Untimely Observations

Of Dogs and Gods


(the other one) warmed the hearts of us dog lovers when he linked to this amazing 


about a brave golden retriever named Angel, who likely saved the life of her master by leaping into midair and intercepting the attack of a wild cougar:   

Austin and Angel

At about 5:30 p.m., 11-year-old Austin Forman, accompanied by the dog Angel that his family adopted, was charged by what he first thought was another dog in the back yard of his home in Boston Bar, British Columbia, in the south central part of the province about 150 miles northeast of Vancouver. Instead, the animal was an adult female cougar. It was dark and Austin was doing his chore of hauling firewood in from his back yard via wheel barrel. Angel had acted strangely, staying uncharacteristically close to the boy. Then Angel began running around the yard, barking wildly. RCMP officers speculated that the cougar had likely been watching and stalking the boy as he pushed the wheel barrel around the yard. Austin said:

I was about five feet away from the basement door and she had run toward me and that's when the cougar had attacked her and brought her under the stairs. It was coming after me and Angel intercepted. The cougar grabbed Angel.

When Austin had paused his wheel barrel full of wood, he had heard the sound of something crunching in the snow. He saw a dark shadow about an arm's length from him. Just then it lunged. When the cougar charged Austin, Angel took the blow instead. She leapt a full 1.5 meres above the ground, sailed over a lawn mower, and intercepted it mid-air, just as it was about to pounce on Austin. With Angel entangled in a frantic battle, Austin stayed long enough to determine it was not just another dog but a cougar and then ran inside his home to have his mom Sherri call for help while Angel continued to battle. "I was terrified," said Austin. "My dog saved my life, but now the cougar had her." For awhile Angel and the cougar were both heard. Then it went silent. From inside the house all the family could hear was the heavy breathing of the cougar. Austin's 17-year-old sister Holly said it had Angel's head in its mouth and was suffocating her. 

Though his panicked mom first called her father-in-law, the father-in-law had her call the police. Luckily Constable Chad Granvelle was less than a minute away. He arrived fearing the worst for the boy. Finding the boy safe but his rescuer under attack, he quickly turned his attention to the cougar who had dragged Angel under the porch. He found the cougar was chewing on Angel's jugular. With his flashlight in one hand and his gun in the other, he took a shot at the cougar's rump because they were tangled together, and he didn't want to hit Angel. The cougar didn't react, so he courageously climbed down and got close enough to put a shot through the cougar's head. 

When a neighbor on the scene dragged the body of the young, cougar out, the dog was still laying there lifeless. With the family gathered to console Austin, after minutes, the dog came around and began to drag herself through the snow. Apparently the dog had been partially suffocated and/or in shock. Then she coughed a bit and looked for Austin. When she found him, she began wagging her tail, snuggled up to him, and licked him. Mr. Forman, who was initially reluctant to adopt Angel last year now can't say enough about the dog. "My son was saved by Angel." He also remarked that the firewood chore will have to be done in daylight in the future. 

"I'm pretty sure that if my dog wasn't there I wouldn't be here right now," Austin said on the day after the attack. "Thank goodness we are both alive and she protected me."

Richard speculates that our canine companions likely have some kind of sense of mortality: [blockquote]So the dog saw the cougar and understood that if it got to the boy he wouldn’t be around anymore. When Angel saw that Austin was still alive she was relieved.  If this account is accurate, it means that the dog understands the concept of death.  I can’t see how such a thing could just be a byproduct of intelligence if the animal has no experience with seeing living things die.  That means that the understanding that after a living being is attacked by a predator you’re not going to see it anymore must’ve come before domestication.[/blockquote]

I, too, am convinced that dogs have a primitive understanding of death; indeed, I think this episode in British Columbia highlights an even more profound conscious awareness amongst this breed that shall not dwell alone. For it's important to remember that Angel didn't just grasp that Austin might die, but was actually willing to sacrifice herself for her master.

If a family member or a beloved friend were attacked by a cougar, few of us would hesitate to throw ourselves into the fray and put our lives in grave danger. (If you feel the need to rationalize such natural feelings of kinship, then you can turn to Richard Dawkin's "selfish gene" concept: it's your genes that must survive, not you, and thus you're willing to forfeit your measly little life so long as your family and tribe can proper. Such gut feelings have motivated many a soldier, often times consciously.) 

If, however, a complete stranger were attacked by a hungry cougar ... well ... we wouldn't exactly pull a George Costanza -- "women and children last!" --  but we'd probably reason to ourselves that it'd be best not to multiply the loss of life and that we should go find someone with a gun.

Now, since genes aren't at issue in the case of Austin and Angel, I'd conclude that Angel felt towards her master the kind of profound sense of friendship that we humans feels towards our spouses and lovers (and the animal was adopted no less!) Such affection is often reciprocated. Not a winter goes by that we don't read some sad story of an owner who perishes in Central Park after diving into a frozen pond to save his elderly pouch who happened to slip in.

And maybe there's even more to it.  

There's an old joke that when you feed a dog dinner, he looks up from his bowl and thinks, "My master is god!" And when you feed a cat and change her litter box, she gazes at you and concludes, "I am god!"  (Whenever I hear this, the pets are gendered as such.) This joke has always reminded me why I hate cats! And one reason why it's funny is that a dog's relationship to his master is often strikingly analogous to that which humans have to their deities.   

Perhaps dogs don't just grasp their own mortality but have a sense of the divine as well? Revilo Oliver actually took up this idea in the first chapter of his rather fascinating book The Origins of Christianity:

Religion, which we may define as a belief in the existence of praeter-human and supernatural beings, is a phenomenon limited to several human species, since it depends on rudimentary powers of reason and relatively developed powers of imagination. We may agree with Xenophanes that if oxen or horses or lions conceived of gods, each species would, like men, create its gods in its own image, but there is no slightest reason for supposing that mammals other than man have any conception of superior beings other than an instinctive recognition of predatory species that can prey on them and an instinctive suspicion of whatever is unfamiliar and may therefore be dangerous.

Anatole France, to be sure, identified dogs as religious animals, and he had a basis for doing so. A dog does venerate his master as a being with powers vastly superior to his own. He worships his god in his own way, seeking to conciliate his favor with propitiatory motions and caresses, learning to obey his wishes and whims, and even having a sense of sin when he knows that he has yielded to a temptation to do something that will displease his deity. A dog tries to appease his god’s anger, as men do, by humility and fawning and he will fight for his god, even at the risk of his own life. But we must not carry France’s analogy too far. The dog’s god is a living being, who normally feeds his canine worshipper, punishes him physically on occasion, and, if worthy of devotion, pets him affectionately. No dog ever worshipped a being that he could not see, hear, smell, and touch.

I've yet to meet a dog who was a convinced monotheist.