Al
Seckel, "Dalmatian's Counting Goes to the Dogs," Los Angeles
Times "Skeptical Eye" column, December 21, 1987. |
Robert
Sheaffer, "100 Plus 1 From A Dalmatian, or: A Clever Dog, But Not A
Mathematician," BASIS (Bay Area Skeptics Information
Sheet), July 1987. |
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To those familiar with the film exploits of Lassie, Rin Tin Tin or Benji, it might seem as if there's no end to what a dog can be trained to do. Such seemed to be the case with a remarkable Dalmatian named Sunny the Wonder Dog, which has become something of a media celebrity because of his reputed ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide. | |

In public appearances on television, radio and in schools and libraries with his master, Sunny has astounded his audiences by barking out correct answers to problems written on flash cards By his master, Jim Todd, a retired engineer in San Jose. | |

Furthermore, Sunny seemed able to calculate square
roots, cube roots and other complex equations. The dog also
seemed able to respond to math questions posed in Spanish,
Portuguese and Yiddish. |
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. |

Some of our skeptical colleagues in the San Francisco area decided it would be fun to test Sunny's mathematical skills, and Todd happily agreed. | |

He and Sunny showed up for the test looking both relaxed and confident. The first hint of difficulties came just before the actual test was about to begin. | |

Todd stated that Sunny was having difficulty that
day in barking out the numbers one, two, nine and
10. (Normally, Sunny will bark out the answer to practically any
problem so long as it is between one and 10.) Hence, on this day Sunny
could only be presented with problems that had answers between
three and eight. |
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. |

The mutually agreed agenda was that for the first 15 minutes Todd
could demonstrate Sunny's skills without interference; then for the
next 15 minutes Bay Area skeptic Don Henvick would attempt to test
Sunny's knowledge. |
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. |

The easygoing Todd put on an impressive show of Sunny's
skills. Holding up cards with a number written on each, he would ask,
"How much is three and four?" |
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 Sunny getting the right
answer. Occasionally, the dog got the answer wrong, sometimes by
barking hesitantly or quietly, or with unclear "enunciation." When
this happened, Todd would berate him and Sunny would usually get the
correct answer the second time. |
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. |

It was a stunning, if not altogether convincing, performance. There remained, however, an alternative explanation--that Sunny might have been receiving cues from Todd. | |

There was a very simple way to test this possibility: Have someone
other than Todd present the cards to Sunny, exactly as Todd does, but
present them in such a way that only the dog and a video camera could
see what was written on the card. In addition, Todd would stand behind
the dog. This would eliminate the possibility of any unconscious cuing
to the dog. |
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. |

Once this was done, Sunny's math abilities deteriorated immediately. |
Sunny's math abilities deteriorated immediately. |

The first card was shown to the dog and Sunny was asked to name the
number on the card. Sunny barked eight times. The card had a five on
it. Sunny barked 11 times for the next card; it was a three. |
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 then were rearranged, so that Sunny was in between Todd
and Henvick, who was presenting the cards to the dog. A movable
blackboard screened Todd's face from Sunny. |
The positions were rearranged, this time with Sunny between
Jim and Don; a moveable blackboard screened Jim's face from the dog. |

Strangely, Sunny paid no attention to Henvick and the cards; he kept
turning to face Todd. The dog's mathematical skills were now failing
badly: seven plus three made nine; four plus five made 13. |
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 soon became evident that Sunny was simply barking randomly, unsure
of what it was he was supposed to do. An attempt at this point to
answer math questions posed in Spanish was likewise a failure. "Dos y
dos" (two plus two) elicited seven barks. |
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. |

Todd was now becoming visibly upset. He began explaining how Sunny was
getting tired. His sincerity was painfully obvious; he really expected
Sunny to be able to answer correctly. |
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. |

Exactly how Sunny was able to perform so well in the first
place was never precisely determined. But it seemed likely that Sunny
had been trained to begin barking whenever Todd held up a card and
began talking to him. |
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. |

After watching the videotape of the test, it became apparent that
while accumulating the required number of barks, Todd stood very
stiffly; his breathing became exaggerated and was clearly audible. |
While "accumulating" the required number of barks, Jim
stands very stiffly; his labored breathing is often clearly audible. |

As soon as the required number of barks were received, Todd
broke his stance and lowered his breathing. In addition, he brought
the card down, an obvious sign to the dog to stop. |
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. |

Although we think Sunny cannot correctly answer
questions except when Todd cues the answer, it is fun to
wonder just how much dogs can understand from the subtle clues from
their masters. |
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. |