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In 1891 William Von Osten took his horse Hans to the fair and announced that his pet could count.
“What’s three and five?” someone would yell.
Hans would then lift his hoof and stamp eight times.
This wasn’t all. Von Osten showed everyone that Hans could do quite complex calculations.
“If Monday is the fifth of the month, what date will Friday be?”
Hans would then shake his mane, and solemnly tap his hoof nine times.
The crowds were astonished. Clever Hans, or Kluge Hans as he was called in German, was a sensation. Von Osten took him all over the country, and everywhere he went, the horse was greeted with cheers and admiration.
In 1904, psychologist Carl Stumpf was determined to discover what on earth was going on. Horses, he said, don’t count. Not even clever horses like Hans.
Stumpf put together the Hans Commission, a panel of experts that included a vet, a circus manager, a Cavalry officer, and the director of the Berlin zoo.
These experts tested Hans in every way they could think of and they too were stumped. One thing they did know: the presence of Von Osten didn’t matter. Hans was clever no matter who asked the questions.
In 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst took another look at the data. He quickly discovered something interesting. Hans was clever whether Von Osten was there or not, but the horse couldn’t answer correctly if the person who posed the question didn’t know the answer.
A lesser person might have thought Hans was clairvoyant but Pfungst had a different idea. He looked again and realized that Hans also lost his skills when he was blindfolded.
This helped Pfungst unravel the mystery: what was astonishing the crowds was a matter of unconscious cueing.
In other words, what Hans was really good at was reading body language. When someone asked something along the lines of, “What’s two times two?” they would look at Hans and nod and smile as he counted. When Hans got to four, they’d tense and hold their breath. Hans knew that was the cue to stop tapping.
What was interesting was that nobody realized what was going on, not even Von Osten. He was genuinely astonished and what was more, he’d never sold entry tickets either, another sign of his honest surprise.
So what does it tell us pet trainers? When you’re helping your pet learn tricks, integrate body language cues into your system. Nods or hand movements are easiest to see. Most of all, enjoy yourself and have fun!