Attack of the Nazi Talking Dogs!

Heel Hitler! Did the Nazis really intend to create an army of talking dogs? (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2012)

At least one of them, according to reports, when asked "Who is Adolf Hitler?" would reply "'Mein Führer!"

Even so, were the Nazis, as some accounts claimed, really building an army of intelligent, talking dogs to defend the Third Reich? Where did this story come from and how much of it is actually true?

The legend of the talking Nazi attack dogs isn't the only strange tale to surface after World War II. Various rumors have appeared over the years suggesting the Nazis engaged in some outlandish weapons research creating some unbelievably advanced technology. There was a report, for example, that the Germans had built flying saucers capable of supersonic flight. Another rumor tells us that they had a secret underground base in the Antarctic. A different account claims that they actually invented the atom bomb and tested it long before the Allies created this weapon of mass destruction. (Part of the rumor was that after the German surrender the United States captured two of the devices and used them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki)

Many of these tall tales do have a seed of truth in them, however. The Germans did design some disc-shaped aircraft, though none could fly faster than sound. They did have an atomic research program, but they never put the resources into it needed to successfully make an A- bomb.

And of course they did actually build some advanced weapons that shocked their enemies: supersonic rockets that would drop soundlessly on London, automated cruise missiles that could fly the English Channel, and jet fighters that could zoom rings around Allied aircraft. So why not intelligent, talking attack dogs?

Hitler with one of his two dogs.

The Hundesprechschule Asra

The story starts a decade before the war. In 1930 the Hundesprechschule Asra was founded by Margarethe Schmidt in a large house just outside the town of Leutenberg, Gemany. The name means "Asra talking school for dogs." Asra herself was a very smart Great Dane that was the mother of five of the six dogs in the school. (Apparently at one point there was also a cat on the roster, too). The Hundesprechschule wasn't as much of a school, as it was a trained animal show. Schmidt and her mother took the dogs around to different venues where they would perform. According to one child who saw the show in 1944, the animals could tell the time, describe people and correct misspellings. Though the dogs attempted to vocalize human words, they were apparently more successful with communicating by using a coded system of barks or ringing an electric bell a number of times to get their messages across.

The school provided Schmidt and her mother with some much-needed income. According to Max Müller, a veterinarian who had visited the school in 1942, Schmidt had contacted Hitler about using her dogs to entertain members of the German Army and he had accepted the offer. It isn't clear, however, if any of these performances actually took place. We do know that Hitler was a dog lover (he had two German shepherds - Bondi and Bella) and it was a core Nazi belief that there should be a strong bond between man and nature.

Nazis and Animal Protection

In fact, one of the odder quirks of the Nazi regime was its tough animal protection policies. As soon as the party came into power in 1933, it passed a law so that mistreating your pet could get you two years in the slammer. They also banned the forced feeding of ducks to produce foie gras (something the French still struggling over). Restrictions were likewise put into place so that any animals slaughtered for food were required to be put to death humanely. (Apparently the Third Reich was particularly concerned about the fate of lobsters in some of Berlin's finer restaurants)

Hitler himself was pictured to the German public as an avid animal lover. He didn't think much of hunting (which he termed to be "murder") and was rumored to be an off again, on again, vegetarian.

All this, of course, came from a group of people that during WW II would order the demise of at least six million human beings in death camps. The Nazis seemed much more concerned with the welfare of pets than people.

Philosophic Dogs

Rolf, an Airedale terrier that dabbled in mathematics, theology and philosophy.

The German interest in animal intelligence goes back long before the Nazis, however. In the early 1900's, Don the Speaking Dog became a sensation in the small German town of Theerhutte. In 1905, at the tender age of six months, Don was apparently begging for scraps under the family dinner table when he was heard to say "Haben! Haben!" (which in German is "Want! Want!"). He soon expanded his vocabulary to include "kuchen" (cakes - a favorite food) and "ja" for yes and "nein" for no. It was said that he could even put together rudimentary sentences like "Hunger, want cakes." According to a newspaper article the dog had nice clear diction. "The tone was not a bark or growl, but distinct speech," it said. Don made quite a bit of money for his master by performing in different venues around the area.

Another dog that influenced German thinking on animal intelligence was Rolf, an Airedale terrier. Paula Moekel of Mannheim owned the animal and she claimed that he could communicate by tapping out letters with his paws. He was even smart enough to assign the highest number of taps to the least used letters. According to Moekel, Rolf was into poetry, mathematics, theology and philosophy. He even communicated in languages other than German.

She also claimed that the dog had a sense of humor and once asked a visiting noblewoman if she could wag her tail. Perhaps what was most endearing to the German public, however, was that Rolf said he wanted to join the army because he hated the French.

One of the people impressed by these canine geniuses was Karl Krall. Krall was an eccentric jeweler who founded a research institute outside Munich in the early 1900's to study the intelligence of animals. There they conducted various experiments including one on the possibility of telepathy between humans and poodles. ( A surviving photo shows both man and beast with their head inside steel helmets - apparently an attempt to measure the mental radiation between the two minds) Krall also believed that horses could show great intelligence and owned one named Muhamed that supposedly could calculate the cubed roots of numbers.

Karl Kall (on the far right) tries to measure the telepathic energy traveling between man and poodle.

But did all this interest in animal intelligence actually turn into a real Nazi funded program to develop smart dogs for military purposes?

Bondeson's Book Revives Interest

In 2011, Jan Bondeson, a Swedish-born rheumatologist, scientist and author, wrote a book called Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities. In it Bondeson singled out the Hundesprechschule Asra as an example of Nazi-sponsored research into canine/human communications. "Why, in a Germany where all money went toward the war effort, could such bizarre projects go ahead, if not supported by the Nazi regime?" he asked. Bondeson, based on his research, believed that Hitler had ordered the SS to investigate the possibility of the training of the animals. He thought that they were probably intended to work with the SS or be used as guard dogs in concentration camps.

However, relatives of the Hundesprechschule's headmistress deny that she received support from the government. According to her nephew, Schmidt complained about difficulty in getting food for her dogs during the war because she was told she was not doing any "scientifically notable" training.

Even Bondeson admits that if there was any attempt to make a super dog for the war effort, nothing came of it. He stated that despite much effort "there is no evidence it [the work] ever actually came to fruition and that the SS were walking around with talking dogs."

Why weren't the Nazis able to get a talking canine corps out of these mutts? Well, first of all, their vocal mechanisms weren't really optimal for producing human speech, but the more important factor was that their high-intelligence was simply an illusion. An instance of overly-eager animals trying to please their masters.

Clever Hans

Clever Hans performs for an audience.

The most obvious example of this kind of thing was the case of Clever Hans. Hans was a horse owned by Wilhelm von Osten, an amateur horse trainer, who lived in Germany before the war. Von Osten claimed the stallion was smart enough to count, do math and other intellectual tasks. The horse and von Osten traveled around giving shows and demonstrations. A typical question von Osten would ask Hans might be "what is three times three?" The horse would then use his hoof to tap out the number nine.

Psychologist Oskar Pfungst carefully observed the horse and trainer in action and realized that von Osten was making subtle changes to his posture as Hans reached the number of taps that would be the correct answer. Though von Osten was unaware of what he was doing, the horse could sense his expectation as he tapped the number out, and then his release of tension when the correct value had been reached. Pfungst was able to prove this by having von Osten ask questions to which he himself did not know the correct answer. In these situations it was likely that the horse would get it wrong.

Pfungst also took a look at Don the Speaking Dog. With his phonograph, Pfungst recorded the animal supposedly talking , then played it back for listeners who were not at the live performance. They could not make out what the dog was saying. Without the power of suggestion provided by the context of the show, the dog's noises were just growls and woofs.

Nazi scientists might have believed differently, however. As Bondeson put it in an interview with the BBC, "I'm sure that the Nazi generation of animal psychologists genuinely thought they'd tapped into a hidden innate intelligence within many animals. . . . It's very easy but entirely wrong to mock their findings, as the film footage appears extremely compelling. Dogs in particular have an innate need to please their pack leader, and will go to almost any lengths to achieve this…"

A new recruit?

The limits of animal intelligence and their ability to use language are issues still hotly debated by scientists even today. Many researchers have tried to teach sign language to chimps and gorillas with some success, but critics argue that while the animals may understand the meaning of the signs at some basic level, they are unable to actually employ them as a language with proper syntax. They maintain that what is being seen is simply conditioning similar to what Clever Hans was doing back at the beginning of the 20th century. Animal researchers might disagree with this, but even the most optimistic of them wouldn't contend that any animal can figure cubed roots or ponder philosophy.

So it appears that even if the Nazi scientists had tried to create an army of talking dogs, their efforts were in vain. A battalion of German talking dogs was just one more legend from the Nazi lore of World War II.

A Partial Bibliography

Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities by Jan Bondeson, Cornell University Press 2011.

The School to Teach Nazi War Dogs to Speak by Stanley Coren, Ph.D,

Clever Hans phenomenon, The Skeptics Dictionary, Author

Jan Bondeson frowns on 'Nazi superdog' claims, BBC Mobile,

Copyright 2012 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.


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