The Moral Sense of Dogs

This time of year when it’s hot outside, I love to stay inside and look at old books.  We have access to an interesting collection from the late 1800s, because my husband’s grandparents were school teachers and collected lots of books. Here’s one from 1880, with 800 pages of facts and stories, and 64 gorgeous color plates.

That the dog has a moral sense we all see; but his moral sense is one suitable to his condition and to promote the chief end of dog, which, to borrow the words of Professor Wilson, is to love man and keep his commandments.  A dog taught to steal will become as mean and slouching as his master, and will hate to be detected; but his wicked conscience does not smite him.  A dog virtuously brought up feels keen remorse when he has transgressed the moral code.  Dr. Calderwood, in his work “The Relations of Mind and Brain,” relates the following story:  “A dog belonging to a United Presbyterian minister killed the fowls while the family were at church and buried them in the garden.  The bodies were found.   The dog was taken to the garden and immediately confessed his guilt.  His master took him to his library, and having shut the door, began a reprimand after this fashion: ‘What a wicked thing you have done in murdering the hens!  You are a minister’s dog and should have been an example to the other dogs instead of doing such a thing as this.  Then, this is the Sabbath day, and the deed is all the worse on account of the day on which it has been done.’ Thus admonished, the dog was put out of the room and the door shut. Next morning he was found dead.  A veterinary surgeon was consulted, and declared that the dog had died of a broken heart.”

Of course, duty ignorantly performed sometimes perpetrates injustice.  A dog in Haverhill, Massachusetts, met the newsboy every morning at the gate and took his master’s paper.  When the subscription was stopped and the boy attempted to pass the house, the dog threw the boy down, and seizing a copy took it to his home.

Johnson’s Household Book of Nature, 1880, Henry Johnson Publisher, pp. 269,270

I thought this passage was amusing because supposedly people in the past were so knowledgeable and practical, and we are the ones getting way too sentimental about our pets and anthropomorphizing them.  I love how it says the dog “immediately confessed his guilt.”  I can read a guilty expression on my own dogs’ faces, but I have never thought of telling them they should be an example to other dogs!

I also love the “urban myth”-type details — the minister was a United Presbyterian; the newspaper dog lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

I do feel very sorry for this poor dog dying of a broken heart, even though he is probably (I hope) just fictional.

If you like books like this, you are in luck!  Because the whole book is available here at the Library of Congress.  The easiest way to find the color plates is to go to “full screen view”, and then to “thumbnails”, and scroll through.