A Clever Dog, But Not A Mathematician

This article first appeared in the July, 1987 issue ofBASIS, the newsletter of theBay 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.

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.

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.