THE MORALITY OF DOGS: How Animals Can Help a Child Grow Up to be a Good Human Being

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

“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.

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“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 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. © R.Louv. Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.

Other posts by Richard Louv.

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  1. Very touching…thank you. I haven’t had a dog in over 30 years and you afforded me the desire for their companionship again. Love that photo. I have one somewhere in a box that is very similar…same vintage and pose, and with a collie named Buddy sitting and sniffing at a stringer of Indiana bluegills I was holding. Thank you for that memory.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful article. Marvelous memories of our family dog Teena (a Norwegian Elkhound) swept back over me. She was my trail dog for five years as I led backpack trips in Mt.Hood National forest with adjudicated delinquent guys and gals. She walked just ahead of me on the trail, carried her food in a backpack I created for her, and when we got to camp she plopped down at my campsite and welcomed the attention that the campers lavished on her.
    You might be interested to know that at the state boys detention home called Maclaran School for Boys, there has been a program going for some years now where selected boys are given a dog to work with and train, so that ultimately it will be placed in a foster home. The supervisors have noted that the boys probably gain as much or more than the dogs by going through this experience.
    Gary K Fawver

  3. Richard – this is so close to my own heart! I have had dogs and loved dogs (and all animals) for as long as I can remember, at least back to age 3. Dogs in particular, are the most loving and forgiving creatures on this Earth. They do have so many things to teach us, if we would only pay attention. They are the most wonderful companions a child (and adult) could have. I have loved and lost many furry family members over the years, and have 3 dogs at this time that are my family. I also know that when I leave this Earth that I will see all of those I’ve lost again. What a wonderful gift!
    Thank you for writing about this. It’s so important!

  4. Herb Broda

    Beautiful, absolutely beautiful! Thank you for adding these moving words to my day.

  5. I, too, believe that our pets, especially dogs, teach us great moral lessons. The most important lesson I have learned is that no matter what, our dogs give us love, unconditional love, for whatever good they see in us. We are so fortunate to have the loyalty and love from our dogs that few people can give us unconditionally.

  6. People would ask me, “Is that your dog?” I answered “Yes,” of course, but I felt I was lying. See, Laddie was a Border Collie and a more accurate response would have been “I’m his child.”

    Laddie was my best friend, but an inconvenient one too. Once, the popular kids in our town actually invited me — Me!– the bookish geek! — to join them behind the dentist’s office to smoke cigarettes. Hooray! I had finally arrived! The popular kids had invited me to join them!

    Except I couldn’t. Laddie did not approve. When I turned from the sidewalk to cross the street to the dentist’s office and that sneaky, against-the-mountainside rear smoking spot, Laddie stood in my way. I walked around him. He stood in my way again. Repeat. Except this time he lowered his head and gave me that border collie stare. This went on for a while, but bit by bit, foot by foot I was nearing the street.

    That’s when Laddie actually picked up my hand in his mouth, pushed his teeth down just to that initial pressure point, all the while giving me that stare. It was clear to me he decided it was better that he bite into my skin then let me go behind the dentist’s office.

    Here the popular kids began to laugh at me for having a dog that saw himself as my master.

    So, what could I do? I turned and went home, muttering and cursing at Laddie the whole while. Laddie just trotted along in front of me with his “I’m so happy” gait.

    When we got home Laddie insisted on actually coming into the house (which he rarely did.) My Mom was on the phone. Laddie, who was always perfectly behaved when he was in the house, jumped onto the coffee table so he was at eye level with my Mom, who was seated on the couch and talking on the phone.

    Laddie stared into my Mom’s eyes.

    “I’ll call you back,” my Mom said, “I need to see to something.”

    Mom hung the phone up, said, “Thank you Laddie, I’ll take care of it.” to the dog. Then Mom let him outside, turned to me, folded her arms and said, “Laddie tells me that you need to tell me what you were getting in to.”

    Now of course, I agree with Laddie’s choice. And I marvel at how he “knew” that I should not go back there.

    So, I know my story is not scientific and is just a random story which may well be, as you point out, embellished with time. — that was a good 16 years ago.

    But, no, Laddie was not “my dog.” I was the border collie’s “child.” And he raised me right.

  7. Animals can be a reflection of ourselves, and they come without judgment. Dogs can remain loyal to their owners through hideous abuse. That lack of judgment from without is a mirror on ourselves, which begs for action from within. What we do with that is the measure of whether the animal has become a moral teacher, or we have become a moral learner. Morality does not come from within, or without. It’s in the juxtaposition of the two.

    This can be true of all nature, in my experience, and may be one of its greatest gifts. It’s all that “stuff” out there that is not human and that we cannot expect judgment from. I’ve come to call it “The Wall”, the contours of which reveal truths about the world that we sense when we step outside of the comforts we’ve created for ourselves. It … defines us.

    Dogs are special in their surprisingly human-like social faculties. But every animal I’ve ever encountered has the potential for such effect. We had a cat that filled that role for my family when we were growing up whom I still almost “worship” to this day, as funny as that sounds in this day and age. But I recently buried a wild lizard that we allowed my son to retain as a “pet” for a while, that we should never have taken in given our circumstances at the time. I knew better, and the lizard perished at our hands; a time to relearn, as my young son learns.

    Although I am always cautious –mindful– of the challenges of retaining critters from the wild at home I allow my son to do so because of the lessons they provide, most immediately those of habitat needs: moisture, nutrition, lighting type, intensity and periodicity, and fundamental ecosystem requirements, especially important with aquatic critters. These are the means to real tangible experience in responsibility, knowledge, mindfulness. The world it turns out is bigger than our own selfish thoughts and desires. It requires more of us, and offers more for us. Our love for animals, our biophilic relationships, can be a direct passage to the deeper meanings we all want for our children.

    Oh, and I think I can offer a possible explanation for Banner’s tugging on that stick: My dogs over the years have used this form of displacement often. It was usually when they were frustrated (like when I’d climbed a tree -and they couldn’t come too), or when they were excessively energetic and I wasn’t moving, sitting for periods or playing something they couldn’t participate in. They would “displace” or expel the frustrated energy by tug-of-warring on branches, pulling up and snapping sticks, or digging, often worrying stubborn rootlets found in the process. Now if you were so frightened you were screaming or crying, maybe more could have been elicited?

    Our family cat was very attentive to our emotions and would attend to us (come running to be close and lick) when we cried. We would actually pretend to cry to get her to do it, to the delight of friends. So…maybe?

    • Richard Louv

      Beautifully stated, and fascinating — about the displacement. Thanks to all who are writing such meaningful comments.

  8. Dogs teach us the morality of caring for others as we care for them as well. I watch my young adult daughter modeling parenting with her dog. Love, patience, discipline, rewards both ways — she is practicing.

  9. what a touching and sad story.
    but i truly believe that a pet, especially a dog, gives a family so much unconditional love and happiness, that is no wonder that kids romanticize their companionship with their dogs…
    animals show us so much love, and comittment and trust, they show us what humans are sometims lacking of:
    being surrounded by animals is cure for us

  10. Does can be the teachers we need in the moment, for in being dogs that just live in the present tense. New research has investigated the emotional lives of dogs – and as seen in our animal assisted therapy work animals respond in ways that give direct feedback and often feels timely. The moment becomes teachable if we choose to reflect, respond, react or listen.

  11. Because I was an asthmatic child I not only couldn’t have pets, I couldn’t even visit homes with pets. Yet books featuring animals were gospel to me. I’d go out back in the woods behind our house to a tiny spot I envisioned as a sanctuary and sit in total silence, hoping birds and wild animals might come close to me. They didn’t. Nor did they accept my offerings of the white bread and iceberg lettuce I’d smuggled from the kitchen.

    Today, perhaps due to pivotal early books like Heidi, Rabbit Hill, and Secret Garden, I live on a small farm. Here dogs, chickens, and cows eat from my hands quite happily. There’s a sense of rightness, as if I’ve come full circle to fulfill my earliest longings in a place that feels indeed like a sanctuary.

  12. Growing up on a farm in northern Australia with a dog or two, cats, pigs, cows, horses,and all sorts of traveling wildlife was an experience in symbiotic survival with some less likely to survive than others. Dogs were loved but working animals and not special pets. I agree with the many moral lessons. However, as a ‘townie’ I now despair the pet fettishness of the urban dweller as 90% of dogs are neighbourhood nuisances, neglected, treated as consumer items. I’m not sure that they are a moral lesson for children or adults who ignore them and their neurotic barking, behind computer consoles. I prefer the wild birdlife that is in abundance but rarely heard without interruption from the dismal canine. I am convinced our future world’s peace and sanity requires the diminishment of ‘pet’ populations by the millions.


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