What would you say about a dog that could identify trees, could match cars with their correct owners and find cars based on their license plate numbers?
Sounds like a trick, right?
That’s only the beginning of what Jim the Wonder Dog, a Llewellin setter who lived in the 1920s and ’30s in Marshall, Mo., could do. And none of it was a trick, at least as far as anyone (including scientists, veterinarians and other skeptics) could ever tell or explain.
Jim identified more than 1,000 vehicles in his lifetime. He picked out people based on the clothing they were wearing — a red necktie, blue dress, white gloves, yellow hat . . . He responded to commands in languages that his owner didn’t know, even Morse Code.
In 1936, Jim correctly predicted which team would win the World Series. He also picked Franklin D. Roosevelt as winner of the 1936 presidential election and predicted the winners of seven consecutive Kentucky Derbies.
So who was this dog? Where did he come from, and how was he able to do all of those things?
Children’s author Carolyn Mueller tells Jim’s story in this year’s Reading Across Missouri serial story, “Jim the Wonder Dog,” that will begin in The Missourian next weekend, Jan. 21-22.
There are eight chapters in the story, which begins with how Jim was born in Mississippi and made his way to Missouri to be a hunting dog for Sam Van Arsdale. One chapter will appear in the Weekend Missourian from Jan. 21-22 through March 11-12.
Mueller, who has written previous serial stories that have appeared in The Missourian and been a featured author at The Missourian’s annual Family Reading Night event for her book, “Lily, a True Story of Courage and the Joplin Tornado,” also works as a carnivore keeper at the Saint Louis Zoo.
She works with the big cats, cheetahs, bears, hyenas and other meat-eating animals. But she is most-definitely a dog person, too. So when Dawn Kitchell, educational services director for the Missouri Press Association, approached her about writing a serial story about Jim the Wonder Dog, Mueller was intrigued.
She had heard of Jim, but she didn’t know much about his story. And the animal trainer in her was curious based on the little that she did know.
Modern-Day Skeptic Is Won Over
Mueller’s research on Jim began with a visit to the Jim the Wonder Dog Museum in Marshall, a small town located between Columbia and Kansas City, a little north of Interstate 70.
She met with the Friends of Jim the Wonder Dog, read the book about Jim, as well as articles about him. She also visited the AKC Museum of the Dog in St. Louis, which has a section devoted to Jim the Wonder Dog and spoke to one of the curators there who had written an article on Jim.
Mueller admits Jim’s story sounds fake at first, like a gimmick or a trick. She was as skeptical as anyone, at first.
“I was definitely coming at it with an animal training background and a scientific background from my work at the Zoo, so I was skeptical of it. I was looking for the Clever Hans angle the entire time I was doing the research,” she said, referring to the horse in the early 20th century that was famous for being able to do math, only to find out that the horse was picking up on subtle clues from its owner.
“So I was looking for how this dog was getting cued to do these things, how the dog was being reinforced,” said Mueller. “But as I got into the research, and they were testing him for the Clever Hans effect by asking him questions in Morse Code or in languages that his owner didn’t know or writing things on paper and then, in the end, when he was kind of predicting the future, that’s when I threw up my hands and thought, I don’t know what’s going on here. I don’t know if we’ll ever know, just enjoy the story of Jim.”
“When you read the book on Jim, you think it can’t be true, but it was reported in newspapers at the time and everyone was trying to figure him out. Who knows how he did it, but there’s no question that he was amazing in what he could do,” she said.
Lesson in Animal Cognition Too
The story of “Jim the Wonder Dog” was fun to research and write, but Mueller wanted to do more with it than just entertain.
“I didn’t want it just to be a story of this cool dog. I wanted it for kids to be a learning experience, not just about Jim, but animal cognition as a whole,” said Mueller. “I wanted to incorporate Clever Hans, Alex the Parrot, Koko the Gorilla, and all these famous case studies for animal cognition.”
She did that by adding brief sidebars to a few of the chapters that tell who Hans, Alex and Koko were and why they were famous. Their stories also help to reinforce what made Jim so special.
“Scientists will always be skeptical of animal intelligence, so they are always going to want to test these things, and some things are just hard to test,” said Mueller.
“One of the most fascinating parts of Jim’s story for me was when they took him to Mizzou and had the veterinary scientists test him and, again, this is the 1930s, but these were scientists, and they couldn’t crack it either,” she said.
“Trying to figure out animal cognition is a puzzle that scientists are constantly working on,” Mueller added. “The serial story explores that topic, so I think it will be interesting for kids to think about how we know what we know, we’re different from other creatures in that way.”
Partnership With Marshall Tourism
Reading Across Missouri, a feature made available by the Missouri Press Association to newspapers all across the state, marks its 13th year in 2017 with “Jim the Wonder Dog.” Back in 2005, the first Reading Across Missouri project told the story of Missouri’s other famous dog, Old Drum, whose death was the subject of a Missouri Supreme Court case and whose eulogy inspired the description of dogs as “man’s best friend.”
Animal stories are always very popular with newspaper readers, but dog stories are especially popular, said Kitchell, who also serves as the director of The Missourian’s educational program, Missourian In Education. So a couple of years ago when Doug Crews, then-executive director for Missouri Press, suggested she put together a serial story on Jim, she knew it was a good idea.
Then when she met a member of Friends of Jim the Wonder Dog at an MPA event and they began talking about Jim, the woman promised to send Kitchell more information on Jim to help her get the story started.
That developed into a partnership with the Marshall Tourism Commission. It’s the first time in 13 years that the Reading Across Missouri story has a sponsor.
“They really are passionate about Jim the Wonder Dog, and it’s fun working with people who are so enthusiastic about keeping a piece of history alive,” said Kitchell. “ . . . And it’s such a neat Missouri story.”
Teacher Guide Includes Enrichment Activities
Kitchell said the goal of the Reading Across Missouri project is “to get kids inside their community newspapers reading and learning to start the new year.” More than 60 Missouri newspapers have already signed up to publish “Jim the Wonder Dog.” Locally, the story will appear in both The Missourian and The Warren County Record.
The story also is available to newspapers across the country through the National Newspaper Association Foundation — another Missouri Press partner.
The story is written for children, but readers of all ages enjoy these stories, Kitchell said, and she is confident that will be the case again. Jim’s story has fascinated people across the country for more than 90 years.
For teachers who participate in the Missourian In Education program and have newspapers delivered to their classrooms each week to use in lessons, there is a companion teacher guide written by local educator Jennifer Wirthwein. Wirthwein, the 2006 Missourian In Education Teacher of the Year, is a longtime curriculum writer for Missouri Press and the St. Louis American newspaper.
The teacher guide features activities for each chapter, along with enrichment activities and reading suggestions by the author. Each week’s chapter published in the newspaper also will feature an activity connecting the story to The Missourian.
“Jim the Wonder Dog” is the fourth serial story for Missouri newspapers written by Mueller. In January of 2016, The Missourian published “Night at the Capitol” by Mueller, and her serials “Lily’s Story” and “The Gashouse Gang” were both published as picture books after appearing in The Missourian and other newspapers nationwide.
“Jim the Wonder Dog” is the second Reading Across Missouri serialized story illustrated by St. Louis artist Chris Grant.