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Clever Hans - A Horse's Tale

Hans von Osten, known as "Clever Hans", lived in Berlin around the turn of the century. He was known far and  wide for his abili-ty to solve complex mathematical problems. His talent was even more amazing than you might think - Clever Hans was a horse. When Hans' owner, Herr von Osten, first displayed his horse the scientific  community was sceptical. Noted scientists traveled to Berlin examine and test Hans' marvelous ability. They would write an equation on a chalkboard and wait for him to paw the ground with his hoof. When Hans reached the  answer he would stop. Though he sometimes made errors, his success rate was far too high to be random chance. The accepted verdict was that Hans could think.

 Believing that animals think as humans do is a very old concept. From Aesop's fables to Benjii we like to imagine  that animals are furry little humans, just like us. Foxes are "sly", owls are "wise" and dolphins are super-intelligent  happy campers of the sea. This practice can ruin your relationship with your pet. For example, imagine that your cat has urinated on your bed. You have been away from home more than usual and you are sure that the cat is trying to  get back at you. To eliminate on your bed out of spite, your cat has to know that something he does now will have consequences far in the future. If he can do that, he should also be capable of storing up dried mice for the winter  and taking odds on the Cardinals in the Super Bowl. The idea that you have failed to clean the litter box will never cross your mind because you have already decided that he is doing it out of spite.

 One explanation for this problem is that many pets "out-sense" rather than "outwit" their owners. Because the owner  cannot see, hear or smell the clues that the animal is responding to, the animal is considered intelligent, almost psychic. A cat's ability to know that he only sees his cat carrier when you are taking him to the vet, or a dog's ability  to recognize the sound of your particular car engine is a function of finely tuned senses rather than intellectual ability. The owner will not interpret it that way, however. After an animal destroys something or eliminates improperly a  typical response is, "He knew he did wrong, he looked guilty as soon as I caught him.!" Again, the assumption is that an animal can understand human concepts like morality and remorse and knows what it would cost to shampoo  a carpet or replace a couch. In reality the animal can only understand that you are just about to punish or scold him. The "guilty" look is actually fear.

 As for Clever Hans, his fame as an intelligent horse was short lived. A very astute young researcher simply made sure that the person asking Hans questions did not know the answers. Hans became an instant failure. You see, he  really wasn't clever at all. He simply had great senses. He watched closely and would stop pawing when he sensed any change in the audience. A lifted eyebrow, a sigh, a nodding head or the tensing of muscles would stop him from  pawing the ground. Anyone who knew the answer was likely to give almost imperceptible clues to the horse. A person who did not know the answer could not inadvertently cue Hans to stop pawing.

 The phenomenon of Clever Hans didn't last very long but his legacy lives on. It is easy to assume that animals think as we do. The next time you are tempted to believe that Fido chewed your shoe out of spite, ask him if he thinks the  Cardinals will make it to the playoffs next year - and put a bet on it.

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Copyright 1997 by Gary Wilkes -- No portion of this web page may be reproduced without permission.