Can dogs appreciate a magic trick?

Edward Norton performs

Edward Norton performs

The question arises in a recent blog posting by Susana Martinez-Conde at the Scientific American site,

Despite the title’s emphasis on dogs and an accompanying picture, the piece is really about the appreciation of stage magic by human children, human adults, other great apes, and yes, something about dogs, too.

The blogger links to a short video featuring a magician and dogs. In the video, the magician makes dog treats appear and disappear in front of the dogs’ faces. The blogger braves accusations of unwarranted anthropomorphization to write that “the dogs’ reactions seems to indicate that they fall somewhere along the confused-to-angry continuum.” That makes sense. What the video shows is called teasing. Confusion and anger are predictable and arguably appropriate responses to teasing, in many species.

The issue Martinez-Conde raised, however, was whether dogs might react with a wonderment like that which adult humans experience when viewing a well-staged magic trick. So, might they?

An arresting magic trick figures in The Illusionist, a 2006 film based on a short story by Steven Millhauser,

The trick is to appear to grow a small tree onstage, starting from a planted seed, progressing through rapid development, to the tree bearing fruit, all in a few moments, as if the audience is viewing a time-lapse film play out in real time. The scene from The Illusionist is currently available on YouTube,

A similar miracle seems to be attributed to Jesus in the Egerton Gospel, a fragment of a longer work, mostly lost, whose composition is dated to roughly the same time period as the canonical Gospels (70-120 CE). The only partial physical copy we have, Papyrus Egerton 2, may have been produced in the Second Century, which is early for a Gospel narrative.

OK, the trick is suitable for grown-ups. Now for some anecdotal evidence

A few years ago, I watched The Illusionist with Clea, the beloved alpha Akita dog so often mentioned here at The Uncertaintist. We were alone in her home, watching the DVD on a big screen television. Clea often watched movies, with her regular human companions and with me. She usually listened more than she watched the movies – not surprising given her sensory endowment.

This time, though, she watched attentively. The reason may have been that Edward Norton’s title character preceded the tree trick with some sleight-of-hand with an orange, a bit like playing with a treat. Clea was not much of a fruit eater, so the manipulation of an orange wouldn’t rise to teasing, but the subject of food reliably interested her.

And then, as Clea watched, Norton extracted a seed from the orange and placed it in a large flower pot A green shoot emerged, branched, thickened, and became a miniature orange tree. Fruit swelled up on its branches, and Norton picked the fruit, tossing two small oranges into the audience for them to test.

At that point, Clea looked away from the screen and fixed me with her stare – not a usual thing for an alpha, since staring is purposeful. I do not know what she was thinking, but I am morally certain that she was thinking, and those thoughts were her appreciation that what she had just seen was a marvel. She was not confused, and she was not angry. Whatever she felt, she wanted to share with me, and wanted for me to share with her what I felt. “Did you see that?” is what I took her to be conveying. I nodded to her, as if I had been asked. She turned her head back to the screen.

This exchange was just like what might pass between any other two grown-ups watching a stage magic show, or so it seemed to me. So, yes, I think that this dog appreciated the magic trick, and appreciated it in a way that was not radically different from how I did.

The toughest part of repeating the experience with another dog might be to get the dog to watch closely. Maybe that’s where the treats came in for the magician in the other blogger’s video. Something was needed to hold the dog’s attention, even at the price of having the teasing overpower the wonder. By good luck, or by Edward Norton’s skill, Clea’s attention was gotten and held without teasing her, and then, when magic unfolded, she was impressed with what she saw.



Filed under Furred and feathered minds, Psychology

3 responses to “Can dogs appreciate a magic trick?

  1. Celeste

    no better way to conclude a day than to find a new message from The Uncertainitist — especially one about Dogs — heartfelt thanks to The Uncertaintist

    Wasn’t The Illusionist a favorite film of Clea’s?

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