An image saying the title of the story "Two dogs" and author "Helena Hartmann". It also includes the logo of Science & Fiction and a picture of two sitting dogs.

An story about two dogs behaving very strange.

Content warnings

  • suspense

The short story

The girl and the boy sat at the very edge, on a few of the bigger concrete slabs thrown carelessly next to the river, next to a few plastic bottles and construction trash. The water glistened in the sun, seemingly on fire. Like it was ready to evaporate into the sky. The girl’s skin was tanned, with a slight sunburn. It was a very hot day, so hot you could see heat waves wafting off the stones if you put one of your ears towards the ground and looked at them sideways. So hot that nobody except the two of them seemed to have risked going outside at this time of day.

Everything around the boy and the girl was quiet, except for some ducks in the distance and the water lapping in a regular rhythm against the river’s shoreline. The girl considered jumping in for a swim, but immediately discarded the idea. She might injure herself just trying to get into the water through this concrete mess. The boy pointed to a few fish who were swimming under a barrel in the water and the girl followed his pointed finger. She observed two fish effortlessly gliding back and forth under the glittering surface, in perfect unison. No problems, just swimming. I wish, she thought to herself, trying not to think about the work due next week.

They had biked a long time to get to this spot, to get as far away from the city as they could and as their legs allowed them to. As far away as possible from everything except themselves. The road had been uneven and the girl was sure one of them would trip in one of the potholes or over one of the many loose stones, and fall at some point. But they had both made it to the river in one piece, slightly sweaty and ready for a break.

The girl looked at the boy and smiled. A sudden warmth spread through her whole body. He made her feel at home and it didn’t really matter where home was, just that she was with him. She moved closer to him and took his hand. He didn’t look at her, but pressed her hand back tightly, twice in a row. Their secret code for “I am thinking of you”. Or “Don’t worry, I am here.”, something like that. The boy was focused on something in the distance behind them. She followed his gaze and saw something, but couldn’t quite make out what it was. No, two things. Moving at a slow but steady pace.

“What is that?”, she asked, squinting her eyes and concentrating to see the shapes better.

“It’s two dogs, I think. They’re coming towards us”, he replied, still focusing on them and not able to give attention to anything else. He didn’t let go of her hand though.

Now that the dogs were coming closer and closer, she also recognized them. A darker, bigger one and a brown-white-speckled small one. Just trotting along with no care in the world, just like the fish. Not letting go of his hand, the girl turned her head, looking around.

“I don’t see the owner. This is weird, isn’t it? Just two dogs by themselves, going for a walk? Without anyone there to take care of them?”.

The boy mumbled “Yeah, weird… maybe they are wild dogs”, his gaze still fixed on the two dogs, and with her hand still firmly in his. But that couldn’t be true, because the dogs were now close enough for her to clearly recognize that they were well-kept and had shiny collars around their necks.

“They look like best friends!”, the girl joked. The bigger one moved at a faster pace but always stopped every few meters to turn around and wait for the other. They came closer and closer. The girl felt just a tiny bit of uneasiness creeping in. Where was the owner? They were in the middle of nowhere, not a soul around. What if the dogs were dangerous? She looked at the boy, but he didn’t seem to worry. The bigger dog had now reached the river’s shore, jumped into the water and started swimming across. He still stopped and turned around every few meters, to assure himself that the smaller one followed. Now they were both in the water and swimming to the other side.

“They seem to have a very clear goal…”, the girl said, observing one, no two, dragonflies buzzing millimeters above the river’s smooth surface. It was still very quiet, only sounds of nature around them. The boy looked at her and pressed her hand again, twice. For some reason, she suddenly felt that she never wanted to leave this place. Just stay here, with him, and observe two dogs acting suspicious.

But wait, where had they gone? She didn’t see them anymore. How could that be?

As if on cue, the boy got up suddenly, not letting go of her hand, pulling her with him.

“Hm?”, she looked at him puzzled.

“We have to go”, he said.

“What? Where?”, she replied.

“I don’t know. But we have to go where the dogs went. I feel something coming.” he said.

She looked around, panic rising in her. “Something bad?”, she asked. She looked towards the river. The fish were gone. No more dragonflies. Everything was eerily quiet. “And where are those dogs?”

“Come on”, he said, already starting to move towards the water, getting ready to jump in.

For some strange reason, all of a sudden, she didn’t feel the need to question this anymore, she felt it too. An urge to move. And while she was getting up, she saw it. A cloud, but not one made of tiny water droplets. One made of dust, of soil, of dirt. And it was the opposite of tiny. It was huge and it was coming towards them. And then she felt it again - an invisible pull and some kind of purpose.

She scrambled to her feet and followed the boy into the water. The river had stopped moving and seemed to have lost all life. The sky was now a deep, dark black. Something was happening and it wasn’t good.

They swam next to each other, across the river, to the other side. She didn’t look back.

The boy helped her out of the water and they turned around for a second, to watch the ever-growing mass of destruction coming towards them. He reached for her hand again, pressing twice, very faintly but just so she felt it. She pressed back and they started walking. While they were walking, the world behind them became darker and darker, slowly being swallowed whole. She felt the pull again and they kept moving.

And then they both stopped abruptly. In front of them was some kind of glassy, milky wall. They barely saw through it, but heard noises behind it. Nature, animals, wind, water, everything that their world didn’t have. Anymore. The boy pointed to a door that had opened up in the wall. Had it always been there?, the girl asked herself. Feeling a gust of wind and dirty air touching her, playing with her hair, ready to take all of her and keep her from continuing her journey. But the boy pulled her further to open the door and they both stepped through, closing it behind them. Behind her, behind the milky wall, a storm raged. A storm so strong like she had never seen before. And the door was gone again, replaced by milky glass and darkness behind it.

The girl felt something fuzzy on her leg and looked down. The smaller dog nudged her softly and she bent down to pet it. She looked at the boy and he looked at her. They did not know where they were, how they got here and what this wall was. But somehow, now, here, everything felt right. They would figure out the rest later. Together.

This story was originally written in English.

The paper

Boch, M., Wagner, I. C., Karl, S., Huber, L., & Lamm, C. (2021). Similarities and differences of face and body perception in the dog (Canis familiaris) and human brain. BioRxiv Preprints. Find more info about the first author here!

Connection between story and paper

The story follows a couple on a trip into the unknown, guided by untypical behavior of animals. The preprint (which is a paper that has not been peer-reviewed yet, i.e., received feedback from the scientific community) investigated whether there are similarities and differences in how dogs and humans process faces and bodies of humans and dogs (so their own and another species). Fifteen pet dogs and 40 humans were put into the MRI scanner to measure their brain activity while they saw pictures of their own or the other species (humans vs. dogs) on a screen - specifically either faces or bodies. Some regions in both species processed bodies the same way, but only humans had a specific region for only processing faces. Interestingly, dogs’ olfactory regions (needed for smell) were active when they saw other dogs’ faces. This paper shows that dogs and humans are of course different from each other, but if we look at the brain, they have more things in common than we might think, when it comes to perceiving other humans and animals around them.

Would you have followed the two dogs?

The author

Helena has developed Science and Fiction and writes many of the stories herself. Her current research as an active scientist focuses on the behavioural and neural basis of pain, pain modulation and treatment expectations based on placebo and nocebo effects. She completed her PhD at the Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience Unit at the Institute for Psychology of Cognition, Emotion and Methods at the University of Vienna, where she investigated empathy and prosocial behaviour in the area of pain.

Dr. Helena Hartmann
Dr. Helena Hartmann
Neuroscientist, psychologist and science communicator (she/her/hers)