Animals Communicating After Death: The Evidence?

September 25, 2008

BOOK REVIEW:  Dog Body, Dog Mind: Exploring Canine Consciousness and Total Well Being by Dr. Michael W. Fox

Dr. Michael Fox has a nationally syndicated column, “Animal Doctor” and is the author of at least 15 books about dogs, cats, pet foods, bioethics, ethology, genetically modified foods, therapeutic touch and massage for animals, among other topics. His bio says that he’s authored over 40 books in total.

His most recent book on dogs is Dog Body, Dog Mind: Exploring Canine Consciousness and Total Well Being (2007). He’s educated, experienced, obviously cares deeply about all animals. There’s a lot of good material in Dog Body, Dog Mind. For solid information on correcting behavioral problems, the existence of emotions and consciousness in dogs, diet and health care this is an excellent reference. I especially liked the final chapter, Chapter 22: In Praise of Mutts, which should be required reading for all members of the purebred dog fancy. 

Unfortunately, it is also packed with pseudoscientific claptrap.

It boggles the mind to consider how a deeply intelligent vet can write and, apparently believe, some of the silliness in this book.

In this regard, his book is much more dangerous than some of the outright nonsense written by pet psychics and others on the lunatic fringe of pet care and advice. Those can be dismissed entirely. But Dr. Fox’s work requires more careful dissection.

Let’s take a look at a few chapters from the middle of his book to show precisely what I mean.

Chapter 8: “Psychic” Animals and their Super-Senses

First, and most importantly, I must remind Dr. Fox that the plural of anecdotes is not data. His most outlandish statements are backed by stories he has received from his large audience of readers. There is no attempt by Dr. Fox to make any independent verification of the information he receives (at least none that he sees fit to mention in his book).

If you write to Dr. Fox, your truthfulness and accuracy are never questioned. He accepts your story uncritically even when you make extraordinary claims. And we all know that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, don’t we? There are no footnotes or sources listed, just an index. We have to take it on faith that Dr. Fox is accurately reporting what he’s been told and that his correspondents are correct in their interpretation of their experience.

You’ll find this device used over and over again in the chapters under consideration. Example: a woman from Florida writes him about her 55 year old father whom she says had no known major health problems. Her father’s dog displays a new habit of placing a paw on his chest, looking at him “straight in the eyes.” It’s not made clear how long this behavior went on, but sometime later the woman’s father dies in his sleep in the middle of the night. The cause of death is stated as “chronic lung disease.” She concludes that her dad’s dog knew what was wrong with him, while no one else did.

Dr. Fox declares this an instance of the dog’s “prescience.”

For anyone versed in logical fallacies this is clearly a case of retrofitting the conclusion to make surprising what is, after all, a common sort of behavior for a dog. One of my dogs has recently started resting his head on one of my feet. Should I rush to a podiatrist to confirm my Labrador’s obvious diagnosis of impeding bunion trouble?

First, let’s look at this story logically. Do you believe her account that a middle-aged man died of chronic lung disease and showed no symptoms whatsoever prior to his death? I’d say that’s highly unlikely. If he even had shortness of breath, this alone might have drawn his dog closer to him, sensing his distress. Let’s also note that “chronic lung disease” is a vague, catch-all phrase, not a medical diagnosis. Just what exactly did this man die of?

And how does she know that the paw on the chest proves that the dog “knew” of his master’s lung disease? Maybe the dog was actually diagnosing pending heart failure and got the whole thing wrong. Stupid dog.

Here’s another example of retrofitting (or creative interpretation) from earlier in Dr. Fox’s book. He tells the story of two animals who “brought themselves to us for treatment” at the Animal Refuge in South India that he operated for many years in India with wife. They were a dog with a broken back and pelvis and a water buffalo dying from a severe screw worm infestation. “Neither of these animals had ever been near our refuge before, yet somehow they knew it was a place where animals were cared for and healed” (my emphasis). This is a case of counting the hits and ignoring the misses.

Isn’t the explanation much more likely that instead of somehow knowing about this place of healing, these sick and injured animals just happened to wander in their pain and disorientation near the South India Animal Refuge? Ignored in this example are all the other sick animals who wandered around and died of their illnesses or injuries and never got anywhere near any sort of refuge.

Next Dr. Fox relates a few anecdotes about pets separated from their families who find them in places the pets have never been before. He tells of a “documented case” of a cow and a calf sold at auction in England, sent to separate farms. The cow is found the following morning at the farm where her calf is, many miles away. It may be documented, but Dr. Fox fails to provide any way for his readers to check up on that documentation.

Dr. Fox calls this phenomenon “psychic trailing” and cites the work of parapsychologist J. B. Rhine of Duke University. Dr. Fox should’ve done a little research to find out how thoroughly discredited Rhine’s research is before using him as an authority.

But wait, in the next section of this chapter Dr. Fox goes completely off the rails. You’ve got to read this in his own words to see how nonsensical his ideas are:

Simply put, we are all connected psychophysically with the sun, moon, Earth, the stars and with each other through the realms of the senses and the emotions. It is the emotional connection with his owner or family that forms a point in the space-time continuum, that enables the animal to re-orient from his home-base and find his family. I propose that the animal’s internal sun-time clock and geomagnetic compass are used, like a directional feeling-sensitive antenna, once the animal has aligned himself towards the emotional field of its owner/family. This field, which I call the empathosphere, makes the space-time continuum a unified field.

Next he claims that Albert Einstein theorized the existence of this new concept, the empathosphere, but failed to express it mathematically. Stupid Einstein. I’d like to ask Dr. Fox for the precise reference in Einstein’s work that supports this claim. He goes on to state that this existence of this field “in which all things are interconnected and interdependent” has been demonstrated by the “modern sciences of ecology and quantum mechanics.” I must not have gotten that memo.

Now I will admit that my understanding of quantum mechanics is very limited. But I propose that Dr. Fox has no understanding whatsoever of this very complex theory for him to cite it as proving the existence of this “empathosphere” idea of his. Quantum mechanics deals with the strange behavior of sub-atomic particles and does not scale to the realm of ordinary human-sized interactions. QM is falsely cited by many practitioners of New Age and CAM (complimentary and alternative medicine) as offering support for their bogus theories.

Excuse me, I’ve got to brush all these protons off my keyboard before I can continue typing.

Dr. Fox states that we who live in Western industrialized societies have lost touch with these “supra-sensory” powers. He claims these powers were demonstrated by the aboriginal peoples of pre-colonial Australia and used for healing and “living in harmony for health’s sake.” Aside from the vagueness of this last statement, he offers no support for these “supra-sensory” powers.  Citations, Dr. Fox?

Chapter 9: Entering the Deep Heart’s Core: The Empathosphere

“When it comes to evaluating animal prescience and remote sensing—what is commonly regarded as psychic communication or clairvoyance—an open mind is called for. Let the facts speak for themselves. . .”

I agree absolutely with Dr. Fox on this point. He is quite right. Unfortunately, the chapter that follows these introductory lines contains not a single fact, just “my own observations and the anecdotal data of others.”

Again, not to nitpick but let’s be clear that anecdotes are just that, and not data. In science there is no such animal as “anecdotal data.”  There are thirteen unverified accounts sent to him by readers. Some of them are wonderful, deeply emotional stories, but they are not the facts that should be speaking for themselves.

Still Dr. Fox believes that these stories lay “the groundwork for launching into the next chapter, which explores the profound realm of animals’ ‘extraterrestrial’ or afterlife communication and manifestation from beyond the grave. . .” Cue the spooky organ music.

Chapter 10: Animals Communicating After Death: The Evidence

Now just suppose that dead animals could communicate and even manifest themselves physically (or, according to Theosophists, as an etheric double or astral body) to their human companions still living on the plane but grieving their departure terribly: What if this communication and manifestation could be verified? Would this not upset the apple cart of the nihilists, rational materialists, and those who think only humans have immortal soles and are special? The impact would be as profound as would the arrival of intelligent life-forms visiting us from outer space.

You’re darn right it would, Dr. Fox. I’d also think you’d be a strong candidate for a Nobel Prize or a MacArthur “Genius” grant (or at least a slimed copy of the Ghostbusters DVD). Ah, but here’s that old caveat: “. . .the following letters provide irrefutable proof” (my emphasis).

If you really had irrefutable proof, Dr. Fox, instead of 17 letters from grieving pet owners telling of various manifestations* your book would have been the publishing event of 2007, you’d be besieged with interview requests from the major media and a host of scientists and skeptics would be clamoring to review your evidence for themselves.

Dr. Fox, you could’ve been on Oprah!

And talk about burying the lead!  You’ve got “irrefutable proof” of the existence of consciousness and personality after death (even just for canines) and you put it in Chapter 10 of a 22 chapter book? I have to conclude that Dr. Fox is either not serious about this momentous claim or he understands perfectly well that what he presents does not rise anywhere near the level of “irrefutable proof.”

Back in the prehistory of the 1970s there was a magazine published by pornographer Bob Guccione called OMNI which mingled science fact with science fiction. I had a friend who hated this combination on the grounds that the presence of the fiction polluted the facts. As many hard science fans are also into sci-fi I thought his position was a little extreme. At least the fiction was labeled as such. But in Dog Body, Dog Mind there are no disclaimers and outright nonsense is mixed right in with solid scientific information. By doing so, Dr. Fox does a great disservice to his readers, many of whom will unquestioningly  swallow this mixture whole.


*And one photo of a dog with a semi-transparent patch of white above it that Fox concludes is a manifestation of “a fine, amorphous energy field of light, that could be one of the ways by which deceased animals may communicate to the living.” Obviously, Dr. Fox has never read any of  Joe Nickell’s excellent work on photographic frauds and misinterpretations. 


NOTE: A copy of this review has been emailed to Dr. Fox for his response. If he replies, I will append his comments to the review.

9/26/08: Dr. Fox has responded. Here is what he wrote (in total) “Joseph—you need a good dog. michael.”

I’d like to point out that this is, in effect, an ad hominem attack. He does not address even a single point I raised and assumes that my problem is, I don’t have a “good dog.” 

It is the equivalent of telling a feminist you disagree with that what she needs is “a good. . .uh, man.”

Dr. Fox, I have two wonderful Labradors and have also been involved in breed rescue groups and at my local shelter. My wife and I are responsible for saving the lives of 40 dogs over the past 5 years, fostering 23 of them in our home. This is, obviously, just a drop in the bucket given the pet over population problem in America today but, hey, we all do what we can.

It is not my lack of “a good dog” that is at issue here. It is the quality (and the truthfulness) of his thinking and beliefs that I have a problem with.

Dogs are amazing creatures and worthy of our respect and admiration without tarting them up with silly metaphysics, psychic abilities and ‘beyond the grave’ manifestations.


One Response to “Animals Communicating After Death: The Evidence?”

  1. sweetieNo Gravatar on September 26th, 2008 8:47 am

    Right on, Joe! I loved your comments regarding the stupid dog, stupid Einstein, and the empathosphere. You’re right, its a shame that many folks will swallow the idiotic claptrap right along with the well written Chapter 22.

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