“For children, nature comes in many forms: a newborn calf, a pet that lives and dies, a worn path through the woods….” — Last Child in the Woods
For years, I secretly believed that the dog I grew up with was something of a moral teacher in our family. Admitting this belief, I invite all sorts of critiques from those who, for religious or scientific reasons, object to attributing humanlike behavior to nonhuman animals.
So be it. I’ll bet you had such a special friend, too. Or still do.
A while back, I asked an animal behaviorist if other animals — dogs in particular — can be moral teachers to children. I suppose they can be moral teachers to adults, too, but children and dogs, like Elwood P. Dowd and Harvey in the old Jimmy Stewart movie, are especially attuned.) This particular animal behaviorist also earned a doctorate in the psychology of human behavior, and he is an expert on pet therapy for children. Pets, he said, are often moral teachers, “though that is not their intent.” For example, pets teach children about death.
“The death of a dog or cat can be the single most profound loss a human being can experience. Some people don’t want to accept the fact that an animal can mean as much, or more, to a human being as another member of the family. But it can. Children learn about dying; they can afford this price more than they can the loss of a parent,” he said.
A dog can also teach a child about unqualified love. A child may have trouble reading the intent of even a loving parent, but a dog is always straightforward. “Dogs do not deceive well. They don’t lie. The most they do is misunderstand.” Dogs may be the only source of unqualified, unearned affection that some children ever have.
Dogs teach about the difference between essence and behavior, about human forgiveness. “When my kid does something wrong and I explode, it’s hard for the child to realize I love him,” the animal behavioralist said. “But when my child sees me punish the dog, and then 20 minutes later giving it treats, loving it, paying its vet bill, my child realizes that the dog’s behavior is bad, but the dog is still good.” On the other hand, when parents use corporal punishment on a dog, “it teaches a child that swatting a butt is a good idea.” That is a lesson more children could do without.
I pointed out that his examples had focused more on parental behavior than pet behavior. I wanted to return to my original question. “Let me ask you about Banner,” I said to the animal behavioralist.
Banner was two when he came, and eleven when he died, and in between he was my best friend, and, I believed, my teacher. Now I will admit right off that the memory of a child is imaginative. Banner was a collie in the era of Lassie and Jeff. And, as a child, I devoured the books of Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote “Lad: A Dog.” So these influences undoubtedly colored my expectations and perhaps my memory.
Still, I do remember these things. Banner, whose nose was scarred deeply by the time he died, would never fight a small dog; sometimes he would protect the diminutive dogs of the neighborhood.
Grumping about it the whole time, he would walk out of the basement each morning with the cat between his legs, protected. I watched him shoot up the street and catch the neighborhood’s meanest dog in midair as it attacked a neighbor, who was holding her small dog in her arms. Banner would pull my brother by the diapers from the street. He would sit on us when we threw rocks. When we were up to no good he would sometimes go home, but he would always come back.
I spent centuries, it seemed, in the woods with Banner. He was my bridge to the wild. Once, when I was about 8, I fell through the ice of a creek. Up to my waist, I tried to climb out, but the banks were steep and snowy, and I slipped back into the water, again and again. Banner left.
He came back. I remember him at one end of a fallen branch, tugging, and I remember getting out of the creek that way. I tell you this with some embarrassment, knowing the trickery of memory. I don’t know if any of this happened exactly the way I remember. Children romanticize their pets, project all kinds of behavior onto them, the behavioralist said. Dogs often tend to fight the largest dog available, he explained. They are doing what dogs do; they do not think about championing the oppressed. The branch was probably there all along, and Banner was probably only playing tug-of-war.
“Your interpretation was the lesson,” he said. “Perhaps you unconsciously aggrandized yourself by seeing his behavior as heroic. But who taught him to tug on the stick—an act that may have unintentionally saved your life? Probably you taught him that.” The behavioralist’s rationality is appealing, but so is mystery. Buddhists, I am told, believe that a teacher or priest who fails to live a good life can find himself demoted in the next life. He can find himself in the form of a dog, still with the urge to teach.
One dark morning I awakened to the sound of my mother crying. I was convinced that something had happened to my father. I ran down the stairs and out to the porch to find Banner, carried from the road by my father, lying there cold and stiff. I cried, but the crying was fake — I was relieved that my father still lived. For a long time, I felt guilty for that secret fakery. So Banner taught me about the confusion and untidiness of death.
Sometimes when I return to Kansas City I walk back behind the old house to a depression in the ground. Here lies my friend. I wonder where he really is.
Note: Please send me your own stories of domestic or wild animals who helped shape you as a child or adult, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or post them below.
Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network. Photo: Banner and his pal, with an early iPhone. Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.