Shady Grove Balcom

The Dogs


Dr. Demikhov

In 1954, Dr. Vladimir Demikhov tried something new. He was already well-known in the field of transplantology: his was the first successful heart transplant, and his was the first successful lung transplant, and his was the first successful head transplant, though success is a relative term. He remains most famous for what came to be known as the two-headed dog experiments, which looked more or less like this:

It worked, for the most part. The big dog’s heart beat for the two of them, and its lungs breathed for the two of them, and the small dog’s spinal cord was grafted to the big dog’s spinal cord so they both could feel and move and see and hear. The two did not become one: they understood themselves as individuals. The big dog knew there was somebody else on its shoulders, but it could not turn around to see. And when the small dog got thirsty, it could drink, but the water fell through a tube onto the ground. Dr. Demikhov repeated this experiment 24 times, with a total of 48 dogs. The longest living pair survived for 29 days, but all of the dogs are dead now. [1]

When Time-Life Moscow Correspondent Edmund Stevens and photographer Howard Sochurek visited Dr. Demikhov’s laboratory, they documented the 24th experiment: Shavka (small dog, “guest”) and Brodyaga (big dog, “host”). These dogs lived for four days after the surgery and died in their sleep from a strangled neck vein connection, which Dr. Demikhov ruled an accident. [2]

All 48 dogs died accidentally. The scientists did all they could to keep them alive and wept when they failed to do so. Vet technicians and lab assistants stroked the confused, burdened faces of the puppy-dogs and spoke lovingly to them. They held up the paws of the smaller dogs so the larger dogs could stand the weight. They gave all the dogs names to call them by, to comfort and console them, and each dog knew its separate name.

Dogs were Demikhov’s favorite test subject. [3] This is likely because he loved them. He had no financial incentive for the experiment, and he carried it out despite much protest from his own, and other nations, at the time. Stevens recorded a dog named Palma bursting into the operating room during his interview. Her chest was shaved from a successful procedure which pushed her lungs out of the way and made room for a second heart. Palma nuzzled Demikhov’s leg and wagged her tail. Demikhov remarked, “You see she bears me no ill will for giving her an extra heart.” [1]

Dr. White

In 1970, U.S. neurosurgeon Dr. Robert White performed a transplant of the head/body of two rhesus monkeys with relative success. The resulting monkey, like the dogs, could see, hear, smell, and taste–the researchers knew this because it tried to bite them. “You could also see,” Dr. White reflected, drinking coffee in a McDonald’s in Ohio decades later, “that it was a very unhappy monkey.” [4]

Dr. White spoke highly of Dr. Demikhov’s work but questioned its real-world applications. Most would prefer to have only one head–not a second, smaller head. As a Catholic, he believed the brain housed the soul, and so called his experiments “body transplants” instead of “head transplants.” In his office at home in 2009, turning a model of the human brain over in his hands, Dr. White said, “Whether you like it or not, that’s you. You say you figured you’d be prettier than that, well . . . kind of sad, isn’t it? To think that you spend your whole life operating on something as goofy-looking as that.” [4]

A human head transplant has yet to be carried out.

Dr. Demikhov, Again

In 1934, Demikhov went off to college to study biology. To be admitted as a student, he needed his portrait taken in a white shirt and tie, which he had never owned and had no means of obtaining. Despite this, Demikhov was admitted: the photographer superimposed the image of some other boy’s shirt and tie onto Demikhov’s young body, somewhat convincingly. [3] His head in the picture looks like it was grafted onto someone else’s body.

During WWII, Demikhov served as a pathologist and was often consulted as a forensic expert to determine if the bullet wounds of soldiers were self-inflicted. If Demikhov determined that they were, the soldier in question would be euthanized by firing squad. According to his only daughter: “Although in most patients it was obvious to him that an injury was self-inflicted, he tried his best to attenuate the evidence, and thus considered himself to have lied.” [3] We all do what we can to help one another. Everything depends on this–the lie we tell to save someone. The falsified papers. The reference on the job application. The bedtime story, the consolation, what you tell your only daughter when she asks you who you killed during the war–nobody. That was an accident.

“Brodyaga” means Tramp–she was a stray, picked up by the dogcatcher who worked for Demikhov. Imagine a trench coat filled with puppies, a secret lab like a gothic castle at the end of a long driveway in a thunderstorm, and the big square truck of howling cages screeching up to the gate.

“Demikhov [. . . ] pointed out that she was indeed a lucky dog. ‘You know the saying: two heads are better than one.’” [1]

The Jury [11]




And for what?

The dog has been humans’ object of scorn or adoration for upwards of 30,000 years. [5] By the beginning of the Bronze Age, there were already five distinct types of dog: mastiffs, wolf-dogs, sighthounds, pointers, and herding dogs. Brodyaga was a herding dog. Five-thousand years ago, according to Nordic rock art representations, herding dogs looked like this:

“In the herding situation, sheepdogs are their own agents,” Kristen Armstrong Oma argues in her 2020 study on these depictions of dogs. [6] Sheepdogs “occupy a fringe position as mediators – neither fully animal nor human” (102). They comprehend and work within the cognitive scaffold of the shepherd with complete obedience, yet simultaneously must work independently to solve complex problems. Neither human nor sheep, their social skills must surpass those of both species to communicate and work with both at once (111). These dogs seem born knowing that they are somehow needed to fill this role of intermediary.

Dog remains found at the boundaries of these Nordic settlements imply dogs represented the threshold of humanity, the line between the inside and outside of what we are. In later settlements, dogs were buried near the entrances of homes, suggesting a move from the communal relationship to the individual (104). I would assume all of these dogs had names.

The oldest depiction of a dog is three-thousand years old–and it is, undeniably, a Canaan dog. [5]; [6] Some of these dogs are depicted with leashes tied to a hunter’s waist, which could have kept close the most valuable dogs or trained newly domesticated dogs. The “leashes” could also symbolize a hunter’s bond with this or that specific dog–regardless, “the artists appear to have depicted dogs they actually knew, with particular coat patterns, stances, and genders.” [6] This, too, signifies a shift in focus from the dog as species to the dog as individual.

27,000 year-old dog fossils were discovered at Predmosti in the Czech Republic in 2011. Their DNA is unlike that of any living dogs on earth. [7] Three dogs lay together in the earth which preserved them, but one dog held a piece of a mammoth bone between its jaws. The bone was undeniably placed there by a person after the dog died. Anthropologist Pat Shipman argues that this funerary rite may have been practiced to acknowledge the animal’s role in mammoth hunting–to thank it. 27,000 years ago, somebody’s dog died, and they opened its still, unbreathing mouth, and they gave it a bone. The message is clear and as old as ritual.

“Whether you like it or not, that’s you.”

Ecclesiastes 3:17-22

I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?”

My Dog

At seven, I drew dogs all day. I rode my bike to the library and tore through books on dog breed evolution, dog training, dog psychology. I made watercolor paintings of dogs and wrote poems and stories about dogs. When I tried drawing other animals, they came out looking like dogs. When I found myself unreasonably forlorn, as I often did, I went to a place in my mind where a dog lived, green with grass and blue with sky, like a desktop background. The dog lived just beyond the hill, past my line of sight. I wrote my mother a letter explaining my desire for a dog and left it on her pillow, too embarrassed to voice it aloud. She found it sweet and funny, but she was allergic to dogs. Four years passed. I kept up my research fervently, but I did not talk about it. I accumulated three hundred dollars. Everyone was amazed by this. My mother caved–the dog would live outside, of course. I was particularly well behaved compared to her other three children, and my desire was so singular, she felt it would have been cruel to continue pretending to ignore the inevitable. I picked out a fluffball of unknown breed and origin at the puppy shelter. I named her Callie. I paid for her vaccines and house-trained her and even taught her how to pull a scooter like a sled dog, which made the neighbors laugh. My mother wasn’t as allergic as she said she’d be, and when winter came, Callie lived inside and slept by the door: the line between inside and outside, human and animal. My stepdad made training difficult since he hadn’t read the books I’d read, so he trained her the way he trained us, and that type of training doesn’t work so well. I was not old or large enough to protect her, but she loved him still. She loved everyone.

Even my mother, who knew better, was unable to stop any of this. The man was like a train with no conductor, unable or unwilling to listen to reason, and his brain was beginning to break down in strange and violent ways. When she watched him behead someone else’s injured cat in the road, my mother found herself unable to find the right way to tell the story to anyone. She understood that her situation would not improve on its own. She had to make a plan herself. She stayed busy with the garden, imagining the shape of the next fifteen years, when her youngest would be old enough to leave. Some days my mother barely noticed Callie, until she heard the scratching at the back door.

But the dog was not my singular desire. The dog was a false prophecy, making herself known in those quiet subtle ways–sighing, scratching, nearly whining–like an insight my mother did not want to have. I got older, and my body stopped making sense. I wore the wrong clothes. I looked about-to-be a man, dangerously close to becoming. At first, this was easy for my mother to ignore: my older sister had stopped eating and my younger sister had stopped growing and my younger brother kept breaking his arm and the baby never stopped talking. These were emergencies. I never had emergencies. My mother was in nursing school, grateful at least one of her kids was old enough and around enough to watch the others while she was away. My stepdad, in protest of nursing school, began burning imaginary money and painting rooms in the house black. He felt a future he hadn’t agreed to pressing in on him from all sides, and the only one who didn’t avoid him anymore was the dog.

When my mother kicked me out, she did so quietly–on the porch in the morning, just me and her–and I went downstairs and packed up what I wanted to keep. Callie followed me down and watched me intently, as she had never done before. I left my dresses in the closet and my Bible books on the shelf and my hair tied up neatly on the desk like a dead animal. Callie would not stop staring, would not stop following me around, and I would not, could not, touch her. I said goodbye to my brother and goodbye to my sister and goodbye to the baby, who was already crying about something else. She didn’t understand what gone forever meant and neither did any of us, but the dog knew. Callie followed me as far as the driveway and then she sat down, and I knelt and scratched her ears, and she forgave me as she forgave everyone. She did not want to follow me–my family was her family, and her family was her job. She stayed guarding the border while I–silently, dutifully–crossed it.

Some more years passed. My dog got old, and she became my mother’s dog. She doesn’t move much anymore, but when I approach her, she scrambles up painfully onto her feet and turns her head to me, tail wagging. I don’t see her very often: three times a year, for my younger siblings’ birthdays. I try to avoid my mother these days. I am waiting for something, but I can’t say what it is. My mother takes me to her garden, look at all the work she’s put into it, all that time spent getting sober after the divorce, and look, there’s a bird bath filled with yellowjackets balanced perfectly on the surface of the pool, drinking thirstily, and my mother turns on the hose and sprays them until they fly away or drown. “The wasps are so mean,” she says. I watch the ripples in the water and don’t respond. “But I guess they do live here,” she adds.

There will always be somebody acceptable to hurt and kill. The ones who do the hurting and killing do so because they want to. The father hits his son because his father hit him, and his father’s father hit his father, but this can only explain so much. Once upon a time, a man hit a child because it felt good to do so. He wanted to, so he did.

Punishment rewards the punisher like research rewards the researcher. When you hit a dog for barking, and then the dog stops barking, it trains you to hit your dog because the action gives you, for a second, what you want. When you bark and then get hit, it only teaches you that you are someone who gets hit. But this is the wrong lesson: what I failed to explain to you is that some people hit dogs, and it never had anything to do with you.

These poor dogs and how they suffered and

An unnamed author of an aged and lengthy website on the topic of punishment wrote the following: “We might believe the suffering helped us to become stronger or that it helped us to be better people. Anything is better than believing that the suffering we incurred was meaningless and useless.” [8]

My mother often said I was her favorite child. When I asked her why she kicked me out, she asked me if I had ever heard of the trolley problem. It went like this: on one track were the immortal souls of her and all my siblings, and on the other track was me. She sacrificed me to save the others, not realizing until years later that the trolley had brakes that worked. A human head transplant has never been carried out. The suffering I incurred was meaningless and useless.

Can I live with that?


At a Moscow news conference in 1998, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Lieutenant-General Oleg Gazenko, one of the lead scientists of the program that successfully sent the first dog into space to die, said the following: “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. […] We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.” [9]

The Trolley Problem

“The ends justify the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.”  ~ Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven


Most of the time, when a creature on earth is born with two heads, it does not survive to adulthood. Survival in such an impossible state is difficult, but it happens–nature allows the occasional miracle. For those two-headed creatures that do not die, the two do not become one. Two-headed snakes have been known to attack and kill their other head. [10] When one bites the other, they both feel the pain. But they don’t know what it’s like to be alone.

In my own moments of two-headedness, I mix myself up with someone else. An old friend in the passenger seat during a thunderstorm: I placed my hand on his chest and felt him flow up and into me, felt his own chest as mine, my own hand as his, and then I pulled away. The smaller momentarily grafted to the larger. The event left a strange and perverse feeling in the car, as if we’d stepped foot in a realm not meant for us, and then stepped away. I should call him.

In my moments of one-headedness, I feel unfinished, incomplete. Up here, in my head, where I hide myself away in order to make sense of things, I am alone, and it is quiet. I teeter on a ladder and hear my name in someone else’s voice below, a desire to protect me–a desire for protection, like the beam of a flashlight in my eyes, in someone else’s eyes. The animal impulse to call out, be careful. An animal calling out: be careful! “Be careful” means two things: “if you die, I will keep living,” and, “without you, I am not me.” Two sisters playing in the street in the rain, splashing in the puddles in their little boots, be careful. Their memories get shuffled like a deck of cards until one cannot say whether an event happened to herself or her sister. Everyone knows the stories of twins and their psychic connections, or mothers dropping to the ground the moment their child dies on the other side of the world. These are common miracles.

But, most of the time, you are only you. One head, one body. Your pain is yours. Someone else calls your name–it is not theirs. Someone calls your name, and that sound, that clear recognition, it makes you want to fall all the way down. You’re six years old again, reaching down, down into the snow while your best friend holds your hand to keep you from tumbling into the hole. His hand is warm, your hand is cold. You’re both slipping. Which one were you? Which one was I? I should call him. The phone is ringing.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their work. For if one falls, the other will lift his fellow up: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevails against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Creation Myth

A dog is a human intention made real. A dog is a cave painting, or a fingerprint at the scene of a crime. For if someday our world sputters out and dies, and our buildings crumble and are buried in time, the dogs may well outlast us. And maybe then the aliens will arrive and notice that these animals were engineered by the same ones who built tall buildings. These dogs were built tall and impossibly lanky or small and impossibly stout, built to warm our beds or built to take down megafauna, but always built to love us and to defend a perimeter: to live and die atop a border between inside and outside the magic circle of humanity, leaving behind us a shape in the dirt. They were built to make eye contact and respond in kind to facial expressions and body language, a mirror of our own cultures and languages and family structures. The shapes of their skulls gradually shortened, condensed, until they looked a little bit more like ours.

We don’t know who made us, but we know we made the dogs. We made them in our image and according to our needs. We fed them and they followed us. We loved them and they worshiped us. But eventually we saw in the eyes of that which worshiped us something greater than ourselves, something we meant all along to do but just couldn’t manage. We fell short of them somehow. Sometimes they tear each other apart with their teeth and we still can’t do better. We failed to love each other enough, to defend the weak, to show mercy and dignity to all among the living–we wept at beauty instead of injustice, we were disloyal to the flesh and disloyal to the spirit.

But we made the dogs.


The dog-man rips my heart out every day and every day I am devoured. He weighs my same heart against his same feather and every day it is heavy, so heavy. And every day the feather is so light. I have nothing to take with me but the weight of all I’ve done and all I’ve failed to do. The weight is all I have. Will you punish me for this? Will I deserve it?

Dr. Demikhov, Again, Again

Before he became a doctor, Demikhov, like many other young men of his era, wished to make a flying machine. It had never been done before, and he wanted to be the first. He tied his glider to the back of a car driven by a friend, and he gripped the handles and ran behind the car until the car outpaced him. He lifted a few meters from the ground, and then he tumbled down. When his friends caught up with him, one of them asked Demikhov:


Works Cited

Armstrong Oma, Kristin. “On the Fringe: Sheepdogs and their Status within Bronze Age Ontologies in Scandinavia.” Current Swedish Archaeology, vol. 28, 14 May 2020, pp. 99–120.

Engebretson, Kelly. “The Seminal and Sometimes Weird Science of Dr. Robert White.” Newsroom | University of St. Thomas, 14 July 2021.

Germonpré, Mietje, et al. “Fossil Dogs and wolves from Palaeolithic sites in Belgium, the Ukraine and Russia: Osteometry, ancient DNA and stable isotopes.” Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 36, no. 2, Feb. 2009, pp. 473–490.

Grimm, David. These May Be the World’s First Images of Dogs—and They’re Wearing Leashes, Science, 16 Nov. 2017.

Kelly, Erin. “When Soviet Scientists Literally Created a Two-Headed Dog.” All That’s Interesting, All That’s Interesting, 21 Sept. 2022.

Konstantinov, Igor E. “At the Cutting Edge of the Impossible.” Texas Heart Institute, vol. 36, no. 5, 2009, pp. 453–458.

“Message from the First Dog in Space Received 45 Years Too Late.” Message from the First Dog in Space Received 40 Years Too Late,, 3 Nov. 2002.

Motherboard, director. A Monkey Head Transplant (Part 1 of 2). YouTube, YouTube, 11 July 2013. Accessed 16 Nov. 2023.

Punishment, Accessed 16 Nov. 2023.

Shipman, Pat. “Domestication of Dogs May Explain Large Numbers of Dead Mammoths.” Penn State University, ​Penn State News, 29 May 2014.

Starr, Michelle. “This 8,000-Year-Old Rock Art Is the Earliest Depiction of Domesticated Dogs.” ScienceAlert, 17 Nov. 2017.

Stevens, Edmund. “Russia’s Two-Headed Dog.” LIFE, 20 July 1959, pp. 79–82.




Shady Balcom is a creative nonfiction writer from Denver, Colorado, and a student at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. His research topics of interest include folk art, divination, and transgender studies. His work has been published in Metrosphere.