Backstory: My partner was writing an essay, and I wanted to prove that 2000 words was a relatively small goal and that I could in fact write an essay about a concept that didn’t exist, which is doubtless harder than writing about something that verifiably exists in the real world. So I wrote this in about an hour. It is the biggest load of fucking nonsense I’ve ever laid eyes on, and I’m the idiot who wrote it.
Dogs that can play the piano: a historical study
In this essay, I will attempt to describe the historical background and mechanics behind human efforts to make dogs play the piano, and the often shadowy reasons for this endeavour — nothing to do with entertainment or mere merriment, but espionage, intrigue and psychological warfare at the most dangerous time in human history.
For centuries, human civilization has attempted to make various animals play musical instruments. In ancient Rome, poets attempted to make horses blow across open bottles in order to produce a crude facsimile of the sound of panpipes; Shakespeare once forcibly inserted a hammer into a cat’s anus in order to make a violin-like screeching noise by twisting it. However, as part of secret Cold War research, there are now a secret race of dogs, canis pianis, that can play the Piano.
Obviously, with these experiments taking place behind the Iron Curtain in the secretive Soviet Union, records of piano playing dogs have been hard to come by. However, since the fall of the USSR, we have been able to gain access to a vast archive of data on these extraordinary creatures. Declassified documents from the US, meanwhile, show that the United States Army was also conducting its own research into piano-playing dogs for use in psychological warfare. To quote an unnamed colonel at the time, speaking frankly to a congressional investigation into the practise in 1996, after the Soviet studies came to light:
The idea was that Communist subverters or spies would walk into a building and see a Dachshund playing “The Entertainer”, shit and piss themselves in fear and run away screaming that they do not wish to be in the Soviet Union any more as the United States deserves to win because they have dogs that play the piano. Problem was, they’d just go back to their hotel and get an update via a numbers station about how there was a spaniel in Minsk that was playing Chopsticks better than the human that taught it. We didn’t know that at the time. If we did we’d probably have not bothered.
This was yet another example of the red queen’s race of offensive technology between the two great Cold War adversaries, coming firstly after the famous contest between Nikita Kruschchev and Richard Nixon to see who could swear the most in a single sentence and secondly after the secret experiments in underground bunkers to weaponise Cilla Black against a theorised Soviet invasion of extremely irritating KGB Saturday night entertainers infiltrating ITV quiz shows (of which Keith Chegwin was a theorised participant.) But the call for piano playing dogs was strong from the upper echelons of both the US and USSR governments. Leonid Brezhnev was reportedly the inspiration for the entire idea in the first place as he was drunk and thought it was funny; he relayed this idea to the KGB, who immediately started work on the idea, but was unable to retract the order the next morning once he was sober. CIA spies then got wind of the project and decided that, not wishing to have a musical dog gap, they must start work on a matching project — Jimmy Carter was reportedly so terrified of the prospect of dogs on flatcars being towed through the streets of smalltown America playing songs of Communism on pianos that, after hearing of the Soviet project, he refused to leave his bedroom for two days and screamed the entire time. An observer reported:
He just screamed and screamed and screamed. It was constant, and deafening. Sometimes you could make out words, like “dogs” or “Communism” or “Pedigree Chum” but other than that it was just incoherent noise. We did consult to see if we could sedate the President with a tranquiliser dart, to try and get him to calm down, but we were told that it would just make him more upset. The First Lady was damn near inconsolable. It was worse when he spotted some guy just innocently walking his dog on the sidewalk outside the White House — I don’t think he appreciated what the Secret Service did to that poor thing when Carter got his way.
How it worked
The mechanics of the dog playing the piano differed according to the country that was pursuing it. The Soviet Union preferred a system in which metal braces were fitted into the dog’s mouth which controlled a series of pulleys, lifting up and pushing down a set of metal fingers attached to the dog simulating it playing the piano with real human hands. Meanwhile, the US independently pursued bionic implants into the dog’s paws, allowing it to play the piano directly using its own appendages. The Soviet system appears to have worked earlier, albeit being unwieldy and difficult to set up, while the development of the US system was fraught with delays but, eventually, produced a more reliable system. The Soviet system had an unfortunate and fatal flaw, that was considered tolerable in service; if the dog reached a particularly energetic passage of a piece of music and became too enthused by it, it would rip its own head off using the force of the braces, often sending it flying directly at a nearby bystander observing the process. Seven people lost their sight from this, receiving high-ranking medals from the Soviet government for their sacrifice.
The US effort was not without tragedy either. While the dogs in their programme were able to play the piano with greater precision and poise, and with much less removal and disposal of their own heads into the faces of people nearby, the bionic implants were large and ugly, often frightening and traumatising those who saw the dog wearing them, as it resembled a spider with four fully metal legs, the body of a dog, the head of a dog and four legs of a dog with metal versions of human hands on the end of them. The same observer who saw Carter’s reaction to news of the Soviet project also recorded his reaction when he saw an initial US prototype, codenamed “Rick Wakedog” after the Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman:
The meltdown Carter went into when he saw Rick for the first time was just tremendous. He went white and then red and then he just let rip. He was a very devout man, and he was just very insistent that we had created something unholy and against God’s will, but that because it existed it meant that Satan had won and that we must all swear allegiance to him. He wanted to kill it, to “sacrifice it to Baphomet and his eternal glory” and “to appease the many-headed goat being that now rules us all forever” (sic). We tried to tell him, no, this isn’t proof of Satan’s dominion of Earth and the coming of the end of days, it’s a dog that plays piano and we’ve called it Rick Wakedog, and that just made it worse for him because he hated Yes ever since someone bought him one of their albums for Christmas in 1971 and he spent four years listening to a boring guitar solo with awful lyrics over the top. He had to be physically restrained by the Secret Service from going and getting his shotgun and, in his words, “grabbing the hellish hound by the face, throwing it in the air and blasting it into a million f**king pieces with my glorious weapon of Christ.” It was very unnerving.
Ronald Reagan was also privy to the project after becoming President in 1980, although his visit to the project to see another prototype, “Anne Doglead”, went rather better:
He just walked in and saw the dog and immediately he took on an entirely new attitude. “I want to have sex with it,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything quite so arousing in all my life. I am engorged in every part of me that can be engorged. Let me in it.” I think the Secret Service had to defuse that one somehow. They wouldn’t tell me how and I don’t really want to know.
Mikhail Gorbachev also reminisced about his experiences with the Soviet piano-playing dogs, although the differences between the two nations’ methods and their end results are clear:
I walked into the room and there was a smell of blood. There was a dog’s head on a stick for some reason. There was a dog at a piano and it was making attempts to play. It played the right note and a KGB officer gave it a treat. It played the wrong note and the officer put 20,000 volts through it. I watched this process for about 15 minutes. I grew nauseous. But — if the dog could put this fear into me, what would it do to the capitalist enemy?
This also sheds some light on, having first solved the problem of how to allow a dog to hit piano keys, the two countries actually got the dogs to play a tune. As above, the Soviet effort focused on a simple punishment/reward conditioning system, which led again to an earlier result but a less flexible one in which the dog can only play one song — this was a specific composition for the project that, to modern ears, sounds atonal and dismal, or for a more direct comparison akin to “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor. This song was composed with the specific intention of, combined with the shock of seeing a dog playing piano, grinding down the observer’s will to live so that they will either convert to communism or simply kill themselves. The US project meanwhile involved a number of high profile piano players and tutors being drafted in to teach the dogs how to both read sheet music and play piano using patient teaching and special dog enhancement drugs.
This produced a situation where the more “rough and ready” Soviet dogs could effectively demoralise, disable and collectivise an entire medium sized city extremely quickly and with brute force, after which point its head would most likely come off, while the American dogs could pursue a subtler approach of being manoeuvred into position disguised as a contemporary lounge musician, playing commensurate music, and then suddenly playing songs of freedom and liberty causing a violent anarcho-capitalist overthrow of the Soviet establishment. The dog could then be undressed by its handlers and set loose to blend into society, or possibly have the bionic spider leg implants retained and a minigun added in order to effectively fight any remaining Communists.
What happened to the projects?
Neither the US or Soviet piano playing dogs were ever used in military or espionage service. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and was replaced with the Russian Federation — incoming president Boris Yeltsin was reportedly, in one of his more lucid moments, overheard describing the project as “a load of old boiled-away piss leaving behind only remnants of urea and shattered kidney stone”, cancelling it immediately. The dogs were put into civilian usage and entered into Eurovision in 1995 under the name “Soyuz Ner-woof-shimi”, placing second with the song “Bonio Rodeo” and with dancers mimicking the dogs in everything they did, including the grand finale of their heads flying off.
The American dogs meanwhile were, in view of their classified implants, intended to be humanely euthanised in a peaceful manner. This was, however, not to be; as former US presidents are able to receive security briefings, President Carter got word of the decommissioning of the dogs, infiltrated the facility in which they were hiding and reportedly was found the next morning covered in dog blood and entrails, feasting on the brains of one of the dogs and repeatedly saying “his dark majesty is satisfied by my offering of penance for the sin of humankind”. The US government forbids any media disclosure of this event on grounds of national security.
Since this point, there have been fears that the so-called Islamic State will similarly independently develop piano-playing dogs, however many security experts downplay this on the basis that it is and always has been a fucking stupid idea.
Originally published on Medium. Someone did respond that they didn’t agree with the idea that making things up is harder than researching and properly citing real sources on real things, which I concede is the only factual inaccuracy in this piece.