Category Archives: Furred and feathered minds

More on what wonders a dog can appreciate

Last Sunday afternoon, I was walking with a neighbor’s beagle named Sadie. As we explored a sandbar along the shore of the Merrimack River under a sunny blue sky, we heard an engine sound coming from downriver. We both looked together, and saw a powered tricycle paraglider following the curves of the riverbank, headed our way, flying low, perhaps 12 meters or about 40 feet aloft.

Sadie moved closer, standing quietly beside me, motionless except for her eyes and the tilt of her head. She looked up at me briefly, then skyward, maintaining her gaze on the ultralight as it passed directly over us. I doffed my cap to the pilot, whose craft was soon out of sight, somewhere behind us blocked from view by the surrounding trees. Sadie looked up at me again. After our eyes met, she eventually returned to her survey of the sandbar, and shortly thereafter decided we should leave for home.

A few years ago, the Uncertaintist considered whether or not a dog could appreciate a stage magic trick. (Click on the screen shot to read the story.) The post featured an anecdote in which the beloved Akita Clea seemed to me to have communicated her awe and wonder for a movie-magic miracle in a film that we were watching together.

The post went on to discuss what might be needed to collect more messages of awe and wonder from other dogs.

“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 [the actor who played the magician in the film we were watching], Clea’s attention was gotten and held without teasing her, and then, when magic unfolded, she was impressed with what she saw.”



An ultralight is not magic (yet not so long ago…), but its close encounter was a source of wonderment, fitting for a minor miracle. I have no serious doubt that Sadie’s attentive behavior as the craft flew over us, so similar to my own demeanor, is best explained as her experiencing a mental state not radically different than my own. Perhaps her affect was more intense than mine, since it is entirely possible that she had never before seen the like.

In any case, there was no problem at all getting Sadie to watch closely. When the unusual, absorbing and beautiful unfolded as she watched, she was impressed with what she saw. I have no serious doubt of that, so effectively did Sadie communicate her feelings and her interest in whether I was feeling the same.

External photo credit: The image of the ultralight is reblogged from That Adventure Life (link).

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Two deer find a treat

There is no such thing as an easy winter for deer in northern New England. Nevertheless, this season’s moderate and tastefully spaced snowfalls have kept the depth hereabouts much shallower than the foot-and-a-half that would prevent the deer from foraging and thereby enforce upon them a hard fast, sometimes lasting for weeks. Food is scarce, and generally brown when it can be found at all, but at least the deer have been able to look for something to eat this winter.

For the last six weeks, small pods of two or three or four deer have been visiting the neighbors’ back yard. The deer stop to rest on their bellies and eat under a trio of trees at the crest of a small escarpment. I’m not sure what they eat. They may have discovered a cache of squirrels’ acorns. The squirrels, however, go about their winter chores in the trees and don’t seem to mind the deer’s presence below. Maybe it’s something else, then, that the deer munch on as they recline under the sheltering branches.

The escarpment faces west and catches the nowadays strengthening afternoon sun full on. The air temperature yesterday made it to an unseasonable seventy degrees. Most of the snow on the slope had melted by this morning; the ground was wet, but bare.

Around midday, a pair of deer discovered a small patch of bright green there. Some ferns had been preserved since the autumn, leafy and fresh. The sure-footed deer made good use of their find, despite the steepness of the muddy terrain around it.

This afternoon, a heavy wet snow began falling. It won’t amount to much, or so the weather wizards foresee, but it soon completely covered over the ground again. The deer returned to their trees, resting, watching the snow accumulate around them without complaint.

As sunset approached, the deer decided to spend the night somewhere else. They set off down the escarpment, pausing where they had found their green treasure earlier in the day. The snow had reclaimed the ground, but the deer found a last few bites of the ferns, and before moving on, stopped to savor them.

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The end of Alexei’s dragon

Capture-1 x2A few years ago, the Uncertaintist posted about whether dogs remember their dead comrades (link on image). The piece focused on the alpha Akita Clea, her late brother Alexei and the small dragon plush toy that had been Alexei’s, which Clea carefully preserved and kept with her. After Clea died in December 2013, I lost track of the dragon. I assumed that Alexei and Clea’s housemates had stored it away, as a keepsake.

Alexei had had a favorite among his human companions, a girl he had helped to raise, and of whom he was besotted. In Alexei’s later years, she had gone away to school. Whenever she came home to visit, Alexei walked two inches off the ground. No need to ask whether his beloved was in residence, you just looked at Alexei.

Several months after Clea’s death, this now grown woman rescued Amy, a dog who is a breed unto herself. A few months ago, your correspondent was honored to sit with Amy. As our visit progressed, attention turned to Amy’s toys. There among them was Alexei’s dragon, bright and pristine, scarcely different than it was when I had first photographed it resting against Clea’s cheek more than three years before.

pristine dragon

I photographed it again. Amy watched me closely as I fussed over the toy, but didn’t interrupt. When I was done, I returned the dragon to rest among her other toys.

A few weeks later, I sat with Amy again. This time, when I looked through her toys, the dragon was in tatters.

At first, I was of two minds about what Amy had done. I had grown fond of that whimsical little survivor. It reminded me of two dogs whom I love. But then so does Amy herself, unlike the Akitas physically, and yet large-spirited and completely suited to be their successor.

There is no mystery that a dog would tear apart a toy designed for a dog to tear apart. The mystery is that Amy hadn’t done so before. What had she been waiting for?

I think Amy reasoned as follows. When her human companions first gave Amy the dragon, Clea’s scent was all through it. Clea had kept it close by her for years and had regularly licked the dragon to clean it. Alexei’s scent was possibly still there, too. Amy knew that despite its apparent purpose, the dragon hadn’t been a toy for Clea. Dead or alive, Clea was an alpha dog, something else that Amy knew by smell. Amy prudently left Clea’s dragon alone.

Portrait of Amy


Amy likely knows that I knew Clea, Alexei and the story of this dragon that unfolded before Amy was born. She could see without being told that I recognized the dragon, and that I promptly performed a human ritual act that Amy is familiar with. I took photographs of it, much as so many people in Amy’s world often take photographs of her. Amy surmises this must hold some meaning for us.

And then, although I didn’t mean to, I probably sealed the dragon’s fate. When I finished my ritual adulation, I replaced the dragon among her toys while Amy watched. I thereby gave the dragon to her again, this time after a demonstrated awareness of what the dragon had once meant to another dog. Amy was oblivious that I was thinking only that I ought to return what wasn’t mine to where I’d found it. My mistake, not hers. I was oblivious to how this vignette looked to her.

Amy had been waiting for assurance that whatever the history of the dragon was, whatever it had been for the formidable Clea, this toy was now one of Amy’s toys, without conditions or complications, to use as Alexei’s human companions had originally intended that he use it years ago. And so she did use it, maybe more crisply than usual, lest somebody living or dead change their mind.


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Hawks, aesthetic sense and synchronicity

View of pasture from hill

The setting. Click to enlarge.

This morning I was walking up a steep hill which overlooks dairy pastureland. The view below charms the eye. Cows graze amid sparse trees and hedgerows scattered in a broad field with a narrow crooked pond. The composition is painterly. It is the perfect background to frame something aloft.

A peregrine falcon called from nearby trees. I heard the sound but it didn’t register. She called again (unlike songbirds; both sexes of falcon call), and this time I looked up. When I did, the bird launched from her perch to begin a shallow descent, turning a broad arc over the pastureland. For five long seconds, with exquisite precision, the falcon positioned herself to become the someone aloft who imparted balance, harmony and focus to the pastoral scene.

Her flight ended in the crown of a tree rooted in the pasture below. As she took her time folding up her wings, the thought occurred that the falcon wouldn’t have improved the composition or have been framed so well by it if she had flown directly to her new perch. This falcon who twice announced her departure literally went out of her way to be seen in flight just where she was seen. It seemed as if she knew what effect her flight and its calculated path would have on this passerby.

To have that intention would require aesthetic sense, a hunch that a different species could share her aesthetic sense, and a willingness to exert herself to create an ephemeral beauty that neither she nor any of her kind would see. Upon what I cannot prove, I will not insist. To seem and as if are the verbal shields against the dreaded charge of unwarranted anthropomorphization.

I resumed my walk, thinking about what I’d just seen. Closer to my destination, the road passes beside a neighbor’s lawn. As I walked by, another peregrine landed on the lawn at close social distance, just ahead of me and to the side. He remained there for several seconds, while we exchanged acknowledgments. I rarely see hawks close-up on the ground. They are vulnerable there. He seemed confident of his safe reception, as well he might be, but objectively he was taking an avoidable risk.

In his own good time, he flew to a tree at the far end of the property. His ascent allowed him to show his plumage – and his talons. He crisply launched from the tree into a flight across the lawn, almost directly at me at chest height. My turn to be confident that this was not an attack, but an air show. And so it was. He broke off to perch in another tree at the margin of the road, just overhead. He paused there for one last exchange of acknowledgments and then was on his way.

A synchronicity is Carl Jung’s term for the occurrence of two or more events close together in time that are related by complementary meaning but have no apparent causal connection. The second hawk answered some of my questions about the first, such as whether a falcon would go out of her way to make contact across species lines, and whether she would intentionally show off (in candid truth, I have long believed that hawks do sometimes enthusiastically show off).

What sense of visual aesthetics hawks might have, and the degree to which their sense might be held in common with other sight-oriented species like us is harder to say. I have my suspicions, though.

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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?

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Did long-ago people think that dogs have souls?

lab portrait

An online article soon to appear in the pages of the Journal of Archeological Science reports that about 8,000 years ago, some Siberian women had tapeworms, probably because of close contact with dogs whom the women cared for. Publicity for the new paper has revived attention to a controversial hypothesis about that closeness. As explained in a 2011 article in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology from the same team,

We suggest that some animals with unique histories were known as distinct persons with ‘souls’ and because of this at death required mortuary rites similar to those of their human counterparts.

A detailed and highly technical exploration of the physical evidence for this idea, based on human and canid (wolf and dog) burials in the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, near present-day Irkutsk, appeared last year in the well-regarded open-access journal PLOS ONE.

So, is it true that people have been thinking that dogs have souls for that long? How confident can anybody living now really be about that, even knowledgeable experts, writing in well-known peer-reviewed journals with respectable impact factors?

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