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Clever Canines

Germany's educated dogs

Clever Dogs - rolf

Rolf is seen here counting out his thoughts with his devoted mistress Frau Moekel. He was better at sums than her own children and was a noted philosopher.


One of the leading German intellectuals of the early 1900s was Rolf, a resident of Mannheim. With his superior intelligence, he successfully dabbled in mathematics, ethics, religion and philosophy. He speculated about the Urseele, the original soul of God, and his stipulation that every animal should be defined as a part of this abstract concept attracted much notice from other German philosophers. An avid reader and a talented poet, Rolf kept up a large correspondence with kindred spirits all over Europe.

In her biography of Rolf, his friend and secretary Frau Paula Moekel heaped praise on his character: the great thinker was generous, unselfish and compassionate, although his life had not been devoid of sorr­ows. Rolf had married a giddy and thoughtless young wife, who was not his intellectual equal, mastering only basic mathematics and entirely lacking interest in philosophy. These differences did not prevent them from having 10 children, but several of them died young due to various calamities. After his young son Roland had been run over, Rolf swore revenge against the careless motorist; whether he succeeded in tracking down the driver is unfortunately not recorded. Rolf did not lack violent tendencies: one of his favourite pastimes, albeit frowned upon by the squeamish Frau Moekel, was hunting rats. Once, when having a dispute with another intellectual, Rolf lost his temper and seriously injured his oppon­ent in a fight.

After the outbreak of the Great War, Rolf declared that the conflict was legitimate, since in his opinion, the French had invaded sacred German soil. As the war went on, the great thinker gradually changed his mind: he expressed pacifist, and even proto-feminist, opinions, declaring that if women had been left in charge, Europe’s great nations would never have gone to war. After Rolf’s death from pneumonia, in 1919, his autobiography and a selection from his lett­ers were published posthumously.

Rolf’s life’s work has not stood the test of time as well as that of his contemporaries Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. Still, his accomplishments were far from negligible – particularly since Rolf was a dog, an Airedale terrier to be precise.

Frau Paula Moekel was the invalid wife of a wealthy Mannheim solicitor. In 1911, she had obtained from the local animal shelter a young Airedale terrier named Rolf, who soon displayed some remarkable gifts.

It had all started, Frau Moekel claimed, when she was trying to teach one of her daughters simple arithmetic. Since the little girl was quite uneducable, Frau Moekel called Rolf over, telling her daughter that she was sure even Rolf could tell what 2 + 2 was. The dog sauntered up and struck her hand four times with his paw!

Frau Moekel tried other mathematical problems, only to find that Rolf was equally proficient in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. She realised that by simply watching the Moekel children’s lessons in mathematics, this amazing dog had learnt much more than them! The next thing was to teach him to spell. Frau Moekel let Rolf develop his own alphabet, by speaking out the letters and allowing the dog to assign them a certain number of taps with his paw. It is weird, and certainly indicative of a superior intellect, that the less common letters of the alphabet were the ones demanding the highest number of taps; either Rolf or someone else seems to have been concerned that it should not take him all day to tap out his messages. There were abbreviations for “Yes”, “No”, “Piddle”, “Tired”, “Bed” and other words Rolf thought he might find useful.

Once he had his alphabet, there was no stopping Rolf. His vocabulary steadily increased, he learnt grammar, and he form­ulated sentences. He learnt to read, and to answer questions. When asked to express his feelings about cats, Rolf tapped out “Lol imr hd dsorn wn sid kdsl frleigt son wgn graln”. Fortunately, Frau Moekel knew how to translate this into proper German. Firstly, Rolf referred to himself as ‘Lol’; secondly, he used ‘phonetic’ spelling, tapp­ing out the words as they sounded when spoken; thirdly, he sometimes left words out; fourthly, he often used words from the local Pfalz dialect. What the super-intelligent dog meant was of course “Rolf immer hat Zorn wenn [er] sicht Katzel, vielleicht wegen [der] Krallen” (Rolf is always angry when he sees cats, perhaps because of the claws). In fact, the only member of the feline tribe Rolf could abide was Frau Moekel’s little cat Daisy, with whom he had grown up. The reader will not be surprised to learn that Daisy was a super-intelligent cat, albeit only capable of doing simple sums, and tapping out a word or two when she felt like it.

One of the first scientists to investigate Rolf was Dr William McKenzie, a psycho­logist active in Genua (Genoa). When he gave his carte de visite to Rolf to read, the dog impressed him by tapping out “Magnzi” and “Gnua”. When asked what he liked best, Rolf replied “Laks sn” – of course meaning “Lachs essen” (to eat salmon). His second favourite occupation was reading illustrated books. Showing not only amazing intelligence, but also colour vision superior to what scientists today attribute to dogs, he correctly identified some multi-coloured geometrical shapes. He preferred women to men, because he liked their long hair and elegant gowns. Autumn he defined as “Time when there are apples” and a crocodile was an “Odd beast”. Finally, Dr McKenzie tried to trick Rolf, by asking him which was the heaviest, a pound of lead or a pound of feathers; after thinking hard, the educated dog replied “Gein!” – “Neither!”

Rolf had a mind of his own. Once, when he had been stubborn during his exercises, Frau Moekel called him a “Dummkopf” [fool]. “You are one too, Mother!” the dog was quick to retort. Another time, when Frau Moekel had been sitting up late at night writing letters, he angrily tapped out “Go to bed! Rolf wants the room to be dark!” He refused to do any schoolwork on Sundays – perhaps from reverence towards the Almighty, Frau Moekel speculated. Like a proper Airedale terrier, Rolf liked hunting rats, sometimes even digging them out of their holes and lairs in the Moekels’ large garden. Frau Moekel very much disapproved of these activities. She reminded Rolf of his own speculation that every animal, even a rat, was a part of the Urseele, but the dog would not listen to her.

Rolf usually liked to have visitors, but sometimes he could be more than a match for them. He did not like to be put on show, and when a journalist once asked him to extract some cube roots, Rolf replied: “Tell him to extract them himself.” When informed that his visitor had come all the way from Berlin, the haughty dog dismissed him with the words “Then let him go back to Berlin!” Nor did Rolf appreciate a visit from a noble lady, Frau von Schweigenbarth; he was disrespectful throughout their conversation, even likening her to a jackass. To the noblewoman’s astonishment, the headstrong dog insisted on asking her questions rather than the other way around. When asked what 5 + 9 was, she first answered “13” and the dog tapped out “Wrong!” She next gave the correct answer, but the dog again tapped out “Wrong!” Both Frau Moekel and the visitor were flabbergasted, but Rolf tapped out “I was only teasing you!” When Frau von Schweigenbarth asked Rolf if there was anything else the dog would like her to do, the witty Airedale terr­ier responded: “Could you wag your tail?”

Already in 1913, Rolf had some imitators. When one of them, a little dog capable of tapping out messages and doing sums, came to visit the great Rolf, Frau Moekel waited with bated breath to see what they would say to each other. But when the visiting dog instead decided to chase Daisy the cat, the angry Rolf bit him hard; the two canine intellectuals had to be forcibly separated by Frau Moekel and her daughter.

Frau Moekel had several children, all of whom were very fond of Rolf. Sometimes, the super-intelligent dog was kind enough to help them with their schoolwork, particularly mathematics, an area in which he excelled.

After Frau Moekel had decided that Rolf should have a family of his own, she purchased a young Airedale terrier bitch named Jela. At first, Rolf was delighted to have a wife, although he sometimes seemed to be ashamed of the foolish Jela, who was unable to progress beyond simple calculations. Once, when she failed to give an answer to “What is 5 + 6?” he struck her on the back eleven times with his paw, to prompt her to give the correct total. The chasm between the couple’s intellects did not prevent Nature from taking its course, and soon Rolf was the proud father of 10 healthy puppies. Jela was not a good mother, however: several of the puppies died in various calamities, and Rolf blamed his wife for not taking care of them properly.

Another of Rolf’s distinguished visitors was Professor HE Ziegler of the University of Stuttgart, one of the lieutenants of Karl Krall’s ‘new animal psychology’ movement. After conducting tests with Rolf, Ziegler became entirely convinced that the dog possessed a superior intellect. At Christmas, he wanted to find out whether Rolf’s excessive learning had impaired his natural instincts. He put a large rat into a box, wrapped it in festive packaging, and presented it to Rolf as a present. As soon as the box was unwrapped, the rat darted out, to the alarm of the Moekel females. Rolf took a huge leap into the air and expertly killed the rat. Prof. Ziegler was very much impressed, but Frau Moekel and her daughters were equally indignant; it had been very wrong of him, the squeamish ladies reasoned, to make the educated dog wantonly take the life of another living creature.

At the outbreak of World War I, Rolf demanded to be allowed to join the Army. Although an Airedale terrier by birth, he disowned the Yorkshire roots of his fore­fathers, instead considering himself a very patriotic German dog. Since Rolf detested the French for having invaded his beloved Vaterland, he wanted to fight them at the frontline. It took all of Frau Moekel’s tact and persistence to moderate his militarist zeal. After the German newspapers had announced the fall of Antwerp in late 1914, the Moekel family was elated: the children marched round the house singing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”, and Rolf foll­owed them, barking and showing his teeth as if he fancied himself to have contributed to this great victory. The canine strategist then excitedly ran up to Frau Moekel and tapped out: “And now for Paris!”

But as the war went on, Germany suff­ered some crushing defeats, prompting Rolf to change his mind. He still wanted to join the Army, but only to become a rescue dog helping wounded soldiers. In late 1915, Rolf’s attitude to the war changed once more; he deplored the immense loss of life on the battle­fields of Europe, and wished that women had ruled the great powers instead of men. He urged Frau Moekel to become a peace negotiator between France and Germany, but this did not happen, since the learned lady herself expired in November 1915. She had made sure that Rolf was taken care of, by her eldest daughter Fräulein Luise Moekel, a talented violinist. Throughout the war years, Rolf was visited regularly by professional or amateur animal psycho­logists; most of them departed convinced that the dog could really commun­icate with them. Rolf survived Frau Moekel by nearly four years, before expiring from pneumonia in late 1919.

Throughout his lifetime, the dog had kept up a large correspondence with people all over Europe, including serious German professors, schoolmasters and clergymen who wrote letters asking for his political opinions. A schoolboy, who complained that his arithmetic was not up to the standards demonstrated by the super-intelligent dog, was invited to come to Mannheim for personal tuition. Another youngster, who complained that his dog Pick was entirely unable to replicate Rolf’s achievements, and that the other family dog, a dachshund, was ill, received the reply: “Greetings! Pick should be sent here, for study! Also dachshund, fetch doctor! Greetings, Rolf.”

Rolf’s favourite correspondent, though, was Karl Krall himself. When he sent Rolf an illustrated pamphlet about vivisection, the dog responded with a passionate appeal against these evil practices. Much of this correspondence, along with dramatic stories from his early life, can be found in Rolf’s posthumously published memoirs.

The Moekels had made sure that Rolf’s surviving ‘children’ were all provided with good homes. His daughter Ilse had been given to a kind, dog-loving clergyman, who was delighted when she began to show signs of her father’s intellect, doing sums and tapping out simple messages. She could be quite stubborn and headstrong, however, having inherited her mother’s giddy character, and also very untruthful. Once, when returning from a country walk, she declared that she had seen a deer with green wings and a snail with four legs!

Henny Kindermann was another dog-loving German lady. Being impressed with Krall’s ‘new animal psychology’, she was of course very keen to obtain one of Rolf’s puppies, and adopted his daughter Lola. Demonstrating an intellect equal to that of her father, the young terrier soon learnt arithmetic, and tapped out words using an alphabet of her own construction. She learnt English, composed letters, and studied music. She was also very good at predicting the weather.

Unfortunately, Lola had inherited some of her mother’s flighty character. One day, she came home “in a state of great depression”, as Henny Kindermann expressed it, and tapped out “My honour is gone!” Fräulein Kindermann understood that she must have enjoyed a short affair with a farmyard dog, who had basely seduced and then left her. She tried to console poor Lola, saying that her broken heart would recover with time, but the pathetic dog responded: “Only when I die!”

But Lola recovered from this tragedy and again began to enjoy life. In time, she ‘married’ another pedigree Airedale terrier and had several ‘children’. One of them was given to the aforementioned Prof. Ziegler, and under his expert tuition, Rolf’s grandchild Awa developed into yet another super-intelligent dog.

By the 1920s, Germany had numerous ‘new animal psychologists’. The hardcore faction, led by Karl Krall himself, believed that dogs and horses were nearly as intelli­gent as human beings; they were capable of abstract thinking, and understanding of relig­ion. Only want of tuition barred these animals from communicating with their owners and developing their minds. With time, Krall’s own notions became even odder: in his research institute outside Munich, he sought to prove that telepathy was possible, not only between human beings, but also between human and dog. One hilarious photograph shows a white-coated individual trying his best to commun­icate with a poodle, with two sinister coves surveying the proceedings through some weird-looking instruments.

Some, like Ziegler and McKenzie, distanced themselves from the more sens­ational elements of Krall’s creed. McKenzie is said to have groaned “Too much! Too much!” when Frau Moekel informed him that Rolf had started writing poetry.

Krall’s death in 1928 was a serious blow to the ‘new animal psychologists’. Not only had he been their leading light, but his deep pockets had financed both their society and their journal. The members clubbed together to keep the journal going, although its quality suffered badly; it contained many depressingly similar accounts of educated dogs trying their best to emulate the great Rolf.

One might have expected the National Socialist regime to put an end to the ‘new animal psychology’, perhaps building a special concentration camp for the educated dogs and their dotty owners. But the Nazis, who had such conspicuous disregard for human rights, felt more strongly about animals. In their murky philosophy, a key concept was “Ganzheit von Leib und Seele”, roughly meaning that there was a strong bond between the human being, nature, and society. Thus, the good Nazi was a friend of animals. In 1933, strict legislation against animal abuse was introduced, and there was much interest in animal welfare. The journal of the German animal defence league – the Reichtierschützblatt – carried some amazing illustrations, one of them depicting Hitler patting a horse on the nose, with the caption “Our Führer, the ideal animal friend.” As a result, ‘new animal psycho­logy’ flourished throughout the 1930s, with recruits from both leading academics and Nazi officials.

By 1945, many of Germany’s great cities had been reduced to rubble, and the ‘new animal psychology’ movement was in a similar state of disarray. In 1954, Henny Kindermann tried to rally the faithful by publishing her second book on educated animals. Its title translates as Can Animals think? Yes, they can! As an appendix, she published a list of 102 educated animals: the earliest was Hans I, the latest a little dog doing sums as late as 1951. Frau Moekel’s Daisy was the only cat on the list. The vast majority of these educated animals were dogs, and no less than 86 of these 102 educated animals hailed from Germany.

Elizabeth Mann Borgese, the daughter of Thomas Mann, was a distinguished expert on maritime law, and also a propagandist for animal rights. After she had settled near Florence in Italy in the 1960s, she became interested in dog-human commun­ication, and decided to teach her English setter Arli to operate a modified electric typewriter with his nose. The dog gradually became more proficient, although for some reason, he adhered to three- or four-letter words. Since he was very fond of motoring, he often wrote “arli go car.” Like Rolf, he also wrote some poetry, a selection of which has been published in a literary magazine, including his masterpiece “bed a ccat”:

cad a baf
bdd af dff
art ad
abd ad arrli
bed a ccat

Although the ‘new animal psychology’ was a spent force, intelligent canines have come to the fore. As recently as 2004, the Border collie Rico made the news as the world’s cleverest dog. He understood more than 200 words, many of them the names of his various toys. In a rigorous study, which eliminated the ‘Clever Hans’ effect, Rico was invited to pick out a named toy among nine others, getting it right 37 times out of 40. In addition, he responded correctly to a new word being introduced, using a canine equivalent to the ‘fast mapping’ mechanism to associate the unfamiliar word with the unfamiliar object situated among the familiar toys. This extraordinary dog remembered the new word he had learnt, again picking out the right toy after several weeks.

In 2008, Rico was rivalled by Betsy, another Border collie with a vocabulary of 340 words. She also knew 15 people by name. When showed a picture or drawing of a certain object, this amazing dog used the two-dimensional image to guide her to the right toy, even if she had never seen either picture or toy before.

Domestic dogs are highly skilled in reading human social and communicative behaviour. Whereas tame wolves proved to be clueless with regard to following human communicative signals to find hidden food, dogs excelled in the same test, even surpassing non-human primates. This raises the possibility that there has been convergent evolution, with dogs and humans developing intricate social-communicative skills to aid their close interaction and cooperation (see FT269:14). After all, over the last 100,000 years, the social environments of dog puppies and human children have become increasingly similar, and this intense cohabitation may well have led to dogs emulating certain skills considered uniquely human, like following complex cues and signals, or reading the humans’ mindset and emotional state.

Dogs are good at tricking other dogs, or even humans, to obtain rewards. They react to unfairness: dogs taking part in an experiment where some, but not all, of the animals are rewarded for correct behaviour, tend to opt out if they consider themselves badly done by. Dogs can communicate with each other through whining and barking, and they can also communicate with humans. The dog’s different barks have distinct patterns of frequency, tonality and pulsing, and are easy to identify. In another study, a dog was trained to use a simple keyboard, with signs for ‘walk’, ‘water’, food’, ‘piddle’, ‘toy’ and ‘petting’. The animal seemed to understand how to operate it, and made intelligent use of its messages to fulfil its various wishes.

While modern research has shown that dogs are much cleverer than people give them credit for, they still have no business writing poetry, learning foreign languages, or speculating about God. There is no doubt that Oskar Pfungst was right, and that the educated horses and dogs were reacting to unconscious cues from their owners to obtain a reward. There was a strong bond between Krall and his horses, between Frau Moekel and Rolf, and between Henny Kindermann and Lola, aiding the development of such cues. Moreover, it is clear that not only Frau Moekel, but also other owners of super-intelligent dogs, interpreted the ‘speech’ of their animals quite freely, using their own imagination and expectations to correct mis-spellings and fill in words the dogs had ‘forgotten’. When Rolf speculated about the Urseele, claiming that each animal had a soul, he echoed a pet theory of Frau Moekel herself. And the episode of Lola’s ‘lost honour’, re-told in such a pathetic manner by Henny Kindermann, tells us more about the psychology of this prim German lady, than about that of her dog.

A clever doctor named Wilhelm Neumann came to see Rolf after Frau Moekel had died. Neumann was accompanied by another doctor, named Ferdinand Lotmar; they both politely introduced themselves to the educated dog, but without Lotmar allowing Luise Moekel to hear his second name. Depressed by the wartime rationing, the educated dog tapped out “Give poor Rolf money to buy sausages!” and the doctors were kind enough to give him some coins. Neumann then asked Rolf to spell out the second name of his colleague, but Rolf just tapped out “Cannot do it” even when the question was repeated. But after Neumann had whispered to Luise Moekel that perhaps the name Lotmar was too difficult for Rolf to spell, the dog spelt it perfectly. The two doctors left the Moekel house, their cunning plan a complete success: Rolf was only able to communicate when Luise Moekel knew the answer! Neumann reckoned that a slight movement of the board Rolf was tapping on constituted the unconscious cue for the dog to stop tapping.

It would be unreasonable to accuse the kind, dog-loving Paula Moekel and Henny Kindermann of deliberately falsifying their conversations with their dogs. They were both honest, reputable people, who refused to gain money by exhibiting their canine charges. It is also important to note that the people involved in the ‘new animal psycho­logy’ were neither foolish nor obviously mentally deranged (with the possible exception of the original prophet himself, Wilhelm von Osten). Karl Krall was a shrewd, self-made businessman; Paula Moekel was an educated, cultured woman; Henny Kindermann a graduate agronomist who wrote several books about other topics; the Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven a talented artist. In the 1935 debate about Kurwenal, Otto Renner tried another line of attack. He made fun of the childless spinsters who treated their dogs as their furry babies, teaching them to speak, read and count. And indeed, according to the list of educated dogs provided by Henny Kinder­mann, 54 out of 68 owners of educated dogs were females. But Renner’s misogynist theory doesn’t hold water, since Paula Moekel had numerous children, at least one of whom was a boy, before she acquired her furry ‘son’ Rolf, who called her ‘Mother’. Henny Kindermann also married, and had at least three sons growing up to adulthood.

So, did Germany’s ‘new animal psycho­logists’ achieve anything positive? Perhaps they made some small contribution to the promotion of animal welfare and rights, but they did so using arguments that were largely erroneous. Founded on pseudoscience, the movement obstructed the proper investigation of animal intelligence and dog-human interactions; it will remain an unfruitful sidetrack in the history of biology, ending with a whimper rather than a woof.

The catalyst for the rise of Germany’s super-intelligent animals was Wilhelm von Osten, a retired schoolmaster residing in Berlin. A well-known local eccentric, von Osten believed that horses were poss­essed of superior intelligence, and set out to demonstrate this in 1890 by training a horse named Hans to count by tapping his hoof. Progress was slow; Hans had only learnt to count to five by his death in 1905, and only after examining many other horses did von Osten find his ideal pupil, which he also named Hans. Hans II proved much more talented than his predecessor. He quickly learned arithmetic, and, by using a system in which each letter of the alphabet corresponded to a number, he also learnt to spell words; thus he could answer questions, tell the date and the value of coins, and recognise people from photographs.

Von Osten held free public performances with his horse, and many people – both scholars and laymen – were convinced that ‘Kluge Hans’ (Clever Hans) really did possess a superior intellect. The horse spelt long words corr­ectly and solved complicated mathematical problems. Hans nodded his muzzle to indicate ‘yes’ and shook his head for ‘no’. Having finished counting out numbers with right-hoofed taps, he gave a single, emphatic tap with his left. Refusing to exhibit his horse for money, or join a circus, von Osten instead craved official recognition for Clever Hans. A commission of 13 zoologists, psychologists and military men was appointed to investigate this extraordinary horse.

One of them, Oskar Pfungst, had a low opinion of the intelli­gence of animals. When he saw Clever Hans perform, Pfungst noticed that the horse was closely watching the person asking the questions, whether it was von Osten himself, or someone else. He deduced that the horse was looking for an unconscious sign from his human partner. When Pfungst challenged the horse with some mathem­atical problems, Hans gave the right answer five out of five times when von Osten knew the answer, but none out of five when this was not the case. Moreover, Pfungst noticed that Hans over-tapped in all five instances, as if he had been waiting for some hidden cue that was not forthcoming. In a later, more ambitious series of experiments, Hans tapped out the right answer in 89 per cent of questions when he could see the experimenter, but only six per cent when he was blinkered.

Pfungst made his fortune out of debunking Clever Hans, writing a book about the case that was later translated into English; the ‘Clever Hans effect’ is still a term regularly used for unconscious cues from the person conducting an experiment.

Poor von Osten was disgraced, and became an object of ridicule. But the old schoolmaster still had one friend – the wealthy merchant and jeweller Karl Krall. After having seen Clever Hans perform, Krall became convinced that the horse possessed near-human intelligence, and – despite a limited knowledge of psychology and zoology – set out to rewrite the history of biology. Krall visited von Osten (who was blaming not Pfungst, but the horse, for his downfall) and explained that he wanted to carry on the work and show the world that the old schoolmaster had been right all along. Krall took over Clever Hans, purchased four more horses, and set up a research establishment of his own in Elberfeld. The Arab stallions Muhammed and Zarif were soon extracting cube roots, the pony Hänschen spelt and counted, and even a blind horse named Berto made some progress in calculations.

Wilhelm von Osten died in 1909, cursing the faithless Clever Hans with his dying breath. The ambitious Krall was now the leader. In his 1912 book Denkende Tiere (“Thinking Animals”), Krall openly challenged the scient­ific establishment. He now knew from his own experience that horses and other higher animals were well nigh as intelligent as human beings, possessing not only consciousness but also a soul. Krall’s ‘Neue Tierpsycho­logie’ (new animal psychology) was widely debated at the time. One favourable reviewer lauded Krall as a second Darwin, whose great work would raise dogs and horses from serfdom; an advers­ary called his book “a foul and shameful blot on German literat­ure”. Still, Krall soon gathered quite a following among kindred spirits in Germany; many of them controversial characters, linked with organised quackery, spiritualism, and the antivivisection movement. In Britain and the United States, where his teachings were widely derided by the academics, he found few allies, and only a smattering of enthusiasts in Switzerland, France and Italy. At an international zoological conference in Monaco in 1913, 20 leading European zoologists signed an official protest against Krall and his activities. As a result, ‘animal psychology’ and ‘new animal psychology’ parted company for good. The wealthy Krall formed his own scientific society, and published his own journal, entitled Tierseele (‘Animal Soul’). To bolster his wild theories, Krall was always on the lookout for other super-intelligent animals – and Frau Paula Moekel and her dog Rolf provided just the kind of support he needed.

There was no shortage of educated dogs in the Third Reich. In Weimar lived the super-intelligent fox terrier, Lumpi, who received visits from the anti-vivisectionist Duchess of Hamilton and the enthusiastic zoologist Ludwig Plate, who declared that Lumpi could understand spoken German, read simple sentences, and answer questions by tapping, just like Rolf; more sceptical scientists disagreed.

The dachshund Kurwenal, another resident of Weimar, was even more remarkable. Prompted by his owner, the Barone­ss von Freytag-Loringhoven, he spoke by barking, using an alphabet going forward from A to L, and backward from Z to M. Thus, ‘A’ and ‘Z’ were one bark, whereas ‘L’ and ‘M’ were 12; at the end of each letter, one or two barks signified whether Kurwenal had started from ‘A’ or from ‘Z’. Kurwenal could read, and he had considerable knowledge of literature, correctly identifying “To be or not to be…” as the work of Shakespeare.

According to his biographer Otto Wulf, Kurwenal had been taught since the age of six months, and presented with his barking alphabet on his second birthday. The opinionated little dog liked pink roses and pretty ladies, and had fantasies about eating large cheeses and big fat cats. He preferred Goethe to Schiller, but also liked reading illustrated zoology books. When asked whether he wanted to become the father of little dachshund-babies one day, his answer was an emphatic “No!”

On Kurwenal’s birthday, he was visited by a troop of 28 uniformed youngsters from the Nazi animal protection organis­ation. When their leader started reading a long congratulatory poem to Kurwenal, the little dog stopped him after a few stanzas, barking out “No more poetry!” To prevent further unpleasantness after this angry rebuff, a kind doctor presented Kurwenal with a large teddy bear as a birthday present, saying: “Now, does this bear not look very nice?” Looking into the bear’s grinning face, the ungrateful little dog replied: “No, he looks horrible!”

In 1935, Kurwenal was investi­gated by Ludwig Plate, earlier a supporter of Krall and his clever horses. Plate was impressed with Kurwenal’s intell­ect, boldly proclaiming that the dachshund could read, count and spell. The physiologist Otto Renner disagreed, and believed that the dog was receiving conscious or unconscious cues from his mistress. In an acrimonious debate, Plate was seconded by Munich zoologist Max Müller, whereas Renner had support from several other scientists.

Unlike Rolf and Lola, who had both been quite attractive dogs, Kurwenal was not a pretty sight. A very fat little dachshund, redd­ish yellow in colour, he barked incessantly (a single word could require 85 barks!) in a hoarse, coughing voice. As he waddled around, greedily eating the titbits the Baroness kept rewarding him with, he himself looked very much like a thick German saus­age with four very short legs. In addition, Plate, who certainly made some very queer deduct­ions for someone supposed to be a distinguished zoologist, asserted that Kurwenal’s private parts had atrophied due to his high level of mental activity!

Once, when Max Müller and the Baroness discussed the possibility of making sausages out of dog meat, as a measure of wartime economy, the ‘saus­age dog’ felt inclined to object that “The Christian religion prohibits killing!” When a pro­fessor of theology asked the dog which religious persuasion he belonged to, Kurwenal politely replied: “The same one as yourself, Sir.” When a sceptical Swiss researcher tried to trick the dog, Kurwenal barked out “I answer no doubters! Go bother the asses instead!” Shortly before his death, in late 1937, Kurwenal stated: “I am not afraid of dying; dogs have souls and they are like the souls of men.” The little dog was buried in the garden of the Weimar town house owned by the Baroness; although the house has been converted to offices, Kurwenal’s gravestone can still be seen there.

There were some very strange experiments going on in wartime Germany concerning dog-human communication. The sinister Professor Müller, who had supported Lumpi and Kurwenal, remained active throughout the war. It is clear from his writings that he was a wholehearted supporter of the Nazi ‘natural philosophy’ and race biology. Another animal psychologist, Werner Fischel, was provided with dogs for his communication experiments by the staff of the Reichführer-SS. In 1943, a certain Frau Schmitt was featured in an article written by Müller for a Nazi magazine. She was the headmistress of Tier-sprachschule ASRA, a school that was supposed to teach large, muscular German mastiffs to communicate with humans. Müller claimed that some of them had already said a few words. At a Nazi study course, a talking dog was once asked, “Who is Adolf Hitler?” and replied: “Mein Führer!”

According to Müller, representatives of the Wehrmacht had received directions from the Führer to satisfy themselves concerning the usefulness of these educated dogs in the field. Were the Nazis trying to develop a breed of super-intelligent canine stormtroopers, capable of communicating with their human masters of the Herrenvolk?

Extracted and adapted from Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, by Jan Bondeson, Amberley Publishing, £20.00.

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Author Biography
Dr Jan Bondeson is a senior lecturer and consultant rheumatologist at the Cardiff University of Medicine, and a frequent FT contributor. Among his books are Queen Victor­ia’s Stalker: The Strange Case of the Boy Jones; Blood on the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme; Animal Freaks: The Strange History of Amazing Animals and Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear.


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