In the morning of April 17th 2009, our beloved dog companion Nena passed away. She died at home in San Francisco, after a short period of illness, caused by a congestive heart failure. She was 9 years and 5 months old.

Please remember her.

To the people who knew and loved her: she loves you all back!

To the people who did never meet her: you would have loved her!

To Nena: we love you and miss you terribly.


When Nena came to us in November of 1999, she changed our lives completely. She was extremely lovable, and loved humans back with the same intensity. Her main concern was to be with us, all the time. And we wanted to have her with us, all the time. For that reason, we brought her to the Lab, every day we were there. The community accepted her immediately, because she was so loveable. The dog people at the lab were happy, obviously. But also for the people who were not familiar with dogs yet, she showed them how gratifying dog companionship is. Of course it helped that her hair was soft and smooth, did not cause any allergies, and that she was so small that she could fit on the palm of a hand when she was a puppy. She was just so adorable.


And because of that, she came with us, wherever we were at the lab: to meetings and classes, to talks and lunches, to teas, everywhere. During classes, she sometimes was allowed to roam the classrooms, which caused for some interesting encounters: what do you say when all of a sudden, a tiny white fluffy cute little dog shows up at your chair, quietly looking up at you with high intensity eyes saying: Pet me! It was hard to resist. So she got a lot of love from the ML community, and in turn loved the ML community.

It was good that both her parents were research assistants at the lab, and both had offices on the same floor. Nena was usually in one of the offices, either under the table, or more often on a chair right beside us. She occasionally roamed the ML by herself, usually to check on the other parent, in the other office. Her presence in the office was well known, and we received many visits from fellow students and staff who came not to see us, but to see her. Of course that was completely ok with us. And it was definitively ok with Nena. She loved visitors, and getting petted by them. But even when we were walking down the hallways of the lab together with Nena, she usually got more attention than we got. People greeted her before they greeted her human parent—and that was completely ok with us. We would have done the same.

We were extremely grateful that Nena was at the lab with us. The lab community liked her, but she also provided a clear service to the ML community: pet therapy. That’s of course just a fancy expression for loving pets, getting loved by pets, and feeling better afterwards. Coming to our office and petting her for five minutes had a calming effect on all those stressed out and tired-from-all-nighters lab people. Even if not particularly stressed out, petting Nena had a tremendously calming effect on many people, and so it must have become one of the most efficient stress-reducing activities one could do at the lab.

But she was with us not only at work, but also everywhere else. We were carrying her on our backs, in a transporter made specifically for her breed. It was like her own portable home on our backs, and she absolutely loved it, from day one on. She bicycled with us, every day, from home to lab and back, either on our backs, or (when we already had backpacks) on our front, like a marsupial. It looked pretty funny, her sticking her head out, interested in everything that was going on outside. When we went shopping, she came with us—in the zipped up bag on our backs, which was opaque from the outside, but of course transparent from the inside. Like that she could clearly see what was going on outside, even when nobody had an idea that she was there. She loved that. She often came to restaurants with us, in her bag—even fancy ones: for example, she was with us at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, and Napa’s Ubuntu. Usually, after we settled down, we opened the bag under the table, and she peeked out of the bag, interested in the food smells and the new environment. She was always interested in new environments, provided that she was with us.

So she went with us, wherever we went. This included of course all shopping, eating (and wine tasting), and visiting friends; but also hiking, when we played tennis, racquetball, minigolf, did inline skating (and she was able to pull us uphill!), skiing (well, being carried on our backs). She came with us for parties and events, vacations to Maine and Lake Tahoe, visiting friends in New York and on Long Island, swimming in lakes and both the Atlantic and Pacific ocean, and crossing the whole U.S. continent by car—wherever we went. As long as she was with us, she was happy. And we were happy.



Not surprisingly, she was with us during all important life events: for our MIT graduation, she even got her own matching MIT gown! We figured that she spent enough time at MIT (almost six years, way more than most students) so that she should receive at least an honorary degree… She was also with us during our wedding in the beautiful botanical garden in San Francisco. In fact, there was no other way we would have wanted to get married, other than with Nena being close to us, as close as possible. And she was close, walking ahead of us down the aisle. It made us happy, and in turn made her happy.


Of course not every day was an important life event. In fact, most things that probably made her happy were little things, like running. Although she was a small fluffy dog, she was extremely fast and of a quite athletic build. There was no dog of her size that could keep up with her, and she knew it. She was literally running circles around other dogs, inviting them to chase her or being chased—either way was fine with her. She loved running, and she especially loved doing it in the hallways of the ML. That was because the floor carpet provided her with superior traction, like the grass outside. But even if the grass outside was covered with snow, she loved running, and we came out to play outside every day, rain or shine: it became a very important part of our daily ML routine, and kept us sane. Mind you, running on snow covered grass fields was no easy thing to do for little dog like her, and often resulted in her jumping like a bunny (hilarious), or even trying to slip under the snow cover, essentially diving into the snow (even more hilarious). Most importantly, she loved it, and so did we.

Living in Boston, with the steamy hot summers and cold snowy winters was not a problem for her. She adjusted to all weather conditions easily. In winter, when there was deep fluffy snow in the park, the snow would stick to her long hair, and would accumulate to small snow balls, which later transformed to chunks of ice. It looked hilarious, and she didn’t mind at all. We had to bathe her in warm water to melt the ice chunks off her hair. Often we dressed her up to protect her from the cold or wet weather. And she had a tremendous wardrobe: most of the clothes were made for her specifically, by her grandmother from Japan, who created the most amazing pieces. Nena was the most fashionable dog ever, and she was aware of it. She had t-shirts, pants, rain coats, trench coats, leather jackets, and sweaters of all kinds and in all styles. She had costumes, hats, suspenders, belts, even rain and snow boots, and all kinds of accessories. She was a true fashion dog, and she didn’t mind showing it.

So she became a fashion model. Her looks were stunning, and although gorgeous and cute on her own, she was the perfect model to show off dog fashion. She didn’t mind the fashion photo shoots at all, wearing all styles with tremendous grace. More than once, her grandmother came from Tokyo, including photographers and support team, bringing the newest collections, and taking beautiful shots of her. In fact, Nena influenced her grandmother’s life in a deep way: it was purely because of Nena that her grandmother started her dog fashion business, and Nena became the poster child of the collection, and appeared on web sites. To her grandmother, she was her “grand dog.”



But even at the lab, she was known as the “sweater dog”, since she dressed up most of the time when it was cold outside (or even when it was not). She even won a (human) Halloween dress-up contest! In any case, she was a true fashion icon. Although she may not have cared about the fashion itself, she definitively cared about the attention she got from wearing it. She was a very social dog, after all, and all her life she focused on the relationship with humans.

Being close to humans didn’t mean she was a lap dog only. Although she loved hanging out and lounging with us where ever we were (although she made quite clear that the couch was hers, and that she claimed all of it for herself), she also loved to roam outside with us. Her most intense outside roaming was at the MacDonald Park, a beautiful and large nature area in Medford MA, where dogs off the leash were tolerated. (Like with many parks, dogs were supposed to be on leash, but rarely anyone would complain, especially if the dog was small and cute.) At the Mystic River Park, she couldn’t wait chasing after her favorite cloth Frisbee, and while we were leisurely walking along the beautiful paths, she was running back and forth, most often with the floppy Frisbee in her mouth, completely happy.

What made her day in the park was swimming. The shallow and protected little beach at the park was just too inviting: even without us encouraging her, she waded in the shallow waters, and even swam. And she chased after sticks thrown into the water: first just a meter away, and then further and further. She even tried to get to the ducks swimming a little further out, but gave up quickly. Although nobody ever taught her to swim, she knew what her limits were, and soon came back to shore.  Once out of water, she looked so funny: being wet meant that either her feet or the whole body looked very skinny compared to when she was dry. It was hilarious. After a few minutes running wet, her hair dried up, and even more interestingly, almost all mud and dirt fell off. Not that this was important to her, but it still was nice to wait and see how the wet and dirty dog became fluffy and (relatively) white again.

She loved the wind in her hair. When she was running at full speed, her long hair followed the air flow, and she looked like a white arrow. Then she appeared like the small sister of Falkor, the white dragon in the movie Never Ending Story. But even when not running, she loved the wind in her face: be it from peeking out of her porter bag on our backs when bicycling, or looking out a car window (she usually occupied the whole back seat, so that she could switch between the sides), to simply standing on a windy hill, looking into the wind and enjoying the breeze. She loved it, and we could tell that she loved it.

She also loved to chase things. This could be anything, such as a stick or a tennis ball thrown across a park lawn, or a toy thrown in our apartment or even the Media Lab—she chased after it, and caught it. That didn’t mean that she understood the concept of “fetching”! In fact, she rarely came back with her toy, and sometimes just kept carrying it with her, not really ready to give it back. Or she waited, until we caught up with her on the other side of the lawn, and waited for us to throw it again, in the other direction. Maybe she thought that her human parents also needed to get some exercise…

She loved all her toys, especially the squeaky ones, and had always huge chest of toys close by, both at work and at home. At the lab, she sometimes ventured outside the office, and came back with a new toy, found somewhere on the floor of another office… 





At the office, as soon as a visitor stopped by and showed interest in her (which was often), she would grab one of her toys from the basket and encourage the visitor in playing and a tug-of-war. She did this not only as a puppy, but her whole life: she was a truly playful dog. Of course cleaning up the play area was a task for her parents…

A very special toy to her was the laser pointer—so we kept them several of them handy everywhere we went.  She was obsessed with laser dots. In fact, this was by far her most favorite toy, or way of playing. She was relentlessly chasing after a laser dots from our keychain laser across rooms and hallways with such fervor, that we quickly learned that we could convince her very easily to go in any direction we wanted (which was usually hard to do with verbal commands only). This worked so efficiently, that we occasionally introduced her as a “laser guided dog missile.” Yes, it worked that well, and she loved it—and so we did.

Since she was at the lab with us, all the time, she of course influenced also our work. For example, she appeared in video shoots. You can see her in our famous I/O Brush video, but also in others (watch the 2003 Safe & Sound video). But even on a deeper level, she influenced her parents work: the dissertation of her father was deeply inspired by the idea of a very close and personal animal companion. And because Nena was at the lab, she was a high-tech creature. For example, with her father she shared the obsession for remotely controlled toys, such as tiny helicopters: regardless of what state she was in, as soon as she heard the toys start up, she would come and chase after them. She showed the same interest in R/C toys at UC Berkeley, where one of mother’s colleagues would play with similar toys. But Nena was also robot savvy: she interacted with pet robots with great interest, such as the robotic cat Necoro, as well as the baby dino Pleo. Nena was also equipped with a SNIFtag, and her parents could interact with her at home using a Rovio telepresence robot.



And she was a funny dog, and made us laugh. For example, she tilted her head when she heard whistling, which was just adorably funny. She reacted with a loud bark to our door bell—even if the door bell sound came from the TV! Who can tell them apart, anyway. Her fluffy ears also made us laugh: when we were carrying her in her porter bag, lightly swinging up and down, her ears would flap like little wings. It was so funny.

Most of her funniness was unintentional, of course. For example, when she was deeply asleep and dreaming, she would run, bark, and clearly doing all the things she loved to do when awake. Seeing her chasing after a big dog, a squirrel, or the neighbors cats in the window was just too cute and funny.

Nena had also some funny peculiarities. For example, she really avoided walking on manholes and all kinds of grids on the ground. She even made cute jumps over virtual obstacles—it looked very playful, as if she were making a game out of it.

Like many other dogs, she was very friendly to all kinds of people, probably because she was socialized extremely well and early on due to the Media Lab. However, there were some people who she thought were just plain wrong: one group was skateboarders, who were apparently not using their legs the way normal people should, and making the earth vibrate in an unnatural way; big men with beards and heavy gait (maybe she was just jealous…), postal workers (you have probably never heard of this before).


Although extremely human centered in her relations, she had no problem interacting with other animals, especially dogs, even if the other dogs were way bigger than she was. In fact, Nena was fearless: if large dogs were aggressive, she had no problem telling them off, or even chasing away. It made us parents proud to see that she would stand up to animals we would probably have feared ourselves. Nena was truly brave.

She was also quite picky about food. Unlike many other dogs, it was almost impossible to bribe her with treats—she was not food driven, but love driven. Of course she ate, but she often waited until everybody went to bed, and everything was calm. Then she sneaked out of the bedroom, to the kitchen, and had a late night dinner. It was the way she wanted it.

Although there were very few kinds of treats that she really wanted, once we accidentally left yummy chocolate spheres on the coffee table before we left home. When we were gone, she grabbed them, opened the wrappers, and ate the content. It was quite surprising, given her low interest in treats (and luckily not enough chocolate to upset her stomach). But we learned from it. In the following months, whenever we had to leave her home alone for a few hours, we kept and used the original chocolate wrapping papers (probably still with a very nice chocolaty smell to them), filled them with healthy dog treats, and hid them all over the apartment. When we got back, she always had found all of them, opened them, and enjoyed the treats. It was like an Easter egg hunt for her, certainly quite entertaining for her, and in addition made us feel less bad for occasionally leaving her home alone.

Although she really hated being home alone due to her separation anxiety, she soon learned that there are certain things a dog can do only when home alone—and she happily took advantage of that, which was ok with us since it was not her fault anyway. For example, although the only place she was not allowed to jump on was our bed, she loved to do exactly that as soon as we left the house. Of course she was never on the bed when we came home, she was way too intelligent for that… After we found out, we covered the bed with a sheet, which left clear “pawprints” from her excursions, and proof that she could be a very sneaky girl: she was very able to understand what she was supposed to do, but also found ways around these rules. We were happy about her being intelligent and clever about things she really wanted.




Many things in our lives were directly influenced by her: where we chose to live (being close to a park was essential, and we were planning on buying a house with a big yard—just for her), what jobs we were considering (can we bring Nena to work? If so, that was a tremendous plus), and certainly all our daily routines: getting up in the morning because she wanted our attention, preparing her food, walking her, and playing with her, understanding and loving her. Her passing away truly felt like losing a daughter, and we are still in a state of shock.

Even at her high age of almost 70 dog years, she always looked like a puppy, and mostly acted like one. People would not believe that she were an old lady. A big part of our lives evolved around her, and now that space is just empty. She was our baby, after all.

If you have read the book or seen the movie The Golden Compass, you may understand when we say that she was our Daemon. In essence, it was not possible for us to be separated, and if we were, that would result in grave consequences. That is how we feel.


Nena was born on September 3rd 1999 on Long Island, to a loving breeder family. But already before that, after we both decided to stay at MIT for our PhDs and even got accepted, we had been looking for a companion dog for a while, and had decided that the dog would have to be small and social to be part of our lives. We quickly decided on Coton de Tuléar as the breed: a small but gorgeous long-hair dog, very intelligent, very loving, yet having a clear mind of his or her own. Ideal for us. Since Coton dogs are not a common breed in the US (there were only very few breeders on the East coast), it took quite a while for us to find her. After we visited her family on Long Island, and after she was old enough, we finally were able to take home the beautiful purebred girl, and decided to call her Nena. She is named after Nena, a famous German singer (“99 Red Balloons”), but most people called her Nina anyway, which is easier to pronounce. That was fine with her.


From 1999 to our graduation in 2005, she was with us in our Cambridge, MA, attending MIT. In mid 2005, we all moved to San Francisco, CA, where we got jobs. Nena’s life changed slightly because we did not work at the same location anymore. Luckily, one parent had a job at IDEO, a progressive design company with dog friendly policies. One year later, this parent became faculty at UC Berkeley, and Nena was able to come to work much more frequently. Like at the Media Lab, the Berkeley environment was ideal for her, and Nena enjoyed the large areas of green grass on campus, the long hallways where she could chase tennis balls and slide on the floor, and of course the friendly office neighbors, from whom she occasionally and sneakily stole toys, or rather, what she considered toys…

Since Nena always had clear separation anxiety (and most likely both parents as well), we naturally tried to be with her as much as possible. But when Nena had to stay home, she got professional care from a loving group of dog walkers and dog sitters. Nena participated in daily play groups and group walks, and got lots of social dog contacts from it. She adjusted well to the new urban life style.




Although a thoroughly healthy dog for most of her life, she got diagnosed with heart murmur when we came to San Francisco in 2005. This was not an issue for her at all, and for the following 3 years, it did not impact her at all. She was a very healthy, lively dog. When her congestive heart failure advanced slightly more, she occasionally coughed, but again adjusted to it easily. Only in the last few months of her life, the side effects of her heart problem became visible, and in summer 2008, the vet diagnosed a partial heart failure. That was when she started to receive medication to mitigate the symptoms of her illness. There is no cure for her illness as of now: heart transplants are not common in dogs, and a stem cell treatment is at least 20 years off in the future.

Of course we made sure that she got all the treatment she needed, and until the very last few weeks, her life was not impacted deeply by the illness. When her condition got worse, she simply slowed down her life style.

Eventually, she faded away, peacefully. Until the very last hours, she was able to go about her business of eating, drinking, and napping. She must have been surprised by her heart giving up.

She had a very happy life, and we were even luckier to have her in our lives. We will miss and remember you forever!

Rest in peace, Nena.



Stefan & Kimiko



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Last updated April 21, 2009. ©2009 Marti-Ryokai