Rural Missouri Magazine

Jim the Wonder Dog
This special setter from Marshall was the canine enigma of the 20th century

by Henry N. Ferguson
Jim the Wonder Dog was the canine enigma of the 20th century. His amazing feats astounded people for most of the dog’s 12 years of life.

Editor’s Note: Rural Missouri first published this amazing story in April 1979. Since then, we have received countless requests for copies of the story. For this reason, we are reprinting the article here in its entirety.

Jim was just a plain black and white setter, but in all the annals of dogdom there has never been anything his equal. Psychology professors from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Missouri in Columbia observed the uncanny things he could do. They shook their heads in wonder and had absolutely no explanation for his behavior. Even his master, Sam Van Arsdale, could offer no clue to his remarkable gift.

Jim earned his reputation during the hectic Depression days of the 1930s; the demonstrations he gave hinted of a power beyond the comprehension of mortal man. So unique were this dog’s talents that he became known throughout the land as Jim, the Wonder Dog.

My introduction to Jim came one warm summer afternoon in the little west-central Missouri town of Warsaw, when I was just a lad. Noticing a crowd gathering around some sort of commotion on Main Street, I drifted over. The attention was focused on Sam and Jim. They had just driven up in Sam’s car and an audience had immediately begun to collect. During the next hour, we were treated to a remarkable and completely puzzling exhibition of the dog’s extraordinary cleverness.

“What would I do,” Sam asked, “if I had a stomachache?” Jim wagged his tail, apparently in sympathy, then trotted over to where Dr. Savage, the town physician, was standing. He nudged the doctor gently. The crowd gasped its astonishment, for this was Jim’s first visit to our town and he had no way of knowing one person from another — no visible way, that is.

Sam patted Jim on the head. “What made Henry Ford rich?” he asked next. The dog walked over and stood looking at a Model-T Ford.

“See if you can find a car,” requested Sam, “with license number 132875.” Jim promptly crossed the street, looked up and down and placed his paws on the running board of the county tax collector’s car. The license corresponded.

Then someone in the crowd spoke a few words in French. Van Arsdale looked puzzled since he did not understand the language. Not so, Jim. He slipped through the crowd to its outer fringe and began nudging an interested spectator. It was our Methodist minister.

Van Arsdale turned to the questioner. “What did you say to Jim?” he asked.

“I asked if there was a Bible in the crowd,” replied the French-speaking spectator.
The pastor had a quizzical look on his face as he reached into an inside coat pocket and produced a small Testament.

Jim and his master, Sam Van Arsdale, get ready for a hunt. As with all his deeds, Jim’s prowess at hunting was legendary. More than 5,000 birds were reported to be shot over him.

I learned later that Jim could understand and would carry out orders given to him in Greek, German, Spanish or any other tongue, even though his master could not speak a foreign language and did not understand the question.

Jim accepted the entire proceedings calmly. He did not seek praise for his efforts but ventured out on each mission with a confident air. When it was accomplished, he would return to sit quietly at his master’s feet until ordered out again.

Later Van Arsdale and Jim walked over to the drug store. The owner asked Van Arsdale if Jim could find the soda fountain. Van Arsdale ignored the question and went on talking. Five minutes later, he pointed to the druggist and asked Jim: “What was this man talking about?” Jim put his paws on the fountain.

Jim was born in Louisiana, on March 10, 1925, one of a litter of seven pups. When he was a couple of months old, he was sold to Van Arsdale, who lived in West Plains.

Sam placed the young dog in a kennel where he was to be trained as a hunting dog. Jim required little training. He seemed to know instinctively where the quail were and how to make a perfect point.

When Jim was 3, Van Arsdale moved to Sedalia where he bought a hotel. One warm fall day when the two were out in the fields hunting, Van Arsdale said, “Let’s sit in the shade of that hickory tree and rest.” Jim trotted over to a hickory tree and sat down.

Bemused, Van Arsdale told Jim to show him an oak tree. Jim did. In quick succession then, at his master’s suggestion, he found a walnut tree, a cedar, an ordinary stump and even a hazel bush. It was the first real inkling that Jim was something special.

Not long after this, Van Arsdale and his family moved to Marshall where he had acquired another hotel. That fall, I became a student at Missouri Valley College in Marshall and was able to keep up with Jim’s remarkable career.

I will never forget the afternoon that Jim was brought out to the college to give a demonstration before a class studying Greek. Van Arsdale asked that a request be written for Jim in Greek. The professor wrote on a piece of paper. Confidently, Van Arsdale placed the paper on the floor in front of the dog. Jim didn’t move. Van Arsdale’s cheeks began to turn red with embarrassment. He picked up the paper and handed it to a member of the class. “Evidently Jim won’t do this one,” he apologized. “Will you read it for us, so we will know more about it?”

The student began to smile. “It says nothing,” he answered. “It’s only the Greek alphabet.”

People traveled hundreds of miles to watch Jim perform and to test him themselves. They were always utterly astonished and completely convinced of his ability when they left and just as mystified as before.

At the center of the Jim the Wonder Dog Memorial Garden sits a statue of the famous pooch. The garden was built in 1998 on the site once occupied by the Ruff Hotel where Jim lived with his owner, Sam Van Arsdale, the hotel manager.

Jim was rapidly acquiring a national reputation. Although everyone was amazed, Van Arsdale himself was intensely interested in finding out how or why Jim could perform as he did. Searching for an answer, he arranged for a demonstration at the University of Missouri with the skeptical Dr. A. J. Durant, head of the School of Veterinary Medicine, conducting the proceedings. Durant was assisted by Dr. Sherman Dickinson of the College of Agriculture. The Paramount Motion Picture Corporation was there to film the event.

As a starter, Dr. Durant gave Jim a thorough examination. He could find nothing abnormal or different from any other dog.

The tests, attended by faculty members and students, as well as psychiatrists from Washington University in St. Louis, were held in a large quadrangle on the campus. Van Arsdale began: “Jim, there is a college professor here named Dickinson. Show him to us.” Jim did, and then was deluged with a succession of commands.

A professor asked in Italian to be shown an elm tree. Another directed Jim in French to point out a certain license number. One, speaking in German, wanted to be shown a girl dressed in blue. A fourth requested in Spanish that the dog find a man wearing a black mustache. Jim responded promptly and accurately to all requests.

Then someone asked Jim to point out a boy who had just had a permanent wave. It was the dog’s only failure that day. Before he could get to him through the crowd, the embarrassed lad had run away.

At the conclusion of the tests, the professors held a conference, then told the crowd they were convinced that Jim possessed an occult power that might never come again to a dog in many generations.

Such were Jim’s powers that he could even look into the future and foretell coming events. For seven years in a row, he was shown a list of entries in the Kentucky Derby, and he picked the winner each time in advance of the race. With equal ease he could correctly predict the gender of unborn babies.

In 1936, just before the World Series games were played, Van Arsdale, in the presence of friends, placed before Jim two pieces of paper upon which the names of the teams had been written. He explained, “Jim, I have here the names of the two teams that will be playing in the World Series. Will you show us the one that will win?” Jim placed a paw on the slip bearing the word “Yankees.” Later events proved him correct.

Again in 1936, Jim was asked to predict the winner of the U.S. presidential race. The names of Roosevelt and Landon were written on pieces of paper and placed in a hat. The slips were drawn out by two ladies. Then Van Arsdale said, “Now, Jim, one of these ladies holds the name of the next president of the United States. Will you show us who it is?” Jim went immediately to one of the women. She unfolded her paper and read the name “Roosevelt.”

Although Jim could apparently predict the outcome of any future event with certainty, Van Arsdale refused to take advantage of any of this knowledge by betting, nor would he permit anyone else to reap a profit from Jim’s uncanny ability. At one time, Van Arsdale was offered $665,000 if he and Jim would work in the movies for one year. He turned down the offer with this explanation: “I feel that Jim’s powers are beyond my comprehension, and I do not care to commercialize on them in any way.”

It seemed that Jim could do everything well. For this reason, he was insured for $100,000 against accident. He was the most famous hunting dog of the 20th century — during his career more than 5,000 birds were shot over him.

A marker in the Ridge Park Cemetery in Marshall pays tribute to Jim. His grave is the most visited plot at the cemetery.

On one occasion, he was invited to Jefferson City to demonstrate his powers before a joint session of the Missouri Legislature. He picked out various people from their complexions and from certain types and colors of dress. He obeyed an order given him in shorthand. But the thing that puzzled the lawmakers most was the readiness with which he followed the instructions communicated to him in Morse Code.

Then came the fateful morning of March 18, 1937. Jim lay curled up on his favorite easy chair, his long, deep muzzle nestling on his paws, his eyes seemingly cast in dreamful reverie. His nose would occasionally twitch — the famous nose that in younger days had been uncanny in its swift certainty, a nose that had allowed him to go downwind, running like fire, stiffen in the middle of an effortless bound, twist his leg in the air and light rigidly pointing at a covey of quail 100 feet away.

Van Arsdale stuck his head inside the door and whistled. Instantly alert, Jim bounded from the chair, his eyes bright with anticipation. The two got into Van Arsdale’s car and headed for a fishing trip down on Lake of the Ozarks. Parking the car, he opened the door for Jim to jump out. The dog ran down the hill a short distance, then suddenly collapsed on the ground. Van Arsdale rushed frantically to his side only to find his companion near death. He picked him up and sped to a veterinary hospital in Sedalia. The dog breathed only twice after being placed on the table.

Because Van Arsdale considered Jim one of the family, he tried to arrange for his burial in the family plot in the Ridge Park Cemetery in Marshall. The authorities would not permit this, so he was buried, in a specially built casket, just outside the cemetery gate. There was a large gathering of friends at the ceremony. Ironically, the cemetery has since been enlarged and Jim’s grave is now within its boundaries. Officials report that more people visit his grave than any other in the cemetery.

How was this fabulous setter able to do all the amazing things with which he is credited? Probably Jim himself did not have the answer. Any logical explanation for the phenomenon lies in a realm beyond the ken of man.

Editor’s Note: The Friends of Jim the Wonder Dog have created a Web site dedicated to their favorite pup. Check it out at

Do you or someone you know have a memory of Jim? Join the discussion on Rural Missouri’s Facebook page.

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