Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home: and other unexplained powers of animals

by Rupert Sheldrake, 1999

Bookcover photo

Dogs that know when their owners are coming home, cats that answer the telephone when a person they are attached to is calling, horses that can find their way home over unfamiliar terrain, cats that can anticipate earthquakes--- these aspects of animal behavior suggest the existence of forms of perceptiveness that lie beyond present-day scientific understanding.

There is nothing new about the uncanny abilities of animals. People have noticed them for centuries. Millions of pet owners today have experienced them personally. But at the same time, many people feel they have to deny these abilities or trivialize them. They are ignored by institutional science. Pets are the animals we know best, but their most surprising and intriguing behavior is treated as of no real interest. Why should this be so?

One reason is a taboo against taking pets seriously. The taboo is not confined to scientists but is a result of the split attitudes to animals expressed in our society as a whole. During working hours we commit ourselves to economic progress fueled by science and technology and based on the mechanistic view of life. This view, dating back to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, derives from Rene Descartes’ theory of the universe as a machine. Though the metaphors have changed (from the hydraulic machine in Descartes’ time, to a telephone exchange a generation ago, to a computer today), life is still thought of in terms of machinery. Animals and plants are seen as genetically programmed automata, and the exploitation of animals is taken for granted.

Meanwhile, back at home, we have our pets. Pets are in a different category than other animals. Pet-keeping is confined to the private, or subjective realm. Experiences with pets have to be kept out of the real or objective world. There is a gulf between companion animals, treated as members of our families, and animals in factory farms and research laboratories. Our relationships with our pets are based on different sets of attitudes, on I-thou relationships rather than the I-it approach encouraged by science.

Another reason pets aren’t taken seriously is the taboo against psychic and paranormal phenomena. These phenomena are not rare or exceptional; some are very common. They are called paranormal--- meaning “beyond the normal” ---because they cannot be explained in conventional scientific terms; they do no fit in with the mechanistic theory of nature.

Some animals know when their owners are coming home. In many cases an animal’s anticipation of a person’s return cannot be explained in terms of routine, clues from people at home, or the sound of a familiar car approaching. Somehow, people telepathically communicate their intention to return home. This telepathic anticipation occurs only when there is a close emotional bonding with the person returning.

Some companion animals also respond telepathically to a variety of other human intentions and react to silent calls and commands. Some know when a particular person is on the telephone. Some react when their owner is in distress or dying in a distant place.

I suggest that telepathic communication depends on bonds between people and animals--- bonds that are not mere metaphors but actual connections. They are connected through fields called morphic fields.

Some dogs, cats, horses, and other domesticated animals have a good sense of direction and find their way home from unfamiliar places many miles away. Animals seem to be drawn toward their desired destination as if by an invisible elastic band that attaches them to that place. These connections may be explained in terms of morphic fields. The sense of direction also plays a vital role in migration. Some species, like swallows, salmon, and sea turtles, migrate from breeding grounds and back again over thousands of miles. Here too, I think that morphic fields, and the ancestral memory inherent in them, could help provide an explanation.

Some premonitions may be explicable in terms of physical stimuli--- animals that become disturbed before earthquakes may be reacting to subtle electrical charges. Dogs that alert their epileptic owners to an impending fit may notice subtle muscular tremors or unusual odors. But other premonitions seem to result from a mysterious foresight that challenges our assumptions about the separation of past, present, and future.

All three types of perceptiveness--- telepathy, the sense of direction, and premonitions--- seem better developed in nonhuman species than they are in people, but they do occur in the human realm, too. Why are we so insensitive? Is it because we are human? Perhaps our sensitivity diminished over tens of thousands of years as our brains evolved. Or perhaps the evolution of language has led to a decline in our ability to communicate telepathically, to have premonitions, and to find our way in unfamiliar places.

But perhaps this decline in sensitivity is not a feature of our being human or using language, but a more recent phenomenon, a result of civilization, literacy, mechanistic attitudes, and dependence on technology. Even in modern societies, there may be differences in perceptiveness between different kinds of people: on average, children may be more sensitive to telepathic influences than adults, and women more than men. On the other hand, men may be more sensitive than women in their sense of direction.

The development of science has involved the progressive recognition of invisible interconnections between things that are separate from each other in space or space-time. The concept of morphic fields takes this process further.

According to quantum theory, there is an inevitable link between the observer and that which is observed, breaking down the sharp separation between subject and object. Quantum physics says that particles that come from a common source, like two photons of light emitted from the same atom, retain a mysterious interconnection so that what happens to one is instantaneously reflected in the other. This is known as non-locality, non-separability or entanglement. No one knows how far this process extends or how extensive is this instantaneous interconnectedness. Some physicists speculate that everything in the universe is interconnected through quantum non-locality.

Morphic fields also connect parts of a system that are seemingly separated, although no one yet knows how they are related to quantum non-locality. These fields are the basis of interconnectedness not only in space but also in time.

A wide range of unexplained powers of animals might be explicable in terms of morphic fields:
Morphic fields link members of social groups and can continue to connect them even when they are far apart. These invisible bonds act as channels for telepathic communication between animals and animals, people and animals, and people and people.

These links, acting like invisible elastic bands, also underlie the sense of direction that enables animals and people to find each other.

Animals “imprinted” on their home environment or on other significant places are linked to those places by morphic fields. Through these connections they can be pulled or attracted back toward familiar terrain. The sense of direction given by these morphic fields underlies homing and migration.

Morphic fields link animals to the objects of their intentions, and could help to explain psychokinetic phenomena.
Morphic fields link animals to the objects of their attention, and through these perceptual fields animals can influence what they are looking at.

We have a great deal to learn from our companion animals. They have much to teach us about animal nature--- and about our own.
Our own intentions, desires, and fears are not confined to our heads or communicated only through words and behavior. We can influence animals and affect other people at a distance.

We are on the threshold of a new understanding of the nature of the mind.


[Rupert Sheldrake (Nottinghamshire, England) is a biologist and author of more than 75 scientific papers, ten books, has appeared on TV programs internationally, and has contributed to many magazines and newspapers. A former Research Fellow of the Royal Society, he studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, studied philosophy at Harvard University, and took a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Cambridge University. In India he lived at the ashram of Fr Bede Griffiths. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Academic Director and Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut. He lives in London with his family.]