Clever Dave

Posted February 3, 2009

New “Math Dogs” Perform Old Tricks

On the news a few nights ago I was appalled to see a report about “Dave the Math Dog” whose owner claims, of course, that he can do math. Not just simple adding and subtracting, mind you. Dave multiplies, divides, finds exponentials and square roots, and understands numbers in many languages. The YouTube video below shows him “doing order of operations” (essentially solving problems that require multiple steps in the correct order):

The news clip I saw Friday night showed Dave’s owner, Frank Ferris, holding a whiteboard in front of the dog. On the board was a calculation problem given by a child standing next to him. Mr. Ferris asked Dave, “How many?” The dog responded by tapping his paw on his owner’s hand repeatedly until he reached his answer. Sound familiar?

It should. Clever Hans performed a similar feat for audiences from 1891 until 1904, when Oskar Pfungst discovered the subtle physical cues that the horse’s trainer was unintentionally giving, signaling when it was time to stop tapping. This finding was so significant that it is now known as the Clever Hans Effect.

The story of Clever Hans may be old by pop culture standards, but it is well known in the fields of psychology and the study of animal behavior. A quick check of facts – even an internet search – would turn up many references to Clever Hans and summaries of what is known about animal intelligence. Yet, there was no mention of it in the report and no doubts were raised about whether Dave was actually performing the higher-order task of calculation.

Although Dave is quite obviously an intelligent creature (beautiful, too), this is little more than a circus act. Harmless entertainment, yes?


Dave and Frank perform at elementary schools and libraries. According to his website and email from Mr. Ferris, they have performed on Late Night with David Letterman, The Morning Show with Mike & Juliet, and local news shows. They have been featured in articles & reports (like the one I saw) across the country.

The audiences of these performances — mostly children — are led to believe that Dave, a dog, is better at math than the average 4th grader and are given no reason to view the magic act as anything other than that. No critical thinking, no explanation that makes sense given what we know about animal behavior.

A search of the internet turns up several “math dogs”. I quickly found Maggie, the Jack Russell Terrier who has been a guest on Oprah and on a show called “Pet Star“ that appeared on Animal Planet:

There’s Wawa the Pug, A Yorkshire named Shooter, and a search of YouTube for “dog does math” will bring up Kidd, Jenny, Cinderella, Daisy, India, Gracie, Toby, and many others – different breeds, all doing the same trick.

I found several articles about Dave; the first hit was at a site about Golden Retrievers.

I left the following comment and, frankly, was surprised that the comment remained given that it is a moderated blog:

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, for the sake our children and our society, discuss with these kids the TRUTH about what is going on here.

Do your research. Talk about Clever Hans and the subtle, unintentional cues given off by trainers and owners. LEARN about the amazing ability of dogs (from years of breeding) to perceive these subtle cues their best friends give.

Dave is amazing, yes, but he is not performing math. To continue to insist that he is and to sell this lie to children is reprehensible. You’re perpetuating belief in something that has been proven wrong repeatedly, and that can only do harm, not good.

The author, Rochelle Lesser, replied:

I have not perpetuated any myth and I honestly believe children do understand that this is a trick, and that dogs do not have the ability to engage in mathematics reasoning.

I responded again, pointing out that nothing in her article or any other article discusses it as a “trick” and asserting that she was making a dangerous assumption.

This time, of course, my comment was removed.

Then, I found Dave’s website.

Mr. Ferris, says that he does this to promote math education, so I believe his intentions are good. I trusted those intentions when I sent an email pleading with him to consider the impact of what he is doing.

I told him that I thought Dave was a beautiful dog and that he is obviously smart and perceptive.

I suggested that, through Dave, he has the power to teach important concepts of critical thinking by educating himself and including a discussion of what Dave was REALLY doing in his presentations to children.

I included several links to information (e.g., Clever Hans) and suggested that he contact organizations such as JREF or the Skeptic Society for tips on designing experiments to test Dave’s true abilities.

I asked him to keep an open mind and explained that skepticism is not a closed-minded refusal to examine evidence. I also told him that I would love to find out that Dave really can do math.

I pleaded with him to find out if what he believes is true is actually true. I ended with:

If you are open to idea that Dave is just a really perceptive dog, you have an amazing opportunity to make a real difference in the world. If you are not, you can only do it harm.

I truly believe this.

Mr. Ferris replied rather quickly. His email included a history of how they discovered this ability:

…my wife was watching the Discovery channel and a lady said, people don’t realize what animals understand from humans…

a description of his procedure:

…we ask the audience for problems. The problems are always random. The kids write it on a white board and I ask Dave How Many…

a list of Dave’s abilities:

…Dave can add, subtract, divide, multiply, square root, order of operation and more. He knows how many letters are in the alphabet and can give you a numeric equivalent for each letter. He has been taught by the audience numbers in 32 languages. I have to have help there. I know only English. I have learned some numbers in Spanish, German and French. Very few.

I could go on for hours…

He seemed to think that these things were evidence of Dave’s math talent.

I replied, basically, that anecdotes and histories served only to demonstrate the natural human tendencies to jump to conclusions about what we want to believe and to hold fast to those beliefs, ignoring plausible alternative explanations.

I reiterated parts of my first email — e.g., he’d not done a controlled test that could support or refute what he believes the dog can do.

I asked if he had ever asked Dave to solve a problem written on the board without looking at it himself and with nobody in the room who knew the problem (a controlled test).

I ended my email with a note that essentially promised to personally promote his “act” if he could demonstrate, through controlled experiments, that Dave could do math.

I added that I know many scientists and educators who would find such a thing a huge breakthrough in the study of animal behavior and intelligence.

It took another day, but Mr. Ferris responded again and, again, he gave anecdotes and said that he was not aware of anything he was doing to cue Dave. Ferris claimed, “I have read about Hans the horse.” Yet he continued to think his stories — about skeptical audience members and math teachers who have worked with Dave — serve as evidence without controlled tests.

I responded once again, repeating my pleas and my assertions that only controlled testing can provide the answers that matter.

I again told him that, until he finds out the truth, he is causing harm, not doing good.

I suggested again that he contact people who are qualified to do a proper controlled test and even offered to arrange for the testing myself.

That was about 72 hours ago as of this writing.

I’m not going to hold my breath, but the fact that he has responded twice is promising. His response, though, makes me wonder — hasn’t anyone made a serious attempt, in 5 years of appearances, at addressing this with him?

UPDATE: Dave the Math Dog passed away in August of 2009.

2 comments to Clever Dave

Podblack on February 3rd, 2009 at 22:47

Excellent summary — thanks also for the YouTube vids, helps to see exactly what they were up to. Indeed, these are old courses for a very old horse-trick… Kylie S.

It’s the Thought that Counts » Blog Archive » Skeptics’ Circle #105: The Shakespeare Edition on February 12th, 2009 at 15:40

[…] Everywhere, described her attempts to convince Frank Ferris to allow controlled tests to see if his dog Dave can really do math. Will she succeed? Stay tuned to her blog; there is some hope. TechSkeptic also gave us a great […]

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