100 Plus 1 From A Dalmatian, or;
A Clever Dog, But Not A Mathematician

Robert Sheaffer

This article first appeared in the July, 1987 issue of BASIS, the newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics.
Photos by Ivars Lauersons.

There is a long and illustrious history to claims of "clever animals." The most famous of this genre was the celebrated Clever Hans, a horse living around 1900 who could allegedly perform mathematical calculations. To my knowledge, this dog is the only "clever animal" to surface in recent years, and to be tested by skeptics.

Sunny and Jim working without any controls. On May 28 [1987], the Bay Area Skeptics held one of its most interesting monthly meetings to date,  as we hosted in the Campbell Library a very  intelligent  Dalmatian named Sunny who has a reputation  as something  of a whiz in mathematics.  The dog,  or more precisely the dog's owner,  was seeking the prize of the Skeptics'  $11,000 Challenge,   and   this   evening   was  to  be   a   preliminary demonstration, to be followed up by a rigorously-controlled test, if  the demonstration was successful.  Sunny and his  owner,  Jim Todd,  are becoming local celebrities because of Sunny's  reputed penchant  for mathematics and knowledge of languages,  as well as his  reportedly  excellent recall of an alleged past  life.  They have appeared together on television,  in schools, and in library programs,  where  Sunny  has  astounded  one  and  all  with  his abilities.  Not  only  does  Sunny  apparently  know  how  to  do addition,  subtraction, multiplication, and division, barking out the answers to problems written on flash cards,  but he can  also calculate  square roots,  cube roots,  and simultaneous algebraic equations in two unknowns. As if this were not impressive enough, Sunny will even respond to math questions in Spanish,  Portugese, or Yiddish.

I  arrived early for the session,  to find that a number  of  Jim Todd's  friends were already on hand,  setting up video  cameras, lights,  and  microphones,  to record the  expected  miracle.  Of course,  the skeptics set up cameras and monitors of their own. I have seen press conferences at which there were fewer cameras and microphones!  The  first  hint  we  had that  there  may  be  any difficulties for Sunny came when Don Henvick returned from Todd's house, which was nearby. He had gone there to get to know the dog a   little,   so  Sunny  might  be  more  at  ease   during   the demonstration.  Don  had witnessed an impressive demonstration of Sunny's skills.  He reported,  however, that while Sunny normally will bark out the answer to any practically problem so long as it is between one and ten,  today he was having problems barking out 1 and 2,  and also 9 or 10.  Therefore, we were requested to keep the answers to all problems between 3 and 8.

Sunny and Jim soon arrived, both looking relaxed and confident. A big,  handsome  young Dalmatian,  Sunny proved to be friendly  as well as clever.  (Indeed, I suspect that Sunny is probably one of the  most intelligent dogs I have ever seen,  although his skills probably  incline more towards psychology than math.) The  agenda agreed to was that for the first fifteen minutes,  Jim Todd could demonstrate  Sunny's skills in any way he wanted,  then  for  the next fifteen minutes Don would attempt to test Sunny's knowledge. Further tests would be performed if Sunny was successful.

Jim,  an  easy-going and likeable retiree,  put on an  impressive show of Sunny's skills. Holding up cards with a number written on each,  he would ask "how much is 3 and 4?".  Sunny would bark out the  correct  amount.  Problems like this were  repeated  several times,  usually with success.  Sunny also did subtraction, square and cube roots,  and even solved a pair of simultaneous algebraic equations.  Occasionally,  the  dog would get the answer  wrong, sometimes  by  barking hesitantly or  quietly,  or  with  unclear "enunciation".  Jim would berate him, and Sunny would usually get the correct answer the second time. 
Don Henvick poses questions to Sunny, who now can't see Jim.

Then came Don Henvick's turn to question Sunny. He held up cards, exactly  as Jim did,  but held them so that only the dog,  and  a video camera,  could see what was written on the face.  Shuffling the  cards,  even  he  was  unaware of what  each  one  said,  to eliminate  the possibility of unconscious cueing.  Sunny's  math abilities deteriorated immediately. With Jim standing behind him, Don  held up a card,  and asked Sunny what number it  was.  Sunny barked eight times. Don then turned the card toward the audience. It had a five on it. Sunny barked eleven times for the next card; it  was a three.  The positions were rearranged,  this time  with Sunny between Jim and Don;  a moveable blackboard screened  Jim's face from the dog.  Strangely, Sunny seemed to not even be paying any attention to Don and the cards;  he kept turning to face Jim. The dog's arithmetic skills were now failing badly: 7 plus 3 made 9;  4  plus  5 made 13.  It became evident that Sunny was  simply barking  randomly,  unsure  of what he was  supposed  to  do.  An attempt  at this point to answer math questions posed in  Spanish was  likewise a failure.  Dos y dos became siete when it  should have been cuatro.

Jim was becoming visibly upset. He began explaining how Sunny was getting  tired,  that  it was past Sunny's  normal  bedtime.  His sincerity was painfully obvious- Jim really expected Sunny to  be able  to  answer Don correctly.  Jim then began to explain to  us about Sunny's recall of his past life,  and his ability to answer questions about it. Sunny would bark three times to indicate yes, and two times for no. In this manner it was not only learned that Sunny had been a human in his previous incarnation,  but the name under  which  he lived was likewise determined:  in his  previous life, the dog was Harry Houdini.

Ever  ready  when needed with a bit  of  magicians'  trivia,  Bob Steiner quickly scribbled something on a paper,  and handed it to Jim.  Bob  explained that if the dog had been Houdini in his past life,  and could answer questions about that life, then he should certainly  remember his mother's maiden name.  Steiner  asked  if there was anyone in the audience of about 60 who did not know his or  her own mother's maiden name;  there was not.  Therefore,  it would seem reasonable that Sunny,  or Houdini,  could answer  the question correctly.  Steiner had written five names on the paper. As  it is well-known that Houdini's family was Jewish,  Bob chose five  common Jewish names.  Jim seemed a little  distressed,  but bravely posed the question to Sunny.  Jim obviously did not  know the  answer,  so cuing,  conscious or otherwise,  could not  take place.  The  fact  that Jim pressed on at this point  proves  his sincerity  beyond any reasonable doubt,  for if he did not  think that  Sunny  could correctly answer the question,  he would  have found an excuse not to continue.

The questioning halted after four names.  Houdini,  or Sunny, had answered  "yes" to three of the four names,  and the only one  he had  answered "no" to turned out to be the correct one!  Jim  was extremely distressed by this time. He noted again how late it was getting,  and  that it was past Sunny's bedtime.  He and the  dog then left, before the meeting was over. The remaining time, about forty-five  minutes,  was given over to a discussion led  by  Bob Steiner on the "Clever Hans" phenomenon, and related issues.

Exactly  how  Sunny  receives Jim's involuntary  cues  was  never precisely  determined.  Apparently Sunny has been trained so that whenever  someone holds up a card and speaks to  him,  he  begins barking.  While "accumulating" the required number of barks,  Jim stands  very  stiffly;  his  labored breathing is  often  clearly audible.  Probably  a subtle change in his posture and  breathing pattern tells the dog to stop. Sometimes Jim breaks his stance as soon  as the required number of barks are received,  pulling  the card down,  an obvious sign to the dog.  Sunny apparently  cannot correctly  answer  questions  except  when his  owner  knows  the answer.  In any case, not long after Jim left, his friends packed up their tripods and cameras, and quietly departed, too. Of those people  remaining,  not  one was convinced  that  Sunny  actually understood the questions posed to him, and could answer them.

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