Clever Isaac

April 2, 2008 at 6:16 am 6 comments

Flipping through the channels late tonight I chanced upon a re-run of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not that featured a story about a dog.  Since it was late and it was a dog and there was NOTHING else on, I decided to sit back and check it out.

The episode included a story about a Labrador Retriever named Isaac who was reported to be a mathematical savant.


His owner said that Isaac could add, subtract, multiply, divide and calculate square roots.  He noted that he saw early on that Isaac was an exceptional dog and said that he began teaching the dog to count when he was just a pup.  Isaac loved participating in these training sessions and was soon able to amaze the people he met.

All his owner, Gary Wimer, had to do was give the dog a math problem and Isaac would bark the correct number of times to solve it.

I watched the segment that featured Isaac several times in real time, slow motion and even at an excruciatingly slow frame by frame speed – and I didn’t see his owner give him any obvious cues (though I strongly suspect that creative photography was the deciding factor here) but….

When I read about Isaac, I cannot help but be bothered by this little concept that scientists refer to as the Clever Hans phenomenon.  The Clever Hans Phenomenon is a form of involuntary and unconscious cuing associated with an exceptional horse.  Clever Hans was an Arab stallion who learned to respond to perform mathematical calculations by tapping his hoof (do you see a similarity here?)

Clever Hans seemed to be able not only to respond appropriately to complex forms of human language but was also apparently able to comprehend basic mathematical ideas.


Hans performed for many people and his audiences were amazed at his abilities.  Unfortunately the people who watched his performances focused on the wrong set of abilities.

Hans could not understand human language or do mathematical computations; he was a brilliant student of human body language.

Otto Pfungst was skeptical of Hans’ accomplishments.  He conducted a set of experiments where he observed different people asking Hans to do calculations for them.  Pfungst noticed that when no one present knew the correct answer to the question the horse gave the wrong answer.  This led Pfungst to conclude that, rather than being a mathematical savant, Hans was a body language expert.  He proposed that Hans used subtle cues emitted by his questioners to correctly answer the questions.

Scientists since have discovered that horses (and dogs) can detect the heartbeat of a person near them  and some have now proposed that as Clever Hans reached the correct answer, an increase in someone’s heart rate told him to stop tapping.

Clever Hans hadn’t mastered mathematics or German, he had become an absolutely brilliant student of human body language.

Sadly, the scientific community not only declared that Hans was a fraud, they also used his case to illustrate their theories that animals were not able to think.  In doing this, they overlooked the horse’s uncanny abilities.

Clever Hans and Clever Isaac demonstrate that animals have the power to reason.  They are able to contextualize observations, categorize them, and apply the concept of cause and effect – qualities that are cited as proof of intelligence.

So, should we be disappointed that dogs and horses don’t grasp details of human language and can’t do mathematical calculations — or should we be impressed by their amazing ability to read and interpret the most subtle non-verbal cues?

Entry filed under: amazing, animals, behavior science, cynicism, dog training, dogs, science. Tags: , , .

Playing With a Dog Springtime Odds and Ends

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marjorie  |  April 2, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Well, I would be very surprised if dogs can do math, the way we think of mathematical equations. By the same token, I know how incredibly subtle dog training can be.

    I trained dogs for many years. I dare say there are few things I “couldn’t” teach a dog, within reason of course. But when I see others trying, and failing, to teach their dogs something I know I can teach in minutes, it’s usually the subtlety that’s to blame. They’re doing all the right things, just not at precisely the right time or with the right emphasis.

    There are so many popular myths and old wives’ tales about dog behaviour partly because so many people are so ineffective at training. When they fail, they blame their dogs, the dog’s temperament, its breed, its size, its reproductive status, its original breed purpose. Yet none of these things prevent any dog from becoming a model canine citizen.

    There are even whole schools of thought that so convincingly profess that some breeds can’t do this or that, owners don’t even try. Some Husky & Beagle owners don’t train their dogs recall, or Basset owners don’t let their dogs go swimming, or ‘pit bull’ owners don’t socialize their dogs with others…all because they’ve been taught it’s impossible. And like all self-fulfilling prophecies, when the dog grows up to be bad at those things, the owners feel vindicated.

    Uh, huh.

    Dogs quickly pick up on handler cues, in my experience. I’ve been party to some blatant demonstrations, in my role as dog trainer. Just two days ago (mostly due to a recent discussion about “responsible” dog ownership), I came across a young man and his dog, apparently waiting for someone inside a nearby store.

    The dog was pulling and trying to jump on everyone who passed by. The young man was choking the dog, in an attempt to keep it from being successful. It pained me to watch the dog’s flesh strain against its choke chain, to the point it looked like it might tear at any moment. I mean, he was REALLY choking this poor dog. The dog was gasping for breath, and wildly pawing and out of control. It was contact-seeking behaviour.

    I did something I’ve never done in 30 years training dogs. I interjected myself. I complimented the dog, and as it was pummelling me with its paws, I asked, “Can you sit,” in a sing-song voice. The owner tried, unsuccessfully, to get the dog to sit, at that point. And, inexplicably (I don’t know what came over me. I’ve never done this.), I said, “I trained dogs for many years. May I?” …Gesturing to take over control of the dog.

    The owner handed me the leash with glee. I gave one tiny tug on the leash to get the dog’s attention (just saying, I’m the one on the end of the leash, now. Over here.), while saying his name. “Sit.” The dog sat…beautifully, and quietly, and dutifully at my side. What an adorable little monkey! Leash dangling, of course. (I never keep any contact with a dog’s neck.) I praised the dog, said its name, and smiled when it looked up at me, so quiet and obedient.

    I looked at the owner, to see what his reaction was. His eyes were big.

    Elapsed time? 30 seconds?

    A person walked by, and the dog remained sitting. I saw another dog coming our way, so I pointed out to the owner that I was going to see how the dog would react. (I was hopeful, but expected the dog to lunge out towards the passing dog.) Just to re-focus, I turned and walked the dog about twenty feet away, turned again, and walked back to where we were. I again asked for a sit, and the dog sat obediently. The other dog passed by. And while he did show too much interest in the passing dog, he remained sitting. Not bad for his first time, I’d say.

    The owner blurted, “That’s amazing!” I smiled, and said, “He’s totally trainable,” and handed the leash back to his owner. The dog immediately started leaping again.

    There is just “something” about some people, that as much as I don’t like the word, “commands” respect in dogs, that’s what they do. Personally, I think it’s inside everyone. Millan calls it being “calm/assertive”. I’d have to say that’s about the right terminology, at least that’s how I feel when I’m training dogs.

    I specialized in re-training difficult and aggressive dogs. And it’s become a bit of a joke, at this point, hearing the horror stories in advance. Invariably what happens is, I get the dog, and within a day it’s heeling, sitting on command, stopped or reduced the barking, stopped stealing food, or any number of other undesirable behaviours are gone, or significantly improved. Even aggression stops pretty quickly (days, really), with continued reinforcement/practice sealing the deal.

    I don’t generally teach “tricks” per se, but I did teach my current dog to “speak” because she simply won’t bark on her own. I had her for about a year, when I finally decided I’d had enough, and wanted to hear what her voice sounded like. But because I’ve since transferred that skill into other commands, she now knows a number of ways to speak. And in the process of teaching her, I inadvertantly taught her to speak by just a slightly forward-angled head. (The kind of anticipatory leaning-in one might do when waiting for something about to happen.)

    I didn’t teach this to her. She picked it up all on her own. So now, I can just slightly angle my head, and she’ll bark.

    In fact, she picked that up, and in so doing, taught me how to get her to bark in yet one more way. Clever girl!

  • 2. jolly roger  |  April 2, 2008 at 5:07 pm



    This is the new language well so it seems. So everyone goes on about it, like it’s never existed, like they’ve been shown the holy grail of a secret understanding of human interpretation. We are born to recognise it. If we need a TV programme to highlight it we’re doing a pretty shity job at being human beings. Granted body language is succinct, subtle and underhanded at times, but if you’re concentrating on where someone is crossing their hands while talking to you, “because that means your being defensive bah blah blah.” You probably haven’t realised their conversely pissed off internation in the fact you’re pointing that shit out and not listening to a word they say.

    …more at

  • 3. jan  |  April 3, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Humans are so arrogant. Hans and Isaac have skills far beyond what any of us ever hope to have.

  • 4. Fuzzy Logic  |  April 4, 2008 at 11:17 pm

    I think the way they train this is to teach the dog to repeat an action be it bark or tap their paw… and then you teach them a subtle command .. . .eye blink, or finger tip slight movement .. to stop..

    Then you do the math, and signal the dog to start and stop.

    It’s definately using the dogs ability to notice extremely subtle movements in body language to fool mere humans who mostly notice gross motor movements

  • 5. Dara Wimer  |  May 14, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    I just was told about this web sight and just felt I had to comment. Isaac was our beloved dog until he died 2 yrs. ago from cancer. When he and Gary were taped for Ripley’s Believe It or Not show they were scrutinized beyond anyone’s imagination!! Ripley’s crew would not put anything to chance as far as signals from Gary to Isaac. Gary was blindfolded, had has hands behind his back, had to ask a question while having his back to Isaac and…..anyone other than Gary could ask the dog a question and he would answer correctly. There will always be skeptics for everything I guess.

  • 6. SmartDogs  |  October 21, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Thanks for your comment – and very sorry for your loss.

    But see, the thing is that animals can perceive and respond to INVOLUNTARY cues from us. Things like changes in pulse rate, respiration rate or a difference in the way our sweat smells. There did not need to be any kind of conscious cue from your husband to Isaac for Isaac to ‘know’ what he was telling him. From Wikipedia:

    After formal investigation in 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst demonstrated that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reaction of his human observers. Pfungst discovered this artifact in the research methodology, wherein the horse was responding directly to involuntary cues in the body language of the human trainer, who had the faculties to solve each problem. The trainer was entirely unaware that he was providing such cues.

    Pfungst made an extremely significant observation. After he had become adept at giving Hans performances himself, and fully aware of the subtle cues which made them possible, he discovered that he would produce these cues involuntarily regardless of whether he wished to exhibit or suppress them. This gives the phenomenon an importance which could hardly be exaggerated. Its recognition has had a large effect on experimental design and methodology for all experiments whatsoever involving sentient subjects (including humans).

    Regards, Janeen

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