It's a Dog's Love

What dogs teach us about ourselves

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I am opposed to the many approaches to dogs, from science to economics and philosophy, that try to reduce the human-dog relationship to some functional value, whether psychological, sociological, or economic. Dogs can teach us a lot about gift giving and generosity, and about our most basic experiences of grace and mutual responsibility, if we pay attention to the ways in which our relationships with dogs are excessive and extravagant.

We treat our dogs as extraeconomical objects, nonuseful splurges, recipients of surplus, frivolous affection, things to be given and given to, things to be treated like toys. Of course, dogs can be given as property, but they also can transcend the economic sphere because they give us more than we can possibly buy. Dogs present themselves to us as gifts, adding something to our lives that is undeserved and yet beneficial, inspiring an uncalculated response. Indeed, dogs not only seem given to us, but their own giving is exorbitant, calling forth from us a matching extravagance, making them a paradigmatic instance of the bond that can be created by acts of mutual generosity.

Dogs are like a grace undeserved that releases us into an economy of abundance, where the economic laws of scarcity and therefore competition no longer apply, where instead we feel ourselves the beneficiaries of a wealth that is actualized only as we give it away, and in giving we see something that we could not see before. In this way, dogs are part of the anti-economy of gift giving, of generosity, of grace. There is revolutionary potential, then, for the relationship of humans and dogs to embody the joy of lavishing and squandering, of experiencing the useless, the nonnecessary, the wasteful, the hyperbolic. It is a giving that is mutual, a response to a real otherness, the return of a gift of loyalty and affection. The gift of the human-dog relationship -- and it is irrelevant whether we look at this relationship as initiated by humans or by dogs; it is a mutual relationship -- has its own dynamic, which circulates in ever widening circles, and if we follow it, passing it on and giving it over and over again, we will see it unfold as a bounty of generosity that can never be limited to dogs alone.

Stephen H. Webb is associate professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Excerpted with permission from Soundings (Summer 1995). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from The Society for Values in Higher Education, University of Tennessee, 306 Acanda Ct., Knoxville, TN 37996-0530.