My 2nd son, Robert, is the persistent type. After a year+ of cajoling, he talked me into doing something I’d sworn (like countless parents before) I’d never do: get a dog. Born two July 4ths ago, Mike is a petite Golden Doodle with a personality so sweet, trusting, and docile that I worry he’s in a mild coma half the time. We brought him home at four months old, and though his housebreaking is still not quite where it should be, I swear he’s made me a better person. As in morally better. Dogs, it turn out, are outstanding ethics teachers.
To start, dogs force you to be empathetic. They aren’t human, they have a whole set of behaviors we don’t share, and they don’t talk; there is simply no way to deal with them other than to try to grasp a situation from their dog standpoint rather than from your human one. Empathy, though, however cultivated, is a cornerstone of ethics: it allows us to step outside of our self-oriented perspective and give serious credence to the claims and rights of others. We are all good at this to varying degrees; dogs help us become even better.
Next, dogs encourage mindfulness. No dog is stressing about a deadline, a bill, or an upcoming exam. Dogs live in the moment. Often times we suffer ethical lapses precisely because we sacrifice the present to some future concern. Consider occasions where you were rushing and didn’t give attention to an upset child or were short and impatient with someone. Ethical action requires a balance between the present and future. You act in the present, and you need to be present to do the right thing.
Third, and this is obvious but needs saying, dogs are paramount exemplars of forgiveness. Though we may strive to be good, we are human and sometimes fail. Dogs invite us to give others—and ourselves—another chance at love rather than being overly judgmental and rigid.
Fourth, dogs curb anger and elicit kindness. This came to me recently on a jog with Mike. Though he usually loves to run, that day he was dragging on the leash, ruining my workout. Initially, I was pissed. “C’mon, you lazy dog! Get your saggy ass moving!” Shockingly, he didn’t respond well to my taunts and slowed down even more. Newbie mutt-mistress that I am, it finally occurred to me to try being nice. So, I started to praise and encourage him: “C’mon, Mike! Run! Let’s go! Run! That’s a good boy!” And, surprise, he ran and ran, and we had a great workout. I’m late to the dog game, but Mike reminded me that kindness is always the best bet to elicit cooperation.
Finally, dogs teach responsibility. As a parent you don’t really have a choice about being responsible, so this moral lesson is more for the kids. My gang knows that if they don’t feed Mike, he’ll be hungry. If they don’t walk him, he’ll pee on their rugs—he’s very good at that, it turns out. If they don’t take the time to play with him, he’ll be sad. Robert is the one who has to go downstairs at the end of every evening and let Mike out for the final time. On some nights he balks, but after months of taking this responsibility, he’s a better kid.
Did I mention that Mike is really cute and fuzzy and snuggly? What more could one ask for in an ethics teacher?