Before any cat lovers get their heckles up and spit their accusations of species-ism at me, I should point out that I’m not saying other animals aren’t capable of finding salvation. There’s no reason I can see why there shouldn’t be an eternal paradise for cats, rabbits, turtles, parakeets, hammerhead sharks, mandrills, snakes, even axolotl – and I’m not even entirely sure what an axolotl is. But dogs are after all Man’s Best Friend, sharing many of our characteristics and attributes, and it seems only right that they should be our companions in the afterlife as well. What is more, I actually know something about dogs, because one lives in my house. The same cannot be said for hammerhead sharks.
First of all, the bleak possibility that there is no heaven for anyone, human or canine, must be considered. I would however suggest that this generally suits dogs better than it suits us. Let us take the theologically profound view of Heaven as a place where you get to do what you like to do for eternity, unless what you like to do happens to be spitting on people or stabbing kittens or something. For humans, what we like to do is to laugh at jokes, eat good food, be affectionate with each other, and listen to good music or, if you are a Coldplay fan, to Coldplay. Some of us might even like bungee-jumping (though not me). Heaven might be in the abstract, a unity apart from individual consciousness or whatever, but we still like to speak of it in social terms, a place where “we will be together again”, whether it be on fluffy pink clouds (Sunday school) a field of wheat (Ridley Scott’s Gladiator) or a who-knows-what-more-of-a-state-of-being-than-an-actual-place (philosophy degree). If there is no heaven, our sense of being, and consequently everything else that we are about, disappears.
This is not such a problem for dogs, because the thing that dogs like to do most of all is to sleep. Cats are more famed for sleeping, but dogs are not far behind when it comes to clocking-up time on the Nod-Off chart. My grandparents’ poodle, for example, is probably asleep for 80% of the day. Even my own Noodles, who is an unsettled, noisy and annoying fidget, probably sleeps to some degree for at least 50% of the day, and most of the night. Dogs, therefore, spend a lot of their time unconscious: and what is more, they seem to enjoy it. In the event that there is no afterlife, and at death we are consigned to oblivion, dogs are in the enviable position of still doing what it is that they want to do all the time. In other words, death would probably suit most dogs fine as they are mostly about sleeping anyway.
But, to die, to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream – and what do dogs dream about? For it is these things that a dog would find in heaven, if heaven there be. From the noises my dog makes in her sleep, I would imagine she dreams about no more than she does while awake – running through fields, snarling at cats, and eating dogfood. My grandparents’ poodle probably dreams about sleeping. If we accept this, then Homer Simpson’s definition is probably not too far off – a dog, after all, is unlikely to have high aspirations and will presumably be satisfied with a mountain of bones.
We have speculated on what Dog Heaven might be like. The more important question, however, is – how do dogs get there? If it is the soul that gets to heaven, do dogs have a soul? I am not going to ponder what we mean by a “soul”, which is a full article (and more) in itself – suffice to say that for me, a dog has a soul every bit as much as a human does. That sad look in their eyes when they want something, the ecstatic wagging of whatever passes for a tail, the excitement with which they greet a homecomer or a rubber ball, are all evidence that these favoured companions are more than merely sentient. That being said, I will admit that their minds do not have the capacity for self-awareness and philosophy that ours do. Do their limited minds contain the means to their own salvation, or is it a question of Grace?
One of the major issues is whether or not a dog has a conscience – that word being in itself a complicated issue, as it is not agreed upon even amongst humans what is meant by “conscience”, but I will define it here as the instinctual distinguishing of Right and Wrong. Noodles knows when she has been a “bad girl”, and knows that there are things she shouldn’t do, but I don’t know if this is down to conscience. She feels sorry when she goes and rolls in muck, but that is only because she has to have a bath : and even this does not deter her from making the most of the next muck-rolling opportunity that presents itself. She also expresses regret when chided or shouted at, but again it is not known whether this is genuine regret or simply fear of punishment. The problem is, an ethical conscience is a luxury reserved for a higher mind capable of abstract thought; and I am not sure that dogs, however intelligent, generally have the level of mental contemplation sufficient for this. Noodles’ ethics have not progressed far beyond the basic stick-and-carrot mentality; if anyone has a pet who behaves according to nobler principles, they have probably done a better job of training it than my family did of Noodles.
It seems a tad ridiculous to talk of good dogs going to Heaven and bad dogs going to Hell, as aside from the obviously good dogs (ones which catch criminals) and the obviously bad (ones which bite people) there are the majority that just lounge around… much like people, in fact. Therefore the question of dogs going to heaven is the Pelagian controversy all over again.
St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and a British-born ascetic named Pelagius were at loggerheads, with Pelagius believing that human beings have it in their capacity to earn their salvation, or at least work towards it. Augustine, however, believed that human beings are powerless to save themselves, and it is only by giving themselves over to God that they can be saved. This process of turning towards God is itself the result of Grace, which he bestows on us as a gift. I am not suggesting that dogs “turn towards God”, but that they are powerless to bring about their own salvation seems a fair assumption based on the evidence. If they do make it into Heaven, it is because of freely-abounding love, and not because of anything they’ve done.
But perhaps I am looking too deeply into this. When it comes to freely-abounding love, all dogs that I know (there are, of course, some sad exceptions) are already steeped in it. Noodles is in fact the most forgiving, or possibly forgetful, of creatures; no matter how often you shout at her, or bathe her, she still rolls out the proverbial red carpet when you come through the front door, even if it was only a five-minute stroll to the shops. She is utterly dependent, utterly devoted, utterly helpless without us: just as St. Augustine felt himself to be before God. If true Paradise is being united with your Supreme Being in Love, then my dog Noodles, like many others, is surely already there.