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No. 121: Jan-Feb 1999

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Are Pets Psychic?

In 1994, R. Sheldrake challenged the world of science with his book Seven Experiments That Could Change the World. One of the experiments he proposed was the objective testing of the claims that pets can somehow sense when their absent owners have begun the trip homeward.

An Austrian television company decided to take up Sheldrake's gauntlet. Their experimental subjects were P. Smart and her terrier Jaytee, both of Ramsbottom, England. Two film crews were dispatched to Ramsbottom; one to follow and film Smart, and the other, Jaytee's activities while Smart was away. Sure enough, at the moment Sharp and the shadowing TV crew decided to return, after an absence of a few hours, Jaytee ran to the porch and waited there until his mistress returned. Naturally, this proof of Jaytee's "strong and reliable" psychic ability received much attention in the media.

Then, in 1995, Sheldrake invited R. Wiseman and M. Smith, at the University of Hertfordshire, to independently verify Jaytee's talent. After all, Austrian television companies have little scientific standing.

Wiseman and Smith conducted four experiments in all based on a protocol designed to satisfy the inevitable scientific critics. For example, "success" had to be carefully defined, because Jaytee frequently ran out to the porch when other people, dogs, and cars went by the house, and sometimes for no obvious reason at all. In addition, Wiseman and Smith had to be sure that Jaytee was not just responding to Smart's routine, and that there were no sensory cues from Smart (visual, acoustic, or smell) or from the observers left behind to monitor Jaytee who might know when Smart was expected to return. There were several other precautions including random selection of event timing.

As in many psi experiments, psychic effects disappeared when the severe protocols was applied. Jaytee failed four times to accurately detect when Smart began her homeward journey.

But what about the Austrian results? Wiseman and Smith requested copies of their footage for scientific evaluation. Eventually, they were informed that the tapes had been lost!

(Wiseman, Richard, and Smith, Matthew; "Can Animals Detect When Their Owners Are Returning Home?" British Journal of Psychology, 89:453, 1998.)

From Science Frontiers #121, JAN-FEB 1999. 1999-2000 William R. Corliss