Alert Seated Canine Effigy Vessel, 300 BC–300 AD
Colima, Comala style
Earthenware with slip
Overall: 11 1/4 × 10 1/2 × 8 1/4 in. (28.6 × 26.7 × 21 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Meredith J. Long in honor of Fayez Sarofim and Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. at "One Great Night in November, 1994"

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Detailed Observation

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Beginning of year, establishing habits of mind, close observation, Thinking SmARTer
  • The importance of detail
  • Understanding that observation of detail includes what is NOT there, as well as what is
  • Reading strategies: Making connections and inference, finding text support for conclusions






Language Arts


Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

A common subject in Colima sculpture is the dog, one of the earliest domesticated animals. Dogs served the Colima as pets, guardians, and hunting aides. Some less fortunate canines were bred and fattened specifically as food for humans. Many of the dogs depicted in Colima sculpture have rounded bodies and distended belly, possibly an allusion to this culinary function. Other Colima dogs are shown in a variety of moods and poses—from fearsome and ferocious, to sleeping and sedate. Portrayed as if it has just turned its head in response to a sound, this lifelike dog exemplifies the quality of movement that is characteristic of many Colima sculptures.

The dogs that were companions to the Colima probably were of a hairless breed, a type uncommon in Europe, as noted by the Spanish when they arrived in Mexico and South America. Hairless dogs thrive in warmer climates, and they are found mostly along the coastal towns
of Mexico and South America. Through their study of Colima dog sculptures, archaeologists have determined that hairless dogs in Mexico predated their South American counterparts.

Terra-cotta vessels and sculptures are the most abundant remnants of the indigenous cultures of the early Americas. Buried deep in underground tombs, they have survived the centuries to provide clues about daily life in ancient civilizations. Colima sculptures reveal a mastery of ceramic techniques. Handcrafted from clay without molds or internal structural supports, they required the expertise of highly skilled artisans. The burnished red-brown clay of this dog is typical of Colima art, with surface detail created by incised lines rather than painted decoration.

Colima sculpture is named after the western Mexico state and city in which it was discovered. In the native Indian dialect, Colima means “god of fire who rules.” The Colima god of fire is the Volcán de Fuego de Colima—Fire Volcano of Colima—which is Mexico’s most active and most dangerous volcano. Located just 25 miles from the fiery mountain, the city of Colima endures the constant threat of a devastating eruption.

The Colima people left no written records, and little is known about their mysterious civilization, which is estimated to have inhabited the western region of Mexico between 300 B.C. and A.D. 300. Most of our information is derived from the subterranean tombs where the Colima were buried. Carved deep into the rock, these multi-chambered tombs were reached by long vertical shafts—some plunging 45 feet. Families deposited their dead within each tomb over several generations, equipping their relatives with terra-cotta vessels and sculptures for the afterlife. Some tombs are quite large, containing dozens of ceramic objects as well as stone and shell offerings. Among such funerary offerings are complex sculptures representing people, animals, birds, and even fruits. Figures of dogs—such as this lively example—have been found frequently in Colima shaft tombs, perhaps providing companionship to the dead in the afterlife.


  • Do you think this dog looks realistic? Why or why not? List the qualities that are realistic and those that are not.
  • Why do you think the artist chose not to paint this small sculpture?
  • How do you think this sculpture was used?
  • What can you infer from this sculpture about the Colima culture?
  • What is the material this sculpture is made of?
  • This sculpture is almost 2000 years old. How do you think it survived?
  • Colima artists knew that a solid clay figure would probably break during the firing process. Therefore—like other Colima sculptures—this dog is hollow. Do you think the figure would have been simple or difficult to make? How skillful was the artist? Explain.
  • Looking closely, how would you describe the mood of this sculpture?


  • Archaeologists and anthropologists learn about indigenous cultures of the Americas by studying the clues they left behind. Consider the fact that we have no written records made by the Colima people. What can we learn about them from their sculpture?
  • What was the rest of the world like when this sculpture was made, between 200 B.C. and A.D. 250? What was happening in the Roman Empire? What was being accomplished in China? Include achievements in art and architecture, as well as history.

Connecting to the Classroom

  • After students have had an opportunity to observe the painting, ask them what they see.
  • Because students will probably concentrate on what they actually see, follow-up the observation comments by asking them what they do NOT see; for example, what “should have” been included if this were meant to be an exact replica of a dog?
  • Why do you think the artist omitted the details you would expect to be included in a realistic depiction of a dog? Do those omissions tell you anything about the time period that this work would have been created?
  • The artist chose to position this animal in a specific way. What does this choice tell you about the artist’s attitude toward the subject?
  • What attitude do you think the artist’s culture had toward dogs? Why do you think so?
  • What about the artist’s choice of ceramics influenced the details the artist chose to reveal?


  • Have a variety of photographs of dogs available for student use. Using a Venn diagram, have students compare and contrast the Colima Dog with any one photograph of an actual dog.
  • Have students write a narrative about this artist and his/her dog.
  • Through table discussions, have students discuss stories they know about dogs—everything from Clifford to Call of the Wild, Autobiography of a Stray, 101 Dalmatians, Ballot, Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, and Sounder. What is our culture’s view of dogs as shown through those stories? (Have one representative from each table volunteer one example and conclusion.) Discuss.

Subject Matter Connection

The Colima Dog makes an excellent follow-up and contrast to other works of art used to help strengthen students’ observation skills. Observation skills include what is NOT seen as much as what IS seen. By observing this familiar subject rendered in sculpture, students will need to not only pay attention to detail, but also pay attention to the absence of detail to create inferences about the work. Observation skills are critical to the discerning language arts students—both in paying attention to details when they read and in creating details when they write.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider