Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home — And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals

  • Rupert Sheldrake
Crown: 1999. 323 pp. £16.99, $25

Rupert Sheldrake is steadfastly incorrigible in the particular sense that he persists in error. That is the chief import of his eighth and latest book. Its main message is that animals, especially dogs, use telepathy in routine communication.

The interest of this case is that the author was a regular scientist, with a Cambridge PhD in biochemistry, until he chose pursuits that stand in relation to science as does alternative medicine to medicine proper. Some readers with long memories may recall that, when Sheldrake's first book appeared in 1981, it was referred to in an injudicious leading article in this journal (Nature 293, 245; 1981) under the title “A book for burning?” (where the question-mark was intended as part of the title). The text that followed went on to declare roundly that “even bad books should not be burned”, and concluded that the book “should not be burned… but put firmly in its place among the literature of intellectual aberration”.

The publicists for Sheldrake's publishers were nevertheless delighted with the piece, using it to suggest that the Establishment (Nature) was again up to its old trick of suppressing uncomfortable truths. Many years later, Sheldrake confided to my wife that his children routinely prayed for the soul of the editor of Nature, believing that such a wicked person could only come to a bad end.

The motif of the first book, which formed its title, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation, runs through all the later volumes in this distinctive oeuvre. Sheldrake believes that the form or shape of all things, animate or otherwise, is acquired through the influence of “morphic fields” in a process called “formative causation”. Moreover, morphic fields evolve in the course of time, ensuring that when a crystal of copper sulphate or a daffodil first takes on a particular habit, the morphic field ensures that all later crystals of copper sulphate (or all daffodils) follow the same pattern.

In Dogs That Know …, morphic fields have an appendix to themselves, but also frequently recur in the body of the text. In a new twist, Sheldrake cautiously advances the idea that his morphic fields may share with those of quantum mechanics some of the properties of non-locality which offer the chance of making even faster computers some time next century.

Even Sheldrake's fiercest critics will applaud his consistency. The purported role of morphic fields on the shapes of objects in the real world has hardly changed since 1981. It is no less — and no more — than it was then. The idea is borrowed from classical embryology, where a gradient of the concentration of some chemical (such as the protein product of a Hox gene) is supposed to regulate the development of part of an organism's body, and is sometimes referred to as a “morphogenetic field”. But morphic fields are evidently all-pervading. No corner of space can be free from them, for then copper sulphate crystals (or daffodils) would acquire different shapes in different locations.

Similarly, Sheldrake's opinion of science has not changed. He speaks of the gulf between “personal experience and the theory that living organisms … are merely soulless automata”, and declares that his experience has made him a holist.

So what is new in this latest book? As Sheldrake describes it, causative formation is no longer merely a hypothesis, but a research programme, complete with the now-standard perquisites of a database and a website ( And the data? A vast and growing collection of information about incidents involving domesticated animals in interaction with people, or sometimes other animals. The title of the book refers to the copious collections of records, written by people responsible for dogs and, less frequently, cats, describing the pets' capacity to anticipate the arrival home (from work or from a journey) of a second human member of the household. Sometimes the dogs react, not when the second party is leaving the office, say, but when he or she has decided that the time has come to leave.

As an observational programme, none of this is simple. How does a dog signal its anticipation of the homecomer? By waiting at the garden gate, or inside the front door of the house, wagging its tail all the while or showing other signs of excitement. There is the case of a male dog called Jaytee, from a small town in Greater Manchester, who was closely observed and then videotaped in the course of exercising anticipation of its carer's remote movements. Anticipation was signalled by the dog sitting at a window from which the outside world could be observed. The dog sat in the window on 55 per cent of the occasions when the return journey was under way, but only 5 per cent of the time when the carer (called Pam) was absent. For the videotaped observations, the timing of Pam's return was determined by a third party (using a cellular telephone) at random times: this, Sheldrake says, is when the dog's behaviour most clearly showed the knack of knowing when Pam had decided to return but had not yet embarked on the journey home.

By conceding that the data gathered during these observations are statistically significant, one does not sign up for Sheldrake's interpretation that the underlying mechanism is dog–Homo telepathy. Too many variables are uncontrolled. Did the accuracy of anticipation vary with the length of time elapsed since Pam's departure (suggesting that the dog used its sense of the passage of time to signal its sense of when return was due)? Were there people in the room with the dog (allowing them to communicate somehow with the eager waiter)? And while Jaytee appears to have been chosen for videotaping as a result of his acumen in earlier trials, does not the interpretation of his behaviour require an understanding of the variability of dogs' capacity for anticipation in general? The appendix in which these details are meticulously described is not so much a log of research under way as a record of one of those sets of observations preliminary to the design of properly controlled observations.

The remainder of the main text of this book, meanwhile, is curiously boring. It consists mostly of accounts, running to a few pages at the most, of how horses have been able to find their way home with an injured rider on their back, how cats have cried at the remote death of a human with whom they have been familiar, how dogs have howled when members of the family with which they live have been killed in action in some distant war, and even how people have been taken sick in sympathy with distant injured pets. Especially because people's fondness for their pets often takes the form of projecting onto them human or even superhuman perceptiveness, even more than 1,000 records on the Sheldrake website do not prove telepathy.

I doubt that Sheldrake will take the point. He makes plain his distaste for what he calls orthodox science, which is “all too often equated with a narrow-minded dogmatism that seeks to deny or debunk whatever does not fit in with the mechanistic view of the world”. He is habitually courteous and cheerful, but holists of his ilk would not dream of letting controls get in the way of revealed truth.