Tag Archives: Clea

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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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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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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Tuesdays with Clea

Last December, The Uncertaintist wrote about Clea, an elderly Akita, remembering her late brother, Alexei (link). This fall, I had the privilege of attending Clea on Tuesdays, filling a hole in the weekly schedule of her human housemates.

Clea’s world was contracting around her. She did not walk outside as frequently, or stay out as long, or venture as far as she had done only months before. And yet, when she did walk down the street, before turning for home, she pointed her nose and ears in the direction she was abandoning. With her head held high, she tested the air. She wasn’t going to go there, but she knew what she would have found there if she had gone. And sometimes she didn’t turn back after she tested the air and you thought she was going to turn. There were even times when you had to remind her to turn back, not to overdo it. But those times became rarer as the fall progressed.

Inside the house, she avoided stairs, because of her arthritis, and because she feared falling. Thus, she was living only on the main floor, not joining her family for movies downstairs in the basement, or ever venturing onto the upper floor.

But on that one floor left to her, she had her window, across from her bed and overlooking her back yard, through which the smells and sounds of a larger world reached her even when she stayed inside. Many of her indoor walks included a stop to stick her head outside through that window. Opening and closing Clea’s window, on demand, was part of an attendant’s duties.

In the late mornings or early afternoons on Tuesdays, Clea and I would just sit, as she used to just sit with her brother Alexei. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her book The Hidden Life of Dogs, discusses her discovery that dogs just sit together, not grooming, not playing, not doing anything except just sitting, quietly together, completely and easily together, alert and calm. Years ago, Clea and Alexei sometimes allowed me to just sit with them. They were much better at it than I was, but they were good teachers. And now years later, while I couldn’t be the just-sitting companion for Clea that Alexei was, I would just sit with her, as best I was able.

Some Tuesdays were better days for Clea than others, as her appetite and activity level varied from one week to the next. Clea never had been one to pace herself, and when she felt up to it, she would overdo being active. When she overdid things on the weekend, she was apt to be still paying for it when I joined her on Tuesday.

So it went, week after week, for the eleven Tuesdays that I would share with Clea. I brought work with me, and I got a lot of it done, but never as much as I planned. It took attention to attend to Clea. Her body no longer did what she wanted when she wanted it to. Her bedding needed changing several times during the day. Wherever she walked, indoors or outdoors, she needed an escort, because her fear of falling was well-founded.

Saturday after Thanksgiving, I picked up a few small things for Clea, thinking to see her that coming Tuesday, as I had every other Tuesday this fall, but on Monday, Clea died.

Dogs are gray wolves who tolerate people, with all their rude human noises and smells, but dogs are no less wolves for being patient and gracious. The occupation of wolves is death. Their loyalty to one another, once chosen, is bottomless, but there is no sentimentality in it. The loyal infirm leave the wild pack, and the wild pack leaves them, with no evident hard feelings on either side

Clea lived tame, as an honored guest of a different species, but she died as a wolf. She ate well that morning. She walked outside, slowly but on her own feet, circling the house that had been hers and her brother Alexei’s. Some of us followed her. Whenever anyone walked with Clea, they followed her. She was an alpha; she led. There would be no exception now, and so, no exception ever.

When she finished her walk, Clea returned to the warmth inside the house, waiting for the veterinarian, who came late, but soon enough. Clea’s death was crisp, clinical and anticlimactic. One hypodermic shot into the once-glorious mane across her shoulders, and Clea left us. A second shot ensured that she wouldn’t come back.

Shots be damned. Weeks have passed, and the essential Clea hasn’t begun to leave. We just can’t find her anymore, which makes no sense, because we see her everywhere she has ever been.

Clea in August 2013

Clea in August 2013. Click to enlarge.


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Thinking that a dog remembers her dead

clea and dragon

click to enlarge

This is Clea, an older dog, an alpha Akita. She’s asleep on her dining room rug. On the floor beside her head lies a small plush toy, brushing her cheek. It is a whimsical dragon which belonged to Alexei, her brother, litter-mate, lieutenant and inseparable companion in life, who died about a year and a half ago.

It may seem obvious what is going in the picture, but it is not. Clea cannot share her mind with me. I must be careful not to presume too much about what she is thinking, careful not to make connections between the living Clea and the dead Alexei that may not be in her mind, but only in mine.

That would be projection and unwarranted anthropomorphization. Those are bad. Then, again, so is denial. In any case, there is nobody whom Clea can tell what she feels. In this post, I argue that we should listen anyway.

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