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Do Border Collies have ESP?

November 23rd, 2011

By Robert Singer

Last year Bart and I went to a lecture at the UCLA Law School. We purchased a parking permit and entered the parking structure P2 at level 5 and found a parking place on level 7. We exited the parking structure on level 1 and headed up Charles E. Young Drive East (CEYE) to Dodd Hall.

After the presentation we had lunch at the Lu Valle Student Commons where a student of Professor Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) made the mistake of admiring Bart. She was familiar with Diamond’s answer to "Yali's 'Cargo' Question: Why they are so rich and we are so poor?” She liked my answer much better: “We” are so rich and "they" are so poor, because we in the East-West civilizations came from feudal societies and they in the North-South were “Caste.” Consumerism is anti-thetical to the Caste System because it requires a focus on pleasure and a conviction that it is right to seek the satisfaction of selfish desires in this life. The Question of Questions.

Bart and I exited the commons at the rear and found ourselves on Charles E. Young Drive West. Not sure of the way back, I looked down and told Bart to “find the car!” [1]

Here is a map of Charles E. Young, the campus, and the parking structure.

Click here to read the entire UCLA adventure and how I incorrectly came to the conclusion that Bart and his nephew, Jeddy, used their cognitive map: a powerful memory of landmarks to demonstrate, the sensu Tolman defintion of novel short-cutting to “find the car!”

The dogs weren’t taking a novel, or any kind of, short cut back to the parking garage.

They found the car based on dead reckoning. [2]

I agree with Andrew Bennett, “the cognitive map, the sensu Tolman, O’Keefe and Nadel defintion of novel short-cutting is no longer a useful hypothesis for elucidating the spatial behaviour of animals, and that use of the term should be avoided.” [3]

Bart, Jeddy, Reilly use an extra-normal sensory perception of changes in the earth's magnetic field to “find the car!”

On October 27, 2011, I went on a hike with my three dogs and a woman writer friend (WWF). The hike confirmed that my dogs don’t take short cuts but at the same time the hike supported study about a “heretofore undiscovered magnetic telepathic mechanism” dogs may be using to “find the car!”

A British psychologist study together with numerous accounts confirmed that dogs and even cats are capable of traveling long distances to find their way home [as opposed to find the car, which would be much harder] was, according to researchers, not conclusive.

Researchers questioned the omissions, methodology and that the conclusions might have been colored by prior hopes and expectations. [4]

No one is questioning the scientific established fact that dogs and cats do have an extraordinary ability to find their way home from long distances. The researchers are not convinced that dogs and cats can return home from hundreds of miles away, “guided by some extra-normal sensory perception.”


Here is a Google map of the Dos Vientos Open Space in Newbury Park California. The yellow path is the one we took to the twin ponds and finally to the Outlook. What is of particular interest is the decision we made at the Y-fork; we took the high road on the way up to the twin ponds.

The return trip is in red. Notice that we took the lower road at the Y-fork. Keep reading about the hike to find out why.

Start of Hike

I parked my car at the tennis courts at the south edge of the Dos Vientos Community Park. Three dogs and two humans followed the fenced lined path along the edge of the park (the route is in yellow). Just before via Rincon there is an opening in the fence and we began the loop to right and followed the dirt path to a knoll that overlooks the park and the surrounding hills. We then crossed over the knoll and descended back into civilization and onto Via Ricardo. We looked both ways (the dogs didn’t bother) and crossed the street and beared left. We walked 0.1 mile along the sidewalk, crossing Via Sandra to a distinct footpath on our right. Veer right and climb the chaparral-covered hillside above and parallel to Via Ricardo. We curved right, away from the road and into the rolling hills where you can see a y-fork on the trail. As you can see from the trail map it doesn’t matter which fork you take to get the twin ponds. Our writer friend made the decision to take the high road (right fork is in yellow). We weaved through the hills until we reached the secluded Twin Ponds then continued to the overlook where we had a light lunch.

On the way back down we reached the other end of the y-fork when I noticed the dogs seemed to know where they were going and wanted to take the lower Y-fork trail. Bart was the only one of the three on leash. Reilly, the only one of my three dogs that has never been given the command find the car was in the lead.

I actually was turned around and so for fun I told them to “Find the Car.” Reilly, in the lead, didn’t hesitate and lead all of us on the lower Y-fork trail.

Looking at the trail map you would expect them to go left to find the route we took in the beginning. But at no time did they go to the left.

We were trapped on the wrong side of the gate to the Palerno houses. Here is a photo of the gate.

Notice the walk gates on either side of the vehicle access, they were both locked. I finally found a resident of the community to let us out.

The dogs exited the gate and turned left heading down Via Olas, Via Ricardo, Via Patricia, Via Rincon and finally to Rancho Dos Vientos.

Notice the intersection of Via Patricia and Via Rincon. We marked a dead reckoning (or short-cut if you prefer) course across an unobstructed grass field right to the car.

But the dogs didn’t take the easiest most direct path to the car. Instead they turned right on Via Rincon, left on Rancho Dos Vientos and finally crossed the street to the car.

Yes I was careful there was no traffic when I let them cross the street. Interesting to say the least.

Maybe my dogs inherited this ability from their wolf ancestors because in the dogs days of old, a lost dog was a dead dog.

Researchers have documented that wolves and wild dogs have the ability to invent completely new routes [eliminating any explanation using scent] from point to point, once they are familiar with the terrain. But in our case none of us had ever hiked the Dos Vientos trails. I am not sure what is really going on but a word of caution.

Until a way more controlled study is undertaken, it is impossible to accurately answer the question about the long-range “return home” instinct of our pets. I can assure that I won’t be dropping Bart miles from home in unfamiliar territory to see if he can run the gauntlet of natural and man-made obstacles … to find his way home!

11/7/2011 That's one long walkabout! Cat walks 2,000 miles across Australia to get home after owners relocate


[1] I have never taught my dogs the command, “Find the car.” One day on a whim, I just said, “Bart, find the car,” and he found it. October 8 was the first time I told Jeddy to “Find the car.”

[2] Similarly, compasses are limited in only providing directional information to animals. Invariably then, for successful navigation to occur in real-world environments, some memory of the position of landmarks is also required. How is this spatial information stored and integrated in memory?

The term ‘cognitive map’ has been used to describe a wide variety of concepts. Many of these are contradictory. Others are too imprecise to make clear behavioural predictions. There are, however, two main definitions in the literature. One, sensu Gallistel, is that a cognitive map is any representation of space possessed by animals. The other, sensu Tolman, O’Keefe and Nadel, is that it is a powerful memory of landmarks which allows novel short-cutting to occur.

[3] From The Journal of Experimental Biology199, 219–224 (1996)]

Drawing on studies of humans, rodents, birds and arthropods, Andrew T. D. Bennett shows that cognitive maps have been used to describe a wide variety of spatial concepts.

There are, however, two cognitive map de?nitions:

  1. sensu Tolman, O’Keefe and Nadel, is that a cognitive map is a powerful memory of landmarks which allows novel short-cutting to occur (humans).
  2. sensu Gallistel, is that a cognitive map is any representation of space held by an animal (humans and non humans).

Andrew T. D. Bennett believes there is no conclusive evidence to prove that animals have sensuTolman, O’Keefe and Nadel cognitive map abilities. He speculates that simpler explanations of the crucial novel short-cutting results are invariably possible.

The sensuGallistel variation of a Cognitive map Bennett agrees that Dogs do have: A mental representation a dog has formed of its physical environment as a result of spatial learning. The ability to develop cognitive maps in the dog is an evolutionaly hold-over from the wolf. For example, wolves are hunters who often travel miles from their den in the search for prey; hence, they needed to develop a "navigational' system to find their way back to their pack and den. Likewise, food may have been buried, and the wolf needed a means to 'remember' where the food was buried. How cognitive maps are formed in wolves, or for that matter other species such a birds, rats, or other mammals, is still not clear. Animal behaviorists hypothesize that animal forms cognitive maps via forming a picture-like representation of the salient geometric and topographical features in the environment. Common example which support the notion a a dog's ability to use a cognitive map to guide it behavior through space include its ability to find its way home from considerable distances or its ability to remember where it has buried its bones in its owner's backyard. Andrew T. D. Bennett

Owing to the repeated inability of experimenters to eliminate these simpler explanations over at least 15 years, and the confusion caused by the numerous contradictory de?nitions of a cognitive map, I (Andrew T. D. Bennett) argue that the cognitive map is no longer a useful hypothesis for elucidating the spatial behavior of animals and that use of the term should be avoided.

Andrew T. D. Bennett, Department of Pure Mathematics, University of Adelaide, Adelaide SA 5005, Australia, Department of Zoology, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK and *School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1UG, UK

[4] How did he know the dog had never been to the starting spot before? Did he take the owner's word for it? Were all visible landmarks out of the dog's line of sight, smell and hearing? How many times could this dog successfully repeat his trek from this and other more distant points? And so on.

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