What Having a Dog Can Teach You about Life

Editor’s Note: The following article is excerpted from the new book The Dadly Virtues (Templeton).

Here is wisdom:

Have a kid? Get a dog. Want a kid? Get a dog.

Don’t want a dog? Get a cat, which is like training wheels for dog ownership.

Have a cat already? It’s probably time to get a dog. Don’t like dogs? You’re wrong.

Those of you already encumbered with a very small human in your home — and I don’t mean Robert Reich — might be asking, “Why?” After all, the humanoid is already making demands on my tolerance for poop disposal and unremunerated feedings. Why would I saddle myself with more and similar obligations — particularly when the four-legged dependent will make demands on me forever and will never carry on the family name or provide me with any kind of tax benefit, or expand the borders of my empire into the barbarian lands of the Gauls?

I can make the practical case. Dogs make good guards, particularly of young children (though this varies by breed; Dachshunds, for instance, are tubular snapping turtles). They are fun to look at and can be entertaining companions. Children raised in households with dogs are less likely to get various immune system–related ailments, such as eczema or asthma. And I suppose if you were starving to death you could consider a canine an emergency reserve supply of protein.

But such arguments fall under the category of rank utilitarianism or instrumentalism. And I want to make a broader case for the beasts, so let me start with first things.

I am a father. I have one child, and let’s clear the air right up front: She is better than your child. Maybe not on some test or in a meaningless contest of athletic skill. Certainly if cleanliness is next to godliness, she’s a midlist offering, at best. She is better because, as Marines say of their rifles, “This one is mine.” She is my greatest concession to relativism. My kid is more important than your kid because . . . well, just because. It is an assertion I make in defiance of mere reason and with support of unprovable dogma that runs underneath my feet like veins of granite stretching to the earth’s core. I don’t begrudge you for disagreeing. In fact, I would think less of you if you didn’t. If you told me that you like my kid more than you like your own kid, my first response would be to file for a restraining order.

I bring this up because there is an old notion that keeps reemerging in public life, each time pretending to be something new: the collective ownership of kids. Plato introduced the idea in the Republic. Robespierre wanted to create special reform schools — back when the word “reform” had real teeth to it — that would indoctrinate kids into the family of the state. Hitler famously proclaimed, “When an opponent declares, ‘I will not come over to your side,’ I calmly say, ‘Your child belongs to us already. . . . What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.’” The Soviets lionized kids who turned in their parents for disloyalty, which, in Soviet life, meant that the parents were holding back food and, instead of giving it to the state, were using it to feed their family.

There is an old notion that keeps reemerging in public life, each time pretending to be something new: the collective ownership of kids.

Back in the sexist days when totalitarianism was always masculine, these sentiments were couched in stern, patriarchal terms. Now that we’re more enlightened, the same idea has been repackaged as a mommy thing. “We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families,” Wake Forest professor Melissa Harris Perry cooed on MSNBC a couple years ago. More than a decade before that, Hillary Clinton insisted that “as adults we have to start thinking and believing that there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child.”

It’s my view that we have a Second Amendment largely to make sure that no one makes the mistake of thinking that my kid is their kid. But one needn’t be so strident. One can simply argue on empirical grounds that this is a really stupid idea. The simple fact is that before we are citizens or Americans or anything like that, we are humans (you could look it up). It was Kant who said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

And if there’s any truth to that, surely you can’t organize a healthy civilization around the idea that large numbers of people can be made to care about an abstraction — “the children” — as much as they care about the very real and manifest creature that is their own child. This is a variant of Friedrich Hayek’s “knowledge problem.” Just as a widget manufacturer must have a superior ability to set prices for his widgets rather than a bureaucrat in Washington, so too must a parent — speaking generally — have superior ability to decide what is best for his kid. “My educational policies are based on the fact that I care more about my children than you do,” Phil Gramm famously explained to a woman. She shot back, “No, you don’t.” To which Gramm replied, “Okay, what are their names?”

This is a long way around the barn on our way to dogs, but bear with me (which is what Tonto would say by way of explanation if he had an ursine kemosabe). Without naming names, a certain editor baited me into writing this chapter by revealing himself to be an evil monster when he told me — this is a direct quote — “I hate dogs.”

Where to begin? Let’s start by stipulating that dogs are not children. Yet they are members of the family. Before I get to the metaphysics of this distinction, I will simply note that it is true as a matter of popular opinion. According to Pew, 85 percent of dog owners consider their dog part of the family. Ninety-four percent of dog owners say they feel “close” with their dog — which is quite a lot, considering that only 87 percent report feeling close with their mother and 74 percent with their father. A 2011 survey found that 54 percent of pet owners consider themselves “pet parents” rather than “pet owners.” More than two-thirds of these pet parents get their animals birthday and Christmas presents. For reasons that defy rational analysis, many of them wrap the gifts, too.

Of course, public opinion is not dispositive of anything except the opinion of the public. If political philosophy teaches us anything — an open question, by the way — it is that “the people” can be wrong. But evolution and psychology are also on my side. The dog stands alone in the animal kingdom. Of all of God’s creatures, it is the only one that clearly chooses to cast its lot with humanity. For complicated reasons lost to prehistory, humans and some lupine dog precursor worked out a business-like arrangement where they each helped out the other. In the evening, dogs would do some light security work, and during the day they’d pitch in when shopping for woolly mammoths and antelope. Humans would share the bones and the campfire. Like many relationships that start out as just business, friendships were formed. Over the millennia, those friendships soaked into our DNA as a bond of love.

Not everyone is on board, of course. Evolutionary absolutists and other secular buzzkillers concede these broader facts of the human-Fido compact, but disagree about the “love” stuff.

Of all of God’s creatures, it is the only one that clearly chooses to cast its lot with humanity.

They claim that dogs are really “social parasites” who’ve evolved clever techniques for separating naked apes from bacon and kibble. “Dogs belong to that elite group of con artists at the very pinnacle of their profession,” writes historian and science writer Stephen Budiansky, “the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it.”

The problem with this interpretation (other than its utter joylessness) is that it is completely wrong. Sure, one can employ a crude reductionism that says dogs act like they love us because their genes tell them to, and vice versa. But so what? You can apply the same crude reductionism to children and wives. That doesn’t mean I don’t love them. To say that love is some evolutionary con is to suggest that some other real motive lurks behind the Potemkin façade of the con artist. But there’s simply no evidence of this. I’ve watched my dogs closely over the years. When I’ve given them a bone, they did walk away with it — almost invariably to the cleanest corner of my most expensive rug — but they didn’t walk away snickering and calling me a sucker. When I come home to Zoë, my Carolina dog (a.k.a. an “American Dingo”), she is not pretending to be happy to see me any more than I am pretending to be happy to see her. The joy you see is the joy you feel.

There’s an old joke, now immortalized in forwarded e-mails from strangers, that goes something like this: There’s a simple test for figuring out who loves you more, your dog or your wife. Lock them both in the trunk of your car for six hours. When you open it, note which one is more happy to see you.

In the year 2000, my then-fiancée and I rescued Cosmo, who would — thanks solely to my shameless pimping at National Review Online — become known to some as “the It dog of the American Right.” Cosmo was our trial-run baby. And I mean that quite seriously. Dogs aren’t as much of a responsibility as a human child, but they are the closest we can get (at least until the Japanese work out some kinks in their robotics). You can leave a cat alone in your house for days as long as there’s enough food left out. And when you return, they’ll barely notice. But dogs require active ownership. And truth be told, ownership is probably the wrong word for it. It may seem like a sign of civilizational rot to say it, but parenting is closer to the reality of canine stewardship than ownership. One owns a car; one doesn’t merely “own” a dog. Because the dog also owns you.

To bring this back to where we started, dogs are an antidote to all forms of totalitarian thinking. Our connection to them cannot be politicized. Children should not be politicized either, but as future citizens, voters, workers, taxpayers, and economic cogs, they are simply too tempting a target for the politicians, planners, and meddlers. Moreover, it’s impossible as a parent not to worry about how the polis deals with your child and how your child deals with the polis. I really don’t care what kind of music my dog listens to. I have never rushed to change the channel when she trots into the room. Children, however, are different. Being a good parent requires caring about politics, teaching them about the polis. Dogs keep their innocent doggy goodness from kennel to grave, obviating the need to explain to them why, for instance, certain politicians are good and others are reprehensible. Yet this blessed doggy innocence can be wonderfully helpful in the moral and philosophical formation of your children.

Dogs are an antidote to all forms of totalitarian thinking. Our connection to them cannot be politicized.

Dogs serve as a reminder that some bonds are stronger and more deeply felt than those that can be described by politics or the ephemeral pieties of a given moment. They live inside a moral universe defined solely by the pack or, if you prefer, the family.

Dogs inculcate a sense of rightly-ordered priorities. If I’ve learned anything living in Washington, it’s that politics is relevant only to limited and specific parts of our individual and collective lives. Inside the microcosm of the family, we’re all socialists. We do not monetize our love for our children, and we do not present our kids with a bill for room and board (at least not until they’re grown and move into our basements). Our most important obligations are prior to mere economic, political, or even most religious considerations. (God did ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but barring an explicit and personal request from the Almighty, few of us would put religion ahead of our children’s well-being. Thank God — literally — such requests are vanishingly rare these days.)

And dogs teach you an awful lot about life. They’re a lot of work. And the trauma of losing a dog is one of those cruel realities that can be hard to impose on a child at an early age. But that’s the point. Life happens, and children need to learn about it eventually. But in the process, they also learn what it means to take some share of responsibility for another life. They learn that the real joys are small and personal. They learn that there are many dogs in the world, but this one is ours and we are hers. The thin veneer of activity we call civilization and all that it entails is a macrocosm outside of the microcosm of love. The macrocosm is larger and so much more important in countless objective ways, but the microcosm takes up more room in our hearts and matters so much more to our souls. One must obey the rules of the macrocosm. But the first law of the microcosm is that our love is greater, more real, and more enduring than anything that can be quantified by mere reason. There’s an awful lot of moral instruction you can give a kid in the form of a puppy.

And finally, there’s politics: There are no Democratic dogs, no Republican hounds.

Years ago, my wife returned from the dog park, crestfallen, with Cosmo waggling happily by her side. The Wonderdog, as we sometimes called him, had betrayed her profoundly. “What did he do?” I asked, immediately taking his side, at least a little. “A fat man got out of a van with a bunch of dogs, and Cosmo ran up to him and was all buddy-buddy with the fat man. He let him pet him.”

“So what?” I asked.

“The fat man was Ted Kennedy.” “Oh, Cosmo,” I said, shaken.

But forgiveness came quickly as Cosmo sat down on my wife’s feet and asked for a scratch behind his ear.

— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. This article is excerpted from the new book The Dadly Virtues (Templeton).


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