Once he has gone to the window to begin waiting for Pam, does he stay there until she arrives home? Both of these things are kind of implied by the short clip, but we would need to see a record of his behaviour for the entire time that Pam is out to come to this conclusion. I'm not sure if anyone has ever actually looked at the rest of the Austrian film to discover what Jaytee is doing at these other times.

That aside, the researcher who did most of the research with Jaytee is Dr Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist by training. In his book Seven Experiments That Could Change The World, Rupert suggested that dog-owners could quite easily test the notion that dogs (or at least their dogs) are able to reliably predict when their owners are to return home (something that many dog-owners report to be the case) by conducting simple experiments. For example, the owner could vary the times and means by which they would return home to determine whether this influenced their dog's ability to predict their homecoming. One person to have a go at doing this was Pam Smart, a woman living in Ramsbottom in Lancashire, with her pet terrier Jaytee. Her parents (with whom she typically left Jaytee when she went out) had noticed for some time that Jaytee appeared to reliably predict when Pam would arrive home by going to wait for her by the porch window of their ground floor flat (next door to Pam's own flat). After seeing an article about Sheldrake's research and his interest in dog's who seem to know when their owners are returning home, Pam conducted a few of her own experiments by returning home at different times and by different means. Jaytee seemed to still know when Pam was heading home by taking up his place by the window at the appropriate time. Rupert Sheldrake went on to conduct his own experiments with Jaytee and, as we have seen, eventually the folks at an Austrian television company showed up and recorded Jaytee's uncanny abilities.

All this led to sceptical psychologist Richard Wiseman carrying out his own investigation of Jaytee. And this is where I come in. At the time, I was working as Richard's research assistant while I was studying for my PhD. Rupert visited us at the University of Hertfordshire to look at our experimental set up to investigate the feeling of being stared at (another one of Rupert's seven potentially world-changing experiments). I remember saying to Richard, "Just don't let's get involved with the psychic dog!".

Next thing I know we're driving up to Ramsbottom to conduct our own experiments with Pam and Jaytee. Good to know that my opinion counts for something!

And who says science can't be glamorous?

No comments:

Post a Comment