Richard Louv

Recipient of the Audubon Medal

Author of the National Bestseller Last Child in the Woods

From the Blog

THE MORALITY OF DOGS

For years, I have secretly believed that the dog I grew up with was something of a moral teacher in our family. Admitting this belief, I invite all sorts of critiques from those who, for religious or scientific reasons, object to attributing humanlike behavior to nonhuman animals. So be it. I'll bet you had such a special friend, too.

Not long ago, I asked an animal behavioralist if dogs can be moral teachers to children. (I suppose they can be moral teachers to adults, too, but children and dogs, like Elwood P. Dowd and Harvey, can be especially attuned.) This particular animal behaviorist also earned a doctorate in the psychology of human behavior, and he is an expert on pet therapy for children.

Pets, he said, are often moral teachers, though that is not their intent. For example, pets teach children about death. "The death of a dog or cat can be the single most profound loss a human being can experience. Some people don't want to accept the fact that an animal can mean as much, or more, to a human being as another member of the family. But it can. Children learn about dying; they can afford this price more than they can the loss of a parent."

A dog can teach a child about unqualified love. A child may have trouble reading even a loving parent, but a dog is always straightforward. "Dogs do not deceive well. They don't lie. The most they do is misunderstand." Unfortunately, dogs may be the only source of unqualified, unearned affection that some children ever have.

Dogs also teach about the difference between essence and behavior, about human forgiveness. "When my kid does something wrong and I explode, it's hard for the child to realize I love him," he says. "But when my child sees me punish the dog, and then 20 minutes later giving it treats, loving it, paying its vet bill, my child realizes that the dog's behavior is bad, but the dog is still good." On the other hand, when parents use corporal punishment on a dog, "it teaches a child that swatting a butt is a good idea." That is a lesson more children could do without.

I pointed out that his examples had focused more on parental behavior than pet behavior. I wanted to return to my original question. "Let me ask you about Banner," I said to the animal behavioralist.

Banner was two when he came, and eleven when he died, and in between he was my best friend, and, I believed, my teacher.

Now I will admit right off that the memory of a child is imaginative. Banner was a collie in the era of Lassie and Jeff. And, as a child, I devoured the books of Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote "Lad: A Dog." So these influences undoubtedly colored my expectations and perhaps my memory.

Still, I do remember these things. Banner, whose nose was scarred deeply by the time he died, would never fight a small dog; sometimes he would protect the diminutive dogs of the neighborhood.

Grumping about it the whole time, he would walk out of the basement each morning with the cat between his legs, protected. I watched him shoot up the street and catch the neighborhood's meanest dog in midair as it attacked a neighbor, who was holding her small dog in her arms. Banner would pull my brother by the diapers from the street. He would sit on us when we threw rocks. When we were up to no good he would sometimes go home, but he would always come back.

I spent centuries, it seemed, in the woods with Banner. Once, when I was about 8, I fell through the ice of the creek. Up to my waist, I tried to climb the steep and snowy bank but slipped back. Banner left. He came back. I remember him at one end of a fallen branch, tugging, and I remember getting out of the creek that way.

I tell you this with some embarrassment, knowing the trickery of memory. I don't know if any of this happened exactly the way I remember.

Children romanticize their pets, project all kinds of behavior onto them, the behavioralist said. Dogs often tend to fight the largest dog available, he explained. They are doing what dogs do; they do not think about championing the oppressed.  The branch was probably there all along, and Banner was probably only playing tug-of-war. "Your interpretation was the lesson," he said. "Perhaps you unconsciously aggrandized yourself by seeing his behavior as heroic. But who taught him to tug on the stick—an act that may have unintentionally saved your life? Probably you taught him that."

The behavioralist's rationality is appealing, but so is mystery.

Buddhists, I am told, believe that a teacher or priest who fails to live a good life can find himself demoted in the next life. He can find himself in the form of a dog, still with the urge to teach.

One dark morning I awakened to the sound of my mother crying. I was convinced that something had happened to my father. I ran down the stairs and out to the porch to find Banner, carried from the road by my father, lying there cold and stiff. I cried, but the crying was fake — I was relieved that my father still lived. For a long time, I felt guilty for that secret fakery. So Banner taught me about the confusion and untidiness of death.

Sometimes when I return to Kansas City I walk back behind the old house to a depression in the ground. Here lies my friend. I wonder where he really is.

______________________________

Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.

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Comments

Hi Richard,

A wonderful article, and one which beautifully articulates something I’ve always more than suspected, that our animal companions, like us, are singular expressions of the one Consciousness that animates all things, and that in the “I and Thou” space between us there exists an opportunity—the opportunity to awaken to our own infinite value.  Thanks for writing and sharing this.  By the way, you might enjoy my upcoming column in the San Diego Troubadour, which I’ve uploaded onto my blog: http://www.peterbolland.blogspot.com.  This one’s called “The Wisdom of Trees”.

Gratefully,

Peter Bolland

What a beautiful and moving post Richard. Our Flatcoat Retreiver turned 4 on Tuesday. I was reluctant at first at adding yet another member to our family but within a few days of having the mischievous puppy, I could see how much joy the dog gifted our three children.  The unconditional love over the past four years has been a strength for my teenagers and all the children have shown a responsibility for taking care of him, from walking to feeding, to playing outdoors with their faithful, loving friend. Prince has taught my children, my husband and myself many things and have a deep spiritual connection with him. I believe when a living thing dies, it’s spirit lives on and they never really leave us.
In my experience, the positives of having a dog in your child’s life far out way the negatives. A huge bonus…it gets the children OUTSIDE!!!

Wonderful article Richard. Thank you for sharing your information and insight about the many values dogs have brought to our lives. Anyone who has known or had a dog, shares your views. They are excellent teachers through example on things like, unconditional love, living here now, not in the past or future, being true to their essence, etc. I have enjoyed following your work and progress, into the realm of connecting people with nature and helping us to better understand the importance of this connection, to know ourselves more deeply and be more connected with all people and all life. All the best to you!

I doubt that these are childish adapted memories. Yes, memories are rarely literal and become the story we want to tell about an event. However so many dog owners have memories that are similar to yours that it is quite possible they are true (with a touch of poetic licence). Anybody who has dealt with a large number, and a large variety of animals will rarely dismiss any story out of hand, no matter how outlandish.

Nature is a marvellous teacher, if you are willing to watch and learn.

Lovely. Banner sounds like a special dog among dogs.

I think it is more fair to call those admirable qualities that dogs and humans share, as mammalian. Many mammals show signs of a similarly beautiful, if simple mind, and to distinguish it’s beauty as human-like would seem to denigrate it in a way. Those behaviours and feelings evolved in our pets independently from us, not because of us.

We mammals can learn a lot from each other - I learned a great deal about mothering from Jane Goodall’s descriptions of Flo. And I have no trouble at all believing that Banner saved you.

Like kids, I think dogs can show us a great deal more than we expect if we give them the freedom to be themselves.

Wiping tears from my eyes Richard….thank you for this beautiful piece.

I don’t believe it was by accident that I came across your article while getting ready to post on Facebook a sweet remembrance of my dear Collie, Moxi, who died in my arms yesterday.  I’ve read it several times and, undoubtedly, will again because it made me feel that she will always be with me in my wonderful memories of the times we spent together.  Her litter-mate, Molly, is also grieving and I only wish I could make her understand the essence of your article.  Thank you.

Thanks to all of you, and to Barbara Marker, my gratitude and my sympathies.

Richard, just when I thought you couldn’t possibly earn any more of my respect you go and write about my second favorite topic - dogs. Nature, of course, being my first. You rock.

I, too, am amused at those who believe science supports the notion that dogs don’t experience feelings and emotions, or even use a rudimentary, doggy logic (often the best that I am capable of, myself). Anyone with a dogish relationship knows better.  Ann passed your blog on to me and I was increasingly pulled into it, and reminded of heroic dogs of my past.  Thanks, Rich

PS - I loved Lad: A Dog, too.

To me, learning about someone’s early relationship with a pet provides a key insight into who they are. It was lovely to meet Banner in this way, and particularly wonderful to see him and you—the early Rich.  Thanks so much for sharing this with us all.

Rich, thank you for shedding light on the intricate, intimate role pets play in our lives. Your sharing stirred deep emotion – gratitude, wonder, sorrow, and joy – as
memories of pets past and present flooded through. Experience tells me that pets and animals in general play a powerful, mysterious role in our lives, affecting us all in ways the mind can never know. Appreciate your heart sharing.

As parents of an only child, we never realized how important it has been to have a succession of dogs in our household (we’ve always had more than one). So many times our daughter has gone to them for comfort, companionship, and a warm body to snuggle up against. Now that she’s a teenager, it’s been amazing to see that she has become even closer to the two dogs we have now, especially the younger one, a gangly golden retriever named Tippy. As she negotiates all the traumas and triumphs of high school, Tippy is her touchstone and her best friend, as much of a sibling as we could wish for. Thanks for writing this, Rich.

The Buddhists have been misled…when an enlightened one passes out of this world, s/he can elect to come back as a dog. Most dogs are really Avatars in disguise. My book in the making: Everything I Needed to Know about Spirit I Learned from my Dogs.

Wow!  That was a truly touching story, thanks so much for sharing Richard. At least you are sincere about your “secret fakery”

I firmly believe that Banner brought that branch to help you. That dog was watching Lassie right by your side!
Our childhood pet, Randy, wasn’t quite that smart. However, he was the best companion we kids could ask for. H allowed us to photograph him in ridiculous costumes such as a Snoopy WWI flying ace getup. We used him for a pillow while we watched TV and rode him as if he were Trigger. I guess he was teaching us about ffriendship. I suppose there is a certain morality to that!
Laurie Brannen

Your memories evoke so many of mine of treasured pets whose “unqualified love” still touch my heart. Morality of dogs? Not sure I agree, but experiencing simple truths like joy, loyality, and trust, all the while knowing that you have the power to hurt but don’t—that’s a lesson in morality that is rarely learned better than with a pet. Thank you for sharing Banner’s story. You were lucky to have found each other.

nice blog!

What a lovely tribute to Banner! Check out this book by Garth Stein: The Art of Racing in the Rain. This book is told from the pov of the family pet and it really illustrates just how a dog can “teach” us.

Its an interesting read and informative as well, thanks for sharing the post and All the Best for your New Blog

I also used to have a dog when I was a kid his name’s Babsy… grin

I just love it…. Well i don’t have any doubt about your articles. Your articles are awesome… Honestly you are simply the best. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Dogs love for their dedication, this friend will never betray

What a beautiful and moving post Richard.Just like human beings, a pet too needs love, care, attention, as well as a healthy lifestyle. Supplements or dietary supplements designed for the pet help in improving the health of the pet as well as prevent the onslaught of various diseases. It is due to the positive effect they have on the pet’s body that makes them very popular.
Cat Supplies

This is really well-written! Concise and very meaningful article. I’ve a pet dog and it’s so cute. I guess you’re really experienced about the dogs and it’s behavior. Thanks for the simplicity and moral views. smile

Dogs above all other pets seem to display and share emotions with humans they know when you are sad and can bring so much joy
dog breeds,

“For years, I have secretly believed that the dog I grew up with was something of a moral teacher in our family.”

It’s funny, this is exactly what I believe.  And I didn’t get my first dog until I was 28.

Yes, dogs are really amazing creatures. I had a dog that was very close to me but I had to leave her when I left home. My sister took care of her. After like a year, I went back home and she still remembered me. Even slept outside my bedroom door. Before I got back, she used to sleep outside my sister’s bedroom door. I loved that dog.

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring—it was peace.”
- Milan Kundera

I am a dog owner and I love dogs. I really love the moral lessons you shared. It is very inspiring. I wish my dog can be a teacher of moral lesson for my kids.

I have beautiful dog in my home, I love him very much. Everytime, when I came back from outsite, he will always be there waiting for me. Thanks for you sharing, It reminds me a lot.

Pets, especially dogs, seem to understand circumstances in the most unusual and beautiful way.  After my divorce, my son lived with his mom part of the time and it wasn’t a great situation. One of the first things he told me when he came to live w/me full time was that it was his dog that got him through the rough times. My son was only 8 at the time and it amazed me he understood the importance of this little animal. It also amazed me his dog seemed to understand that staying by my son’s side during times of duress was his role. The two share an incredibly close relationship, one of fun and love, but underlying is a deep union between he and his dog, a team that helped each other get through a difficult situation.

Great post Richard-thank you.  We adopted a greyhound several months ago and there are many times I find myself ascribing human tendencies and motivations to his behavior-especially when he’s bad. 

But that’s not fair to him.  He’s a dog and at times he’s the most loving animal.  Other times his behavior seems totally irrational but again that’s a human quality-not a dog’s.  His emotional state is driven by my ability to be a good owner: when he misbehaves he’s not secretly trying to be bad!

Thanks again.

thankyou for sharing this wonderful article , dogs give you that heart warming affection and love that no other person or animal gives , i don’t know where i would be without my two yorkshire terriers .

Nice blog. I’ve always believed dogs were special to us!

I am really inspired of what you have just discussed above. I’d love add more and more knowledge and keep browsing in future as well so i could learn more.

Richard,

Thanks for sharing this article with us.And yes all of us have much to learn from especially dogs when it comes to offer unconditional love.

Keep up the good work smile
Samantha

I think that there may be an additional way in which we can learn from the “morality of dogs”. Those who have read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous “Self Reliance” (President Obama’s choice to be published with his Inaugural Address) will know that he (in common with many of the greatest philosophers) called upon us in all ways and at all times to be true to our own nature, in the deepest sense.
Not only is a dog almost incapable of anything else in most things (although humans can usual manage a little behavioural training!) but it is also striking to notice how the different breeds of dogs, bred for different tasks, have quite different natures. Dogs frequently stand for us as a reminder of spontaneity, enthusiasm and joy.
If you would like to read a brief and tongue-in-cheek article that makes this point about learning from dogs, have a look at this http://blochhealing.co.uk/a-little-fun”

I was very moved by your post. I have often thought that dogs (and all animals for that matter) are more in tune with the universal spirit of the universe, and as such there is much we can learn from them. They are happy to simply be, whereas us humans over complicate everything by identifying too much with our egos.

Nice article as always. Very inspiring, touching story.. Love my dog..

A good dog is a good listener. Growing up on a farm, some days Ginger was my best playmate and friend and she was a great listener.  I remember sitting against the wall of the barn in the warm sunshine and telling stories.  She was an especially good listener and friend whenever I was sad.

A relative who stuttered as a child once told me that the only time he didn’t stutter was when he talked to the dog. Some of the most innovative literacy programs today have children read to dogs—dogs that listen with patience and without judgement.

I just lost my best friend, Lincoln…a sheltie mix who, I swear, read my mind more than I read his.  I rescued him in college, and he was with me for 12 years until just a few weeks ago.  He taught me patience, which served me well when I had my son.  He taught me perserverence when he got sick 4 years ago but pulled through.  He taught me unconditional love that I still have trouble understanding.  His acceptance of things “just the way they are” is a constant reminder for me, a perfectionist by nature.  I have heard my own son, age 3, tell me that I shouldn’t do something because Lincoln wouldn’t do it.  If that’s not a moral lesson, I don’t know what is.  I miss him dearly, but know he lives on in the moral lessons he taught me and my family.

Love this post Richard, so touching! It’s amazing some people argue that animals like dogs and cats don’t have any type of morality or even a sense of individual consciousness.

Definitely giving this post a share!

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