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illustration of boy looking at dog in mirror Dog as Self and Other

Dogs as (Qualified) Persons

Despite the bright-line distinction it creates between dogs and humans, intelligence is also an argument for the ways in which dogs are like humans.  In relation to other animals, dogs do pretty well on intelligence tests, although this may again be a matter of the shared social structures and cultural bias rather than intelligence per se.  As Stephen Budiansky, science journalist and author of the exposé, The Truth about Dogs, notes, dogs are eager to please humans.reference 18 In discussing recent research he opines that “people tend to think animals are smart if they respond to things the same way humans do.” It is hard to get some species—cats for instance—to even take a human’s intelligence test, much less appear to care about the results.reference 19 If reason, as defined by humans, is the standard, dogs are clearly not persons.  However, if you accept the credibility of measures of reason and intelligence, dogs, while not people, do seem to stand pretty near the apex of species.

Some contemporary ethical systems use a criterion of consciousness for establishing personhood. A conscious being is one who has sensory experiences and is aware of those experiences. This definition of personhood is controversial because it can exclude humans whose status is contended, such as fetuses, those in vegetative states, etc.  By this definition most (but not all) humans are persons and most members of an indeterminate number of other species—dogs included—are as well.reference 20 However, for many humans, this definition is likely to be seen as both overly broad and unreasonably narrow.  The inclusion of species such as rats (often treated as vermin whose presence is anathema and whose lives are devalued) will seem over generous to some.  Creating criteria for excluding any humans from the status of personhood is certain to be challenged as creating a slippery slope at best and as an invitation to genocide at the worst.

18. Budiansky. 2001.

19. Budiansky, Stephen. 2002. Dog's Best Friend. New York Times, Dec 5, 11.

20. Singer, Peter. 2002. Animal Liberation. 1st Ecco paperback ed. New York: Ecco.

A more limited and perhaps more widely used definition that is consistent with both modernist thinking and that of many religious traditions is: a person is an individual capable of moral agency.  The extent to which dogs exercise moral agency is an open question from an empirical perspective.  And, the answers to such inquiries create even more ambiguity about the personhood of dogs than those surrounding the question of reason.

Yet, an almost unshakable belief that dogs are moral beings is inscribed in the language.  The dog is, after all “man’s best friend.”  Friendship is a context created by the free exercise of moral agency.  While the evolutionary relationship between dogs and humans is biologically distant, Darwin made extensive use of descriptions of dogs’ attributes as evolutionary precursors to humans’ moral capacities.  “Our dogs … have progressed [in relation to wolves] in certain moral qualities such as affection, trustworthiness, temper and probably in general intelligence,” he says in The Descent of Man.  He goes on to suggest that a dog who loves his master provides the closest equivalent in the animal world to “religious devotion.”reference 21While Darwin was always careful to maintain the boundary between humans and other creatures, clearly he set aside a special moral status for dogs.reference 22 They might not be humans, but they might be persons.

Budiansky claims that most of what passes for loyalty is simply instinctive canine behavior modified by having been raised by humans.  Humans may perceive a dog running to its owner’s side and growling at an intruder as being protective of the owner.  Budiansky says they are actually seeking protection from a more dominant member of the pack.  Indeed, he offers reasonable alternative explanations for a wide range of other perceived “loyal” behaviors.reference 23Linguistic references typically portray the dog as more treacherous than loyal.  Expressions such as “crooked as a dog’s hind leg” and warnings about those who “bite the hands that feed them” are much more numerous than those affirming dogs’ reliability.   Of course the explanations that Budiansky offers for canine behavior could as easily be used to account for human behavior attributed to loyalty—and often are.

Though interpretations of empirical evidence vary, it is clear that most humans assume that dogs are capable only of a more limited variety of moral agency than we are.  While dogs’ positive moral traits may be revered, canines are not held to the same standard as humans are for behavior that would be described, had a human engaged in it, as immoral.  While there are historical precedents for the criminal prosecution of animals for their acts, even to the extent of capital punishment,reference 24 in contemporary society it is the humans who are held morally responsible for the acts of dogs in their care, not the dogs themselves.reference 25 Among the more public narratives of late is the case in which Marjorie Knoller’s dogs attacked and killed Diane Whipple in January 2001 in a San Francisco co-op.  It was Knoller who went to court and eventually to prison.  Only one of the dogs, Hera, was euthanized and then as a protective measure not as criminal or moral punishment.  In commenting on the case, John Snyder, director of programs for companion animals at the Humane Society, compared the dogs to “loaded guns,” thus implicitly granting no agency at all to the canines.reference 26

21. Note that the implicit role of the human is homologous with god.

22. Darwin, Charles. 1981. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

23. Budiansky. 2001.



24. Evans, E. P. 1906. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. London: W. Heinemann.

25. It is relevant to note that this has its parallel, until recently, in the social response to crimes committed by human children who are also deemed to have a status of quasi-personhood. Even as U.S. society holds humans of increasingly tender age accountable for crimes as adults, it seems unlikely that dogs are soon to follow.

On the other hand the positive outcomes of dogs’ actions typically cause them to be viewed as moral, even if this is not the simplest or most obvious explanation. “Ozzy the Hero Dog's Bark Saves Courthouse” trumpets the headline on an Associated Press story typical of its ilk in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  The “hero” designation seems a bit hyperbolic when you read the opening paragraphs. “The mutt woke his owners with loud barking early Sunday morning. Owner Ray Wheelington got up, saw thick smoke pouring out of the courthouse next door to his home, in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, and quickly called the fire department. Judge Mary ‘KK’ Norman credited Wheelington's call for saving the structure. Wheelington gave the credit to his pooch.”reference 27 While a simpler and equally likely explanation is that Ozzy was frightened and calling for assistance or reassurance from the leader of his pack, Mr. Wheelington and the press are happy to see a more altruistic motivation, even to imply that Ozzy acted this way with the intention of saving the courthouse.

The particular reasons for these attributions most likely result as much from dogs’ high emotional intelligence, at least as demonstrated by the signifiers that humans recognize, as from their morality.  Dogs are highly social animals; they are deeply sensitive to indicators of human mood such as tone of voice, posture, and vitality.  They appear to be sympathetic.  Their desire to always have the approval of the humans around them, especially those of higher status in their pack, leads them to act in ways that ingratiate.  Dogs, like humans, use posture, gesture, facial expression and tone of voice to convey emotion.  They appear to understand what humans are saying, if not the rational meaning of it, then the emotional content.  Thus “puppy love” is so emphatic and unmistakable that it becomes an easily understood reference for a similarly recognizable state in humans.  This capacity for empathy, considered by some to be a correlate of moral agency, is one often associated with personhood.  When a dog’s action has a positive outcome, humans want to attribute it to conscious, moral motivation.

26. Moore, Claire. 2001. Murder by Canine: When Dogs Kill, Can the Owners Be Charged with a Crime? ABCNews Internet Ventures. Accessed Feb 6 2004 from http:// sections/ us/ DailyNews/ dogattack010209.html.

27. Associated Press. 2004. Ozzy the Hero Dog's Bark Saves Courthouse. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb 4. Accessed from http:// news/ content/ news/ ap/ ap_story.html/ National/ AP.V8457. AP-Hero-Dog.html.

In a New York Times op-ed essay, South African writer Mark Mathabane describes the conclusions of his own youthful mind about empathy and personhood: “…white people could not be human.  If they were, why did they not feel my pain?”  He describes the turning point in his perception of whites as people this way: “I remember saying to myself: ‘She feels my mother’s pain.  She’s human after all.’” reference 28 Based on this kind of description of persons, dogs’ responses to humans may be experienced as more personable than those of many humans.  Dogs almost always recognize that a human is in pain and offer emotional comfort and support.  Even the feminist theorist and philosopher Donna Haraway—normally an advocate for seeing reality as a human construct—is unequivocal in describing the emotional response she receives from her Aussie as a “narrative of unconditional love.”reference 29 So powerful is this experience that there is a centuries-old expression that feels as if it is right out of the “me” generation: love me, love my dog. reference 30

Dogs’ conformity with human forms of emotional expression and their highly developed capacity for empathy make them persons in a way no other species but humans can attain.  “Cat people” may object to this, and even note that cats might be seen as more like humans than dogs in that they often cannot be bothered by their companions’ emotional needs.  Cats, they might say, have “better boundaries” than dogs.  As may be, cats lack the emotional range of dogs—in terms human can perceive—when it comes to expression.  Dogs at least appear to care.

28. Mathabane, Mark. 2002. The Cycle of Revenge Can Be Broken. New York Times, July 5, 2002, A21.

29. Haraway, Donna, Thomas Laqueur, and Paul Rabinow. 2003. From Cyborgs to Companion Species: Dogs, People and Technoculture, Sep 16-17, at Berkeley, Calif.

30. “Qui me amat, amet et canem meum” (Who loves me will love my dog also)is attributed to St. Bernard who lived at the turn of the first millennium of the common era, though it is likely older.reference 30

31. Skinner, Bruce, ed. 1997. Dog Quotes. A Breed Apart: Advising and Entertaining Greyhound Owners Worldwide 2 (12). Accessed Apr 1 2001 from http:// dogquote.htm.

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