For the Love of Dogs

Does your dog love you? Scientists are starting to say so. New books including Dog Is Love show an increasing willingness for researchers to use the “L” word for dogs’ relationships with people.

Catholic theologians have said quite a bit about the subject however, and it is worth understanding “dog love” — so that we appreciate it for what it is, and not mistake it for what it’s not.

Dogs sure seem to love — in some cases more than human beings. 

There are life-saving dogs who sacrifice their own safety for others, there are seeing eye dogs (including, sort of, Tobias’), and there is Hachiko, the hero dog of Japan, who waited nine years for his master after his master died.

Studying dog brains gives more evidence still. Dogs’ brains light up like ours do when they hear someone they know; the “bonding” chemical oxytocin that helps human beings stay attached is at work in dogs, too.

But, ironically, the old joke about your dog and your wife reveals the truth about dogs.

“You know how you can tell that you dog loves you more than your wife does?” goes the joke. The answer: “Lock both of them in the trunk of your car for an hour and see which one’s happy to see you when you let them out.” 

Ironically, this joke shows that the spouse loves more than the dog.

The classic St. Thomas Aquinas definition of love is “to will good to another.” A human being you locked up would demand an explanation, call you to task for the injustice, and demand restitution – in other words, the human being will want the highest good for you.

The dog will just wag its tail. This is because dogs can only will the very lowest bar possible for you. Dogs will celebrate when you come home, but not when you get a promotion. They will be glad if you read next to them, but they won’t care if you enjoy the book or not.

Dogs’ love is enthusiastic but not discriminating. In fact, a dog doesn’t even care if you are human. Scientists are studying what popular culture has observed for years: Dogs are eager to adapt to any species. They have been known to bond with sheep, goats, and even penguins in exactly the same way as humans

In fact, science seems to be discovering what St. Thomas Aquinas knew all along: Dogs have emotional love, but not rational love. 

You need freedom to love, and animals have very limited freedom.

“An irrational animal takes one thing in preference to another because its appetite is naturally determinate to that thing,” says Aquinas. “Wherefore as soon as an animal, by its sense or its imagination, is offered something to which its appetite is naturally inclined, it is moved to that alone, without making any choice.”

This is what the television show Myth Busters found: Stories about bribing the guard dog with steak are actually plausibly true. A dog follows its nature, not a moral code. That means they can have a love of the passions, but not a love of the will.

They can be loyal, but they can’t appreciate beauty, truth, or goodness. Simply by living and being a dog, they give glory to God. But they can’t worship God directly. That’s right, Aleteia readers, that German Shepherd didn’t really love the Baby Jesus and that monastery dog doesn’t really pray before meals

When you understand how dogs love you, it is easier to see how you should love dogs.

More and more of us are making more of their dogs than we should, spending too much on them when they live, and letting their deaths affect us too much when they die.

My sorrow at my own dog’s death took me by surprise. I had to pull over on the way home from the vet to cry. The pain is real. But ultimately human death is a tragedy that is always greater in kind, not just degree.

Even dog care websites say we are going too far, making life confusing for our pets, warning against ending human relationships because the dog disapproves, putting dogs in baby carriages, throwing parties for our dogs, and treating them on a par with our children on Christmas cards.

Some businesses are taking advantage of this with expensive grooming services, dog wardrobes, and dog funerals.

The Church proposes a better way.

We owe animals kindness, says the Catechism (No. 2416) but it is also legitimate to use them for our needs in a way that would be inappropriate with people, and even scientific experimentation (No. 2417).

So, admire your dog for its loyalty, respect its obedience, and enjoy its companionship. Then take the lessons you learn from your dog, and apply them to God. That way you both will be doing what your were made to do.

This appeared at Aleteia.
Image: Tracy, Flickr

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.