Jim the Wonder Dog caused quite a sensation in Missouri in the 1930s. He was a Llewellyn setter and was a very impressive bird dog, known for the number of birds he could spot and retrieve. But that wasn’t all.
When he was three years old, his owner discovered that Jim could respond to commands as if he spoke English—and other languages, too. The dog correctly identified types of trees, colors of clothing or cars, knew people’s professions, and eventually, his owner Sam Van Arsdale learned Jim could predict the future. His achievements led to fame.
Some observers thought his owner was running a scam, but the eyewitness accounts from people in many communities all document one thing: Jim may simply have been one-of-kind.
Here’s the story:
Jim was the Runt of the Litter
Jim was one of seven puppies born in Louisiana in 1925 to champion Llewellyn setters. (These black-and-white medium-sized dogs are known as stellar bird dogs.) Because the litter came from excellent stock, men in nearby communities quickly put money down on the bigger puppies. When only the runt was left, one of Sam Van Arsdale’s friends thought it would be a great joke to present Van Arsdale—the best hunter in the region– with the runt.
Sam Van Arsdale figured the puppy would grow and could be a hunter, so when Jim was a little older, he dropped him off at Ira Irvin’s home in West Plains, Missouri. Irvin was the fellow who trained all Van Arsdale’s hunting dogs.
When Van Arsdale picked Jim up from the Irvins’ home, the report was not good. It seemed Jim simply lay in the shade and watched the trainer work with the other dogs.
Van Arsdale later told a reporter: “During his first six months he was sober and quiet as an old house dog. Even the professional trainer could not accomplish anything with him.”
Van Arsdale considered giving the dog away, but Jim was a sweet dog. He decided he would take him out for a test run despite what the trainer told him.
As he and Jim walked along, Jim detected a covey of quail and came to a perfect point. Van Arsdale took his shot when he could, brought down a bird, and gave the “retrieve” command. Jim handled everything as if he had been a star student in the trainer’s class.
Van Arsdale loved hunting and was known to travel to different states to hunt. Jim became his constant companion, and over the course of their trips, Jim retrieved more than 5000 birds. (Then Sam quit counting.) Both Missouri Life and Missouri Conservationist magazines deemed Jim the “Hunting Dog of the Century.”
When Jim was about three years old, Van Arsdale was quite surprised to discover that his dog understood other things. The story goes that Sam and Jim were out hunting, and the sun was hot. Van Arsdale said, “We should rest a bit under a hickory tree.” To his amazement, Jim went directly to a hickory tree to lie down.
Van Arsdale felt it was just dumb luck—that the hickory tree was the logical one to sit beneath. He tested Jim again by asking that he pick out an oak tree, then a cedar tree, and finally a tree stump. In each case, Jim carried out the command.
Testing His Talent
Van Arsdale was surprised by Jim’s ability. When they were in town, he began asking Jim other things. “Show me a red car.” “Show me a lady in a blue dress.”
By this time, Sam Van Arsdale and his wife lived in Marshall, Missouri where Sam ran the first of what would be a small chain of hotels. (At some point, the hotel acquired the name the “Ruff Hotel.”)
When Sam and Jim were around the hotel, a crowd would gather to see what Jim could do. Sam would generally comply by asking Jim to do certain tasks. “Find the lady with the baby,” or “show me a man with a mustache.”
Over time, Sam began asking complex questions: “If someone here is sick, where should he go?” (Jim would go over and nudge the leg of the town doctor if he was in the crowd.)
Or a truly baffling one was when Van Arsdale asked, “What made Henry Ford rich?” Jim would then locate a Ford car.
The dog could identify cars with specific license plate numbers, and he could even spell. The Moberly Monitor-Index (February 14, 1935) reports that when Jim was told: “Find a man with a c-a-n-e,” he did so.
Responded to Others
Giving added credibility to Jim’s powers was the fact that he responded to commands called out by people in the audience. Some called out in other languages—including Spanish, Italian, German and Greek—thinking that would certainly confuse the dog. It didn’t, and Van Arsdale himself said that he did not speak anything but English.
Jim and Van Arsdale were invited to many communities around Missouri and in states farther west. These appearances attracted the public as well as the press, so there were many eyes to document Jim’s performances. Those who came to see the dog also kept careful watch on Van Arsdale to be sure he wasn’t signaling Jim in some way. No one could document that there was anything other than master-dog love between the two.
Predicting the Future
The people who knew Jim decided that indeed, Jim understood human language and was very smart.
Then someone thought: What could Jim tell about the future?
Early questions were the garden variety ones: “Will our baby be a boy or a girl?” (Van Arsdale wrote options on pieces of paper so Jim could select one.)
But then the questions became more complex: “Who will win the World Series?”
And in 1936, “Who will be our next president?”
The Kentucky Derby
Starting in 1930, Sam Van Arsdale began asking Jim to predict the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
As with the World Series game or the contest between Franklin Roosevelt and Alf Landon, Van Arsdale wrote on slips of paper the applicable names of horses expected to run that year. The papers were then spread in front of Jim and the question was asked: “Which horse will win the Kentucky Derby this year?”
Jim studied them (probably sniffing each one) and then placed his paw on a particular piece of paper. That paper was slipped into an envelope and put in a safe.
For seven years this process was repeated. Each year when the envelope in the safe was opened, Jim’s prediction was correct. No one could explain it.
Jim’s fame was growing, but when he was featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not column, business offers poured in. Movie companies, dog food manufacturers, and bookies all knew they could benefit from this dog. Sam Van Arsdale was offered a lot of money from various sources that wanted access to Jim.
But Van Arsdale felt strongly that the dog was special, and his ability was nothing that should be sold. He wanted to simply keep Jim as part of the family.
That said, Sam was as perplexed as everyone else as to how Jim knew what was being said. He began to look around for someone who might be able to tell him.
Wonder Dog Visits a University
In 1931, Van Arsdale got in touch with Dr. A.J. Durant (1886-1980). Dr. Durant was a well-known veterinarian who was head of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri.
Van Arsdale explained why he wanted to bring his dog in to be examined, and Durant was intrigued. He fully expected that he and his staff would be able to reveal a hoax.
Van Arsdale invited another veterinarian, Dr. Sherman Dickinson and two psychiatrists from Washington University to be in attendance on the day Jim came in. Other staff members and his students were also able to observe.
First, Dr. Durant conducted a thorough physical examination. He noted that Jim was much like any other Llewellyn setter with a few variations—Jim had a wider than normal span across his brow, a greater distance from the brow to the top of his head, and his eyes were unusually large.
After the examination, the doctors, students, and invited audience members gathered in the courtyard outside the veterinary school. Everyone would be permitted to make requests of Jim. A Paramount News crew was also given permission to film the event.
The doctors tossed commands at Jim (to locate people with certain characteristics, to point out various cars, etc.), which included commands in several different languages. They also requested that Sam Van Arsdale sit in view of the audience and remain perfectly still—they even asked that he try to avoid eye movement—all in order to ascertain whether Jim received signals or clues.
But nothing transpired between man and dog, and after each command, Jim simply returned to Van Arsdale’s feet where he lay down.
As for his success—it was outstanding. The only mission he failed to accomplish was an instruction to locate a boy whose hair had just been permanently waved. The poor young man was mortified, and he left the group before Jim could identify him.
Dr. Durant and the other professors all stepped into a meeting room to discuss their observations. Ultimately, Dr. Durant came out and announced their conclusion: that Jim “possessed an occult power that might never come again to a dog in many generations.”
The Last Hunting Trip
In March of 1937 when Jim was 12, Van Arsdale left the house, calling to Jim that they were going hunting. Jim woke from his nap and got into the car. When Van Arsdale reached the wooded area near the lake, he stopped the car and opened the door. Jim jumped out and ran just a short distance, then collapsed.
Sam Van Arsdale scooped him up, put him back in the car, and drove quickly to the Sedalia Animal Hospital, but Jim could not be saved.
Saying Good-bye to Jim
The Van Arsdales agreed that Jim was very much a part of the family, and they wanted him buried with them.
They owned a family plot in the Ridge Park Cemetery in Marshall, Missouri. But when they asked the administrator of the cemetery, it was explained that no animal could be buried within the grounds of the cemetery. (This is true of many cemeteries.)
A farmer with land that abutted the cemetery heard about Van Arsdale’s request. He suggested that the Van Arsdales bury Jim on his land, right next to the cemetery. The Van Arsdales took him up on it.
Ultimately, the family—and Jim—had the last laugh. As the cemetery filled up there was need for expansion. The land owned by the farmer was purchased to provide more burial sites, bringing Jim’s grave within the cemetery walls.
Even today, decades after Jim’s death, the cemetery caretaker reports that Jim’s grave is visited frequently. People leave coins and flowers for him.
The Community Remembers
The community still has fond memories of Jim. At one point, the town slogan was “Smart dog, Good people.” As people talked, they decided they wanted a special way to remember Jim.
In the 1990s, the land where the Ruff Hotel stood was vacant. The community obtained a parcel of the vacant land, and a garden was created to honor Jim. There are benches, walkways, plantings, and of course, a sculpture of Jim himself. People visit regularly, and it’s a popular spot for dog training classes.
Jim would have been pleased with the place now known as “Jim the Wonder Dog Memorial Park.”
How to Explain Jim?
We’re all left wondering how Jim had the abilities he did. The stories truly stretch credibility. But I’ve seen articles from many newspapers written by people who witnessed Jim perform his feats at different times in different locations. They are all consistent.
One of the most compelling articles was written by Missouri resident Henry N. Ferguson. Ferguson was just a boy in Warsaw, Missouri, when he saw that a crowd gathered on a nearby street, and he went over to see why. Within the circle was Sam Van Arsdale and Jim doing what they did best—amusing the community.
The college Henry Ferguson attended was in Marshall, Missouri, the same town where Jim was living at the time. Ferguson observed Jim’s abilities once again. The memory of a teenager might be questioned, but the memory of a man who witnessed the same dog again adds credibility.
In my mind, we are left with Dr. Durant’s conclusion: Jim was a one-of-a-kind dog. We will never know how he understood so much.
I am indebted to Eddie James for telling me about Jim. Eddie is also the fellow who has watched over Brownie, the Town Dog of Daytona Beach—another wonderful story about a dog in a loving community.
If you liked Jim’s story, please read the story about Drum, the other famous dog from Missouri. Drum is the reason we have the expression “a dog is a man’s best friend.”
And finally, there is one more story about a very smart German Shepherd. He lived in Michigan, and until the Depression, his owner brought him for frequent testing to Columbia University in New York City. He, too, was smarter than most canines.