It’s a Dog’s Love

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.

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