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Dog Videos: a confession?

Like so many I have discovered You Tube, and in addition to many informative videos and access to musical recordings which I could not otherwise afford, most days I take a few minutes to indulge in a dog video.  O my God, am I falling into an addiction which I should root out tooth and nail?

Of course if I spent a good part of each day seeking out cute animals on the internet, something would be wrong, but why not take a bit of time for an aspect of creation which rejoices and relaxes me – especially since I am a dog person, but only had one dog in my life, only for a short time, and as a Jesuit for 62 years spent the vast majority of my years in animal-less communities.

Still I have a confession to make, but more like the confession of God’s glorious action that one also finds in Augustine’s book of the same name.

From my early studies of philosophy of man, in accord with the Jesuit curriculum of those days, I remember one basic point which stuck in my craw: the triumphant affirmation of the difference between humans and animals, the former rational and the latter not.

We were so much higher than them on the hierarchy of being. It’s almost as if we had to let the animals know it.

To the contrary, recognizing in its full range the potential of our furry friends –  dogs, cats, and all the rest – is not to denigrate humans but to exalt them, because what really distinguishes us from them comes out even more clearly, which is our ability to reflect on ourselves, to define how we will fulfill our very selves.

If they are abundantly gifted, how much more are we. As Saint Paul tells us, we are spirit, soul (in Greek psyche) and body. And if animals are not spiritual creatures for themselves, we are called upon to be spirits for them, whether adopting them into our own families or making sure they can thrive in their natural habitat.

And in their own way they respond gratefully to this care.

I remember the words of a fellow Jesuit many years ago who knew my predilection for dogs. After all, he told me, they are nothing but fancy digestive tubes. Was he joking, was he serious? I do not know. But his words help me to highlight something essential. Animals lack the spirit that defines humans, but they have psyches.

Their psychic functions may have begun to develop in evolution as an adjunct to make possible the physical survival of their species, and these functions continue to play that role. But they begin to further develop in terms of relationships with their fellow animals (as much an instinct as reproduction and survival), and we humans are are increasingly included in this network.

Some animals have a full range of identifiable psychic functions, such as love, hate, desire, aversion, hope, despair, despondency, daring, anger. And in some animals those functions are readily identifiable, such as in dogs.

And individual dogs like humans find their psyche shaped by their native temperament and their experiences, above all their earliest ones: they are alert, sleepy, affectionate, distant, serious, funny, gentle, or rough, and so on, and their owners know their psyches very well, their distinct personalities. They have quirks, like humans, some testing our patience and others endearing.

Of course individual animals, like individual humans, are at times extraordinary instances of their species, at other times average or below average. For instance, some may own a relatively stupid dog, but still one they love and care for.

Others might have an extraordinary dog that can read their moods and anticipate all sorts of ways of being helpful to them. That dog might be trained to perform tasks that would require refined sensitivity and keen skills even for a human.

And they love to be at work. The potential of a species is judged not by its least accomplished but by its most. We glory in human beings that are stellar examples of skill, accomplishment, relational skills. For an animal to be endowed with a high level psyche is a joy, and leads us to glory even more in God’s gifts.

Dog videos, as well as videos of cats, horses, donkeys, or many other animals, some quite rare, are a way for us to enjoy vicariously the relations which animals, some extraordinarily gifted, have with each other and with us.

There is a variety and a subtlety, not only in animals that are introduced into human families, but also in those whom we witness living in nature and fending for themselves.

Let us not belittle this part of God’s creation, but recognize it and glorify it. In this way we affirm both them and us, and we develop attitudes of respect which will help us better care for our common home.