Have you ever looked up suddenly and seen your dog staring at you intensely, longingly – a look that grows no less pleading when you offer treats, a walk, or a scratch behind the ears? Or perhaps you’ve seen your dog leap up at some seemingly nonexistent noise, sniffing and whining for no reason you can imagine. Have you wished that you could know what your animal wants, understand what he’s thinking? Or have you ever wondered, when your dog mysteriously disappears at bath time, if he knows what you’re thinking?
Some people believe it is possible for humans and other animals to bridge the gap of spoken language and understand each other. Ape language studies and the development of animal behaviorism as a science have both contributed to our knowledge of other species’ minds. But another, more controversial group of people, who usually call themselves “animal communicators,” believe that the key to understanding our animal companions lies not in science, but in spirituality. Could they be right?
Dr. Doolittle’s heirs
Doctor Doolittle, hero of the children’s fantasy stories, could “talk with the animals” – and they, in turn, could speak to him and be understood. Hugh Lofting, author of the Doctor Doolittle books, may have been inspired to create his character after serving in World War I, where he was disturbed by the killing of horses injured in battle: “If we made the animals take the same chances as ourselves,” he wrote, “why did we not give them similar attention when wounded?” Sadly, he came to the conclusion that to develop horse surgery as effective as human surgery “would necessitate a knowledge of horse language.” Lofting went on to create a character who could not only understand horse language, but was also fluent in dog, pig, parrot, monkey, and crocodile.
Doctor Doolittle may be the fictional world’s first “animal communicator,” but to his real-life counterparts, the good doctor’s achievement is no fantasy. Animal communicators do not actually bark at dogs or whinny to horses; rather, they believe they can send and receive images, ideas, or even words telepathically.
An inborn ability
Penelope Smith, one of the best known animal communication specialists, is considered a pioneer in the field. She has written two books on what she calls “interspecies telepathic communication,” publishes a newsletter called Species Link, and travels the world, speaking and teaching workshops on communicating with animals. Smith lives in Point Reyes, California, with her menagerie of two llamas, two Afghan hounds, three cats, three chickens, and a rabbit. A lifelong animal lover, Smith began her career as a professional animal communicator in 1977, but she remembers feeling an intuitive connection to animals in early childhood.
Smith believes all children are born with the ability to “hear” animals’ thoughts and feelings, but learn to suppress or hide what adults label an over-active imagination. She worked as a human counselor before concentrating her practice on animals, but Smith feels both are essentially the same work. “We’re all connected,” she says, and in working with animals, she believes she’s also helping people.
Smith says she believes many of the behavior problems we see in dogs are actually the dog’s attempt to communicate something. Domestic animals, Smith notes, have been taken out of a natural environment and expected to cope with human rules and inconsistencies. As house pets, they’re subjected to peoples’ emotions, family conflicts, indoor environmental pollution, and food that bears no resemblance to their hereditary diet. These stresses may cause some behavior problems, while in other cases, what we see as “bad” behavior may be a misunderstood attempt to please us.
For example, in her book Animal Talk, Smith tells the story of Tip, a dog who had begun scattering droppings from the cats’ litter box, as well as soiling the rug. Tip’s owner tried punishing the dog, but he persisted. Smith “talked” to Tip and discovered that he had observed his owner scooping out the cat box, so he thought she’d be pleased when he joined in the game. He also decided, since his owner was so interested in the cats’ droppings, that he would leave her some of his own to play with.
Sonya Fitzpatrick, an animal communicator and author of What the Animals Tell Me, tells the story of a client who came to her in distress because her cat had stopped using her litter box and seemed to spend much of her time hiding in a closet. Moving the litter box to the closet helped at first, but then the cat began having accidents inside the closet. Fitzpatrick “asked” the cat why she was not using the box, and learned that the client’s husband mistreated the cat and had been throwing shoes at her while she was in the closet, frightening her so that she had accidents. When she told the client what she had learned, the client confirmed that her husband disliked the cat. Plausible? Yes. But not necessarily proof of psychic powers. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Director of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, offers another view of the story. As a behaviorist, he says, he might walk into the client’s house, learn that the cat was soiling, and notice that the husband doesn’t seem to like the cat. He might then deduce from the circumstances that the cat was being abused and was soiling out of stress. Perhaps, he suggests, animal communicators are in fact using a combination of intuition, observation, and common sense to get inside animals’ minds.
Probably one of the most terrifying experiences a loving pet owner can face is the loss of an animal. When a pet is missing, worry and uncertainty may turn even skeptics into believers, and people who would normally scoff at the idea of psychic phenomena may find themselves working with an animal communicator. That’s what happened to Richard Caparco of Coventry, Rhode Island, when his family’s beloved collie, Sebastian, disappeared one day after a run on the dunes. Sebastian was lost on April 25, 1998. He was found more than six weeks later. And he was found, says Caparco, thanks to the help of animal communicators Alison Hamilton and Sonja Fisher.
Alison Hamilton owns Pet Sitters, a pet-sitting service in Newport, Rhode Island. Sonja Fisher, a registered nurse, has worked as a facilitator of One Brain and Three in One Concepts, a holistic practice using body energy. Using kinesiology techniques (also known as muscle testing), Hamilton and Fisher have taught workshops in animal communication, and they have worked in private practice with people and animals. On several occasions, Hamilton says, they have helped to find lost animals, including a cat lost in the baggage area of an air terminal, but Sebastian’s story was the most dramatic. Richard Caparco took the two family Collies, Sebastian and Samantha, out to some open sand dunes, as he did every day. On April 25, for some reason, Sebastian took off. Caparco looked for hours and called the dog, but couldn’t find him.
He returned later in the day and spent at least 10 hours combing the dunes and the woods for Sebastian, but found no sign of him. Caparco’s daughter, Michelle, was distraught: Each day, says Michelle, she would tell her father: “Go out and find the dog!” Samantha, the female dog, was also distressed by Sebastian’s absence. Caparco kept looking, he says, putting up posters and asking people if they’d seen “a Lassie dog,” calling police and dog pounds throughout the state, but after weeks had gone by, he had almost given up hope. Then one day, he got “a phone call from the psychics,” Sonja Fisher and Alison Hamilton. “They told me they were going to help me find this dog,” Caparco relates. “They never asked for a penny . . . they were happy just to help.”
Fisher and Hamilton encouraged Caparco to continue the searching he’d been doing. They told him that they had been in contact with the dog, and Sebastian was alive. In fact, they said, Sebastian told them Caparco had driven by him several times. The psychics looked at a map and pinpointed an area in rural Exeter, Rhode Island, where they said the dog was living. Caparco would find Sebastian, they said, because they had received a message that the dog was coming home.
One day, on a sudden impulse, Caparco drove to Exeter, about nine miles from where Sebastian was lost, and an animal ran into the road ahead of his car. Initially, his daughter thought it was a fox, but Caparco jumped out of the car and screamed the dog’s name. It was an incredibly emaciated Sebastian, still wearing his collar, his coat matted and full of ticks and fleas. After more than six weeks in the woods, the collie had lost 33 pounds and was near death, but he survived, and today is a healthy, loving, beautiful dog.
Caparco found Sebastian exactly where the psychics had told him the dog would be. “I never really believed in that stuff,” he says, but after finding Sebastian, “I had to change my mind.”
Communication and health
Dr. Liz Campbell, a veterinarian at the Wolf Rock Animal Clinic in Exeter, Rhode Island, offered a seminar in animal communication at the clinic, featuring communicator Nedda Wittels. The clinic offers holistic care, including acupuncture and herbal remedies, as well as traditional medicine. The staff members try to be sensitive to animals’ emotional needs and comfort, providing a quiet, calm atmosphere when possible.
“We really try to focus our energy on the fact that we are healing them and try to let them know that. We’ve always done this,” says Dr. Campbell, “but after the seminar, it’s been working better, and it’s amazing. Instead of just saying the words to the animal, you have to put the words through your body and into your heart and out your heart . . . if it comes from your heart, I think it goes into the animal.”
Sensing what the animals feel is more challenging. “I’m not so sure that it’s easy to hear them – that’s a little harder. It takes a lot of concentration to hear them, but we did learn to better project what we’re thinking and feeling through the seminars.” She believes that some people can “hear” animals’ thoughts, and says that she has heard some impressive stories from her clients and from other holistic veterinarians.
However, Campbell cautions that dog owners must use their own judgment about what the communicators report. She said that some of the psychics who offer telephone consultations end up giving more general pet care advice than doing actual psychic work, which “is great if you want to pay a dollar a minute to talk to someone about the best way to give your pet a pill or how he wants his bed fluffed.” What they are doing, she suggests, is telling clients what they think an animal might want, rather than actually communicating with the animal. Their advice isn’t necessarily wrong, but it isn’t any more valid than the animal care tips an owner might get from a good dog care book or a holistic veterinarian – and it may be more expensive. Though skeptical of some of the commercial psychics, Dr. Campbell still thinks the concept of animal communication has validity, and said she and Beverly Shear, technician at the clinic, have had success using nonverbal communication to help animals feel less threatened. Shear is particularly good at this, says Dr. Campbell. “I find that when she holds an animal, the animal calms down so quickly, it’s amazing.”
Beverly Shear says she has been using some elements of animal communication working with animals at the clinic. In addition to body language (gentle handling), she tries to send mental messages to animals: for example, asking permission before beginning a treatment, “Is it all right if I help you through this?” She says the animals often look at her and seem to respond with their bodies; occasionally, she adds, a dog will turn his back on her. “I take that to mean, ‘no!’ ” she laughs. Shear believes animals can pick up on our energy and our intentions, and when an animal is getting medical treatment, it’s especially important for the owner to communicate calm, positive feelings.
Veterinarians’ mixed reactions
While holistic veterinarians may be more open to the idea of animal communication, Kate Reilly, an animal communicator in Aiken, South Carolina, says she has been consulted by all kinds of veterinarians. Some veterinarians with traditional medical practices do consult animal psychics, just as police use human psychics, she explains, but “it’s not something they care to publicize” for fear of ridicule.
Reilly, who has been offering her animal communication services for 11 years, studied with Penelope Smith and Jeri Ryan, another California animal communicator. She now offers small workshops in her home. She does consultations over the phone, and says she finds this works best for her, because she’s not distracted by physical cues. It’s easy for her to get in contact with the animal, she notes, but she works hard to maintain the connection long enough to get the information the owner needs. She likes to “check in” with the animal at different times of day, to get inside them and feel what their bodies are feeling. Reilly says she can tell what kind of animal she is “speaking” to just by the animal’s way of thinking. Horses, for which Reilly has a special affinity, are “the most sensitive and desirous of a relationship with humans;” cats are philosophers; and dogs are easygoing and blasé. Reilly says she was drawn to her work because of her love for animals: “I have the best job in the world,” she says.
While some animal communicators, like Reilly, may be asked to consult with vets, sharing their perception of an animal’s feelings, their advice should not be seen as a substitute for a trained veterinarian’s care. A “Code of Ethics for Interspecies Telepathic Communicators,” designed by Penelope Smith, expressly states, “It is not our job to name and treat diseases, and we refer people to veterinarians for diagnosis of physical illness.”
Beyond human perception
Historically, dogs have been seen as having a “knowingness” beyond human understanding. Folk wisdom even holds that they can sense when someone is evil or dangerous. In her book, How to Talk to Your Animals, author Jean Craighead George, tells the story of Orion, a Malamute, who was walking with his owner on a dark Alaskan road one night.
A young man in a sports car stopped, seemingly to offer a ride, then sped away just as Steve Wood, the dog’s owner, went to open the door. Wood shrugged and kept walking, but a few minutes later, Orion jumped on his chest repeatedly, finally knocking him into a snowbank on the side of the road. He lay there, puzzled by his dog’s bizarre behavior, when suddenly, the same car came racing down the road again, headed straight at the spot where Wood had been standing. “Apparently Orion had sensed something crazy about that kid,” Wood told the author, and when he heard the car returning – long before a human could – he forced his owner off the road. “He saved my life,” Steve Wood stated. “I’m convinced of that.”
Rupert Sheldrake, a British researcher who taught biochemistry at Cambridge University, also believes dogs possess extrasensory abilities. His new book, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, outlines his theory that dogs and other animals can communicate with humans or with each other through telepathy. Drawing upon surveys and interviews with more than 1,000 people who own or work with animals, Sheldrake describes lost dogs and cats finding their way home through unfamiliar territory; pets who seem to know, even at a great distance, when their owners die; animals who predict earthquakes, bombing attacks, and other disasters; and, as the title suggests, dogs who know when their owners are coming home.
Sheldrake conducted a study using a terrier named Jaytee, simultaneously videotaping dog and owner as they spent a typical day apart, the owner at work and Jaytee at home. The tapes often showed Jaytee getting up and going to the door or window at the same time when his owner, miles away, decided to come home.
Sheldrake and his videotape appeared on the television show 20/20 in September, 1999, as did Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who took a skeptical view of Sheldrake’s methods and conclusion. The experiment was not completely randomized, Dr. Dodman pointed out, and it did not take into account the many times Jaytee got up and went to the window or door when his owner was not coming home. And when Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire tried to replicate the Jaytee experiment under controlled conditions, Wiseman said he found no evidence of telepathy.
Still, Sheldrake claims his results are significant, even when visits to the door or window for other reasons (barking at passing dogs, sitting in the sun) are included. In an interview with the British journal New Scientist, Sheldrake says, “More than half the dog owners we surveyed think their dogs can read their minds or pick up their thoughts . . . I think so many people claim their animals can read their minds because sometimes their pets do read their minds, they are picking up their intentions.”
Explaining the inexplicable
Whether or not dogs have a sixth sense, they certainly are better than humans at using the five senses they do have. Dogs have been known to “predict” thunderstorms, earthquakes, and fires.
Now dogs are even helping people with epilepsy and other seizure disorders to predict when seizures will occur. By sensing the coming seizure minutes ahead of time, the dogs allow patients to get into a safe position and call for medical help.
A research study at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine confirmed that dogs do alert their owners to seizures; researchers there are now seeking funding for a larger study to find out why and how the process works. The dogs may perceive unconscious behavioral changes that precede a seizure; they may, with their powerful sense of smell, detect changes in a person’s odor brought on by neurological and chemical changes (as in the popular expression that dogs can “smell fear”); or they may, in some way not yet understood, be able to sense a disturbance in the electromagnetic pulses of the person’s brain.
All of this is remarkable, but does it mean dogs have ESP? “It’s not extrasensory perception,” Michael Goehring of the Great Plains Assistance Foundation in North Dakota told the MSPCA publication Animals. “It’s extraordinary sensory perception.” Dr. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts agrees: “Before a seizure, a person’s affect changes. Dogs are very sensitive to physical changes.”
“Dogs are past masters in the sensory world,” says Dr. Dodman. With hearing, smell, some aspects of sight, and a directional sense that far surpass those of humans, dogs are exquisitely attuned to every aspect of their physical environment. While humans have evolved into a cerebral, speculative world of abstract thinking and symbolic language, often shutting out our environment, dogs remain grounded in physical reality.
“We live in a world of language and we think animals are a little silly because they can’t sit down and write a letter or speak,” Dr. Dodman says, yet dogs have their own form of intelligence, and the ability to use senses we’ve lost. Dogs often have an inborn sense of dead reckoning and are able to construct “mental maps” of territory. This accounts for some dogs’ legendary homing instinct and the many instances of dogs who find their way home from great distances. This ability, however, is not telepathy; it is a natural instinct which is “innate and biologically appropriate.”
Dogs have other natural advantages in the world of the senses. They can detect changes in barometric pressure, they can hear frequencies of sounds undetectable to human ears, and they have eyes perfectly adapted for night vision and detecting motion. Their sense of smell, Dr. Dodman says, is amazingly acute: “If you spread out the smell organs in the human nose, the total area of sensitive tissue is about the size of a thumbnail.” In a dog, he says, “It’s more like a pocket handkerchief.”
Dr. Dodman, while emphasizing dogs’ great natural abilities, discounts any claims that they have supernatural abilities. He is similarly skeptical of humans who claim to be able to communicate telepathically with animals. “They believe they can” talk to animals, he says, “but I don’t believe they can.” Dr. Dodman feels that the current interest in animal communication is just another example of the tendency of humans to attribute supernatural powers to things they don’t understand.
“Once we thought (animals) were gods, then demons. Now some people think they can talk. What’s next?”
-By Kathryn Kulpa
Kathryn Kulpa is a freelance writer from Middletown, Rhode Island. This is her first article for WDJ.