The Unexpected: Dogs, Flying Wieners, and the Performance of Magic

Magician and mentalist Jose Ahonen has an interesting hobby: performing magic for dogs. In one series of videos he is seen offering dog biscuits to a variety of dogs, only to have the treats magically disappear from his hands. In the video above, the magic is even more blatant. A wiener, evidently quite appealing to the dogs, is made to levitate.

It’s an amusing video, but it brings up some fascinating issues about magic, intelligence, animals, perception, and finally, the implications for performance.

The dogs are aware that something out of the usual is happening. The dogs react with what I would describe as distress at that moment of realization. Though there are several different responses, the responses are different from those they would give if they were simply chasing a bird or insect. The dogs know something is awry–wieners are not supposed to be flying! The dogs jump, bark, look around, stand still. They have an expectation of how the world is supposed to work, and this doesn’t fit into it.

Magicians can learn from this video. It helps to explain the reactions that some spectators have to magic. When expectation about the basic rules of the workings of the world are violated, it can be very disturbing. The magician has shown some strong magic. Would the dogs react that way to a card trick like Sam the Bellhop? This is an experiment I don’t think we need to do. We have a neat little way of determining the strongest magic: just ask ourselves, how would a dog react?

But let’s get back to that distress. If the dogs are distressed, then on some level, the human spectators to magic must also feel distressed. They will try to assuage that distress with rationality, joking, hostility, laughter, submission. If the magician does not somehow attend to these feelings, then the whole enterprise can have a feel of sadistic fun for the magician and the rest of the audience, at the expense of the spectator. While watching the video, I felt very uncomfortable with the laughter of the human audience at the bewilderment of the dog. It’s socially acceptable to laugh at animals; but there must be some of the same happening, unexpressed, among human audiences as well.

How do we get around this feeling? Some suggestions. First, the magician must always be very, very kind to the spectator. Second, the context must read, “game” and “play.” It’s socially permissible to play a game where we get the advantage of another person. It’s not socially permissible in real life to take advantage of a stranger. Third, the rest of the audience must feel as bewildered as the spectator. This way they cannot feel one up on the spectator. Some will disagree with me, but that is why I don’t like effects such as Paper Balls Over the Head, where everyone in the audience except the chosen spectator can see how the effect is done. They put the spectator in a much inferior position to the rest of the audience. Fifth, the agency for the magic can, from time to time, be put into the spectator’s hands. That is, the magic happened because the spectator performed the magic actions by saying the magic word, or waving the magic wand. Last, and most important, the magician’s reaction to the magic helps to cue the audience and spectator how to feel. If the magician shows delighted surprise or charmed astonishment at the outcome of the effect, s/he is training the audience to feel and model those positive emotions, rather than distress, when confronted with the unexpected.

Well, that’s funny. I didn’t know that I would end up here in this discussion, but I’m glad I did. How unexpected: Magic as a way of helping us cope with the fear of the unexpected. Maybe that’s magic’s unique contribution as an art.