Does Fido Have a Soul?

Burt Prelutsky

5/18/2007 12:00:00 AM - Burt Prelutsky

Recently, a friend of mine announced that dogs don't have souls. Inasmuch as I nearly always agree with her, I found it surprising that we were in opposing camps on this particular subject. Because I respect her opinion, I found myself questioning my own belief system somewhat more than usual. Is it possible, I asked myself, to have four legs, a tail, fleas and a soul? While I'm not absolutely certain what souls are, I finally decided that if they are what I think they are, dogs definitely have them.

To begin with, a soul, to me, is the thing within us that urges us to behave as decently as possible, as if God, Himself, were actually paying attention. It is similar, I think, to a conscience, but with one important distinction: The soul, I believe, points you in the right direction, while the conscience kicks in with a vengeance once you break the Golden Rule. In short, one provides guidance, the other doles out punishment.

Basically, there seems to be one reason why people such as my friend are convinced that dogs lack souls. Namely, when a canine does something terrific, it gets ascribed to instinct. If an animal performs an act of courage and self-sacrifice, he doesn't get the same credit as a human being because it's presumed he hasn't acted out of free will. Without the ability to decide not to do something heroic, without the ability to consciously weigh the risks, we're told that the animal is acting only out of blind obedience to his instinct. To which I say, with all due respect, hooey!

Even when a dog runs into a burning building, his derring-do is dismissed with condescension. After all, we're lectured, dogs are pack animals; it's bred into them to be subservient to the pack leader. Still, even that doesn't begin to explain why dogs risk death to rescue babies; even a poodle knows that a squalling infant is not an alpha male.

Neither does instinct, alone, explain why dogs have been known to leap into raging rivers to rescue perfect strangers. Also, if some dogs are not to receive full credit because all of their marvelous traits are inbred, how do you explain that not every dog will perform similar acts of heroism?

And, finally, if an entire species is, by its very nature, warm-hearted, conscientious, loyal and brave, one would be hard-pressed to maintain that, in spite of all these virtues, they are soul-less.

In the end, the real question, so far as I can see, isn't whether or not dogs have souls, but whether people do.