I grew up with dogs. Can't remember ever being without one, sometimes two, until my last year in high school when Skip wandered off and we found him dead on a country road, victim of a passing car, and we never replaced him. Our dogs were mongrels many times over, bred by a casual encounter in a vacant lot. In our small town we had no leash laws and no fences, and you would never pay mega-bucks for a dog as you could always get one from someone who handed you an extra pup, whether you wanted it or not. If you said no thanks as you couldn't take another dog right now, you might get a scowl and something about how you'd better take it, seeing it was likely your dog that knocked up theirs.
Our dogs were free roamers, and the house was clearly "no trespassing." They had normal dog names like "Spike" and "Chase," not "Wilson" or "Hollingsworth." When we heard something like "our dog is really a member of our family" or "he's our baby," we'd roll our eyes at the anthropomorphisms -- the ridiculousness of some people who couldn't distinguish between man and beast.
And now that my family has our own hybrid puppy, a part of me still feels the same way. Little Bernie is darling and affectionate and entertaining, but if he ever becomes my "best friend," someone please send me to the shrink. On the other hand, I do find myself talking to him sometimes as if he's human, and he does seem to know when we're talking about him, cocking his head a little with curious, baited breath. My daughter is making him a Valentine's card. Cute, but I did draw the line at the suggestion we get him a Seahawks T-shirt.
What is the impulse that drives us to imbue a dog with human characteristics with terms like "naughty" or "neurotic" or "baby" or the name "Bernie" (officially Bernard Lee Petersen)? On the other hand, why should a little anthropomorphizing bother me?
I think both instincts are good ones. First, to draw the line between man and beast is to recognize our uniqueness and honor the created order. Keeping the distinction also acknowledges our first God-blessed mandate, a place of authority, which in part involves naming the animals, that is, affirming their dignity as God's creatures. It means investing a personal interest in them and celebrating each animal's distinguishing traits and their unique place in God's world. We're also given the responsibility to care for them and protect their well-being and survival, tasks often referred to as "stewardship."
Taking a dog, as well as our long-term resident blind hamster, into our home reminds us of the God-given relationship we have with animals. By extension, our dog also connects us to the rest of creation by getting us outdoors more often -- to walk, run, smell the air, and watch for what he might be rooting up in the dirt. Having animals to attend to and be attended by helps soften a paved-over and increasingly digitized world. Our dog earns his keep by drawing us back to creation and the Creator.
But what impulse drives us, even from our youth, to lend human traits to animals? Are we so ego-centric that we can't help imagining an animal as one of us? Well... yes, it seems so. Stories and fantasies, in oral and written traditions, abound with animals that possess distinct personalities, characters capable of thinking, feeling, and talking like humans, portraying our most heroic and nefarious inclinations. As projections of our imaginations somehow these animal characters help us understand ourselves and our world more fully. These portrayals also bond us more closely to our fellow non-human creatures. Reading stories like Aesop's Fables or Charlotte's Web can cultivate empathy and compassion even for a spider. After reading Watership Down, I'll never be able to see rabbits without thinking about social conflicts - theirs and ours. After such immersions of the imagination,
it's impossible to look at animals purely with the distant, scientific gaze of objectivity. And after having an animal live with us, it's easy to start seeing some similarities. We realize the distance between us and animals is not as great as we may have once assumed. The result is we become more respectful and loving of animals.
So, my rational mind helps keep me and beast in our distinct and rightful places, and my imagination helps me love them as I ought.
I'm thankful my kids have an opportunity to grow up with a dog. Besides the entertainment and responsibility Bernie brings to our home, he also keeps us mindful that we and the animals are really integral to each other's kingdoms, all of which is God's kingdom. My only concern is that my six-year-old is starting to take on the personality (canine-ality?) of the dog.