Canines anticipating the arrival of their owners is only one small facet of the phenomena covered by author Rupert Sheldrake in Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Others include animal empathy and illness detection, calls and telepathy, the sense of direction, and premonition. Each topic is supported by data collected by Sheldrake, either via public survey, solicitation of reports, or in a few cases by direct experimentation. While common pet species are the most frequently discussed, a variety of other animals are also included in cases where information was available.
Sheldrake’s approach is to present the data, which suggests the presence of unexplained abilities in some animals, as evidence of previously unrecognized natural phenomena. While qualities such as telepathy are widely denounced by mainstream science, the author does not promote the paranormal. Rather, he claims (by way of his own background in the sciences), that a true scientist’s duty is to follow the evidence, even when it disagrees with established modes of thought. If studies produce statistically significant outcomes in favor of telepathic ability, they must be explained rather than disregarded. If experiments can be reproduced which show seemingly impossible senses of direction, premonition, or communication, they demand further investigation. I find this attitude both logical and agreeable.
The book is easily readable and is written in a way that should be accessible to most everyone, regardless of background. Pet owners and those who work with animals in a frequent capacity will make an ideal audience. Readers may discover that they already have a peripheral awareness of the material from news articles, television, or life experience, and that the text expands on these. As just one example, I was already familiar with the way many species navigate the globe via some sort of “sense of direction,” but before this book I had never really appreciated just how mysterious or genuinely unexplained this ability is.
The author takes a breadth vs depth approach in this work, which may or may not be of concern depending on initial expectations. None of the behaviors are covered in the detail of a scientific paper, and in fitting so many topics into approximately 300 pages, what we are left with amounts to more of an overview. In fact, the chapters become fairly predictable in structure: Sheldrake presents the theme, gives some statistics about why the material seems to be legitimate, and cherry picks a few of the best case reports as examples. It’s a good approach for the layperson, but the detail may be insufficient for the scholar or the committed skeptic. (In fairness to the author, the chapters are thoroughly referenced for those who want to go farther.)
The aspect of the text that I found myself the most disappointed with was Sheldrake’s invoking of “morphic fields” as his best explanation for much of the observed phenomena. Presenting anomalous data is one thing, but to take an explanatory stance, even an openly speculative one, is highly risky, and tends to have a nasty way of discrediting the rest of the work. At any rate, what most troubled me was the lack of any context for morphic fields outside of the subject matter at hand. Supposedly these fields are some sort of natural…thing…that can be used to neatly explain animal telepathy, sense of direction, etc, but more detail is never really given. It’s not even made clear whether morphic fields are some existing and well established element of modern physics, or if they’re just a word Sheldrake invented for lack of a better explanation. In either case, I found them far too insufficiently supported to add value to the discussion, and the result was a net detraction from the otherwise scholarly qualities of the work.
Finally, there is an appendix to the main text which addresses skeptical “controversies and inquiries.” As a reader of fringe science topics, it’s not uncommon to see an author weigh the material down in combative language against hardline skepticism. By placing his responses to these challenges in an appendix, Sheldrake left the other content mostly unburdened, which is an approach I personally appreciate.
Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home was, on the whole, an eye opener. Well before the conclusion I found myself compelled to examine my own pets behavior in greater detail, wondering if I had overlooked any of these mysterious qualities. Sheldrake makes a highly compelling argument that there is more to our animals than most of us give them credit for. And what may be most interesting is that many of us, simply by assuming such faculties to be impossible, may be unwittingly downplaying or ignoring our own very real experiences with them. Humans are animals too after all, and what is true of our pets, may very well be just as true of us.