I would like to suggest that dogs are perhaps the greatest things humans have ever accomplished. If my understanding is correct, dogs are essentially gray wolves, or directly descended from a wolf species, beginning somewhere between 60,000 to 100,000 years ago. At some point they were domesticated by us and used as aids to hunting. It has even been suggested that the domestication of dogs gave us an edge in our competition with Neanderthals. Human beings have domesticated any number of animals, generally for purposes of food. But dogs are another matter (I’ll ignore what they do in Korea). And it is this process and its result that I mean to laud as among our finest hours.
We long ago ceased to be serious hunters, but we kept our dogs. The breeding and development of dogs for companionship seems to be a fairly recent thing. Dogs have gone from a wolf-like appearance to the myriad of shapes and sizes we now know. But it is the inner reality of this that interests me: the personality of dogs.
Animals are without sin. Creation, St. Paul says, has been made “subject to futility” on account of our Fall (Romans 8:20), and notes that this was not done “willingly.” Their state is not their fault. God has made Creation subject to death and dissolution for our sake (it directs us towards repentance). But creation itself has no sin – it has not broken its essential relationship with God. The bread that becomes the Body of Christ does not need to first repent of its sins. Repentance belongs to humans alone.
Another way of saying this is that various animal species always act in accordance with their nature (one of the meanings of sin is to act contrary to our nature). Dogs do dog things. Cats do cat things. Squirrels do squirrel things. Dogs do not gather nuts and climb in trees. When human beings domesticate an animal, they do not give them a new nature. At most, we breed and train in a way to accentuate certain aspects of their nature. The instinct of a dog not to soil its own nest or bed is extended by a human being such that we say a dog is “house-trained.” The whole house becomes its bed.
But, my marveling and praise is over what we generally like in dogs. They are wolves and could be made to behave like wolves and be quite dangerous. In some cases, they are still trained for aggressive behavior. But, on the whole, we have chosen very affable traits for development. Dogs are kind, grateful, loyal – all of the things that we celebrate about them.
When we survey the world and creation, there are many things that stand as shameful signs of human occupation. This is particularly the case where the civilizational collapse that we call modernity has had the upper hand. The charm of an English village is the product of a different age. The mind-numbing banality of an American suburb and its strip malls is the mark of modernity. But then there are dogs.
Dogs seem to be an island that reflects not only their own natural goodness, but human goodness as well.
Of course, there is a darker side. I am not alone in writing about animals and men. George MacDonald, perhaps one of the most profound theological minds in British history, was deeply opposed to then growing practice of experimentation on animals. CS Lewis shared his convictions and often wrote in opposition to “vivisection.” Lewis also pondered freely the meaning of human relationships with animals and suggested that we perhaps had a calling to raise animals towards a more complete and full personal existence. The talking animals in his children’s stories are not cartoon characters – they are a meditation on what Lewis saw as a uniquely human mission. He is very clear that in Narnia, the “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve,” rule over the animals, but in a manner that transcends our present domestication. The animals of Narnia are not pets: they are friends. I have always been taken with Lewis’ thoughts in this direction, and have found them fulfilled most nearly in our relationship with dogs (my wife keeps cats).
Animal cruelty is revealed as true evil when we think in this manner. When animals are objectified (the opposite of personified), we turn our minds and hearts away from them and subject them to unspeakable treatment. This is itself part of the depersonalization of the world that often marks our modern lives.
My maternal grandfather was a farmer. In the years that I remember best, his farm was given primarily to the raising of cows. It was a modest farm, with a dog or two and always a bevy of cats who lived by catching mice. But I always remember my grandfather walking slowly among his cows, like a shepherd (or cowherd). Christ Himself exalted the role of shepherd, even noting that a good shepherd “calls his sheep by name” and even “gives his life for the sheep.” David himself served such a role, killing both a lion and a bear in protection of his flock. These are images that go far beyond a mere utilitarian relationship with animals. These animals have names. Interestingly, one of the primary and early uses of dogs was the sharing of this shepherd role.
It is interesting that Christ Himself offered no better image of His relationship with people than to compare Himself to a shepherd. There is something godlike in a proper relationship with animals.
Several years back I chose to take all of this seriously. My family had once had a dog, but it was the children’s dog, something I tolerated in the house. But during a time of reflection I declared that “I want to be the kind of man who has a dog.” I got a small puppy and began to learn the ways of the wolf. I read books (isn’t everything you need to know in a book?). I googled “house-training” (with every failure). I realized that whatever I did with this animal, the results would be there to praise me or accuse me. I wanted to be a man with a dog. I also wanted to become “the kind of man my dog thinks I am.” (I have not managed that yet).
It has been an intense experience. He is a companion. After my heart attack I had to develop a routine of long walks. His needs forced me to take care of myself.
Human beings, at our best, are capable of pets. At our worst, we are capable of cock-fights and faceless, nameless exploitation. God has clearly given animals to us for food, but He has not given them to us for abuse.
It is said that a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members. I would add to that the treatment of animals. Pets are not necessarily an indulgence in sentiment. They are a movement towards something right and good. We would do well to think often about this and what it means for living rightly in God’s good world.