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Animal Conscience

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )



THAT a moral sense may exist in animals we think no one who has ever kept dogs will deny. It is not easy to compare it, however, with the moral sense as it exists in men. If we seta dog's conscience beside a man's, the first thing we shall notice is that the former is upside down. To avoid violence and deceit, and to distinguish between his own property and some-one's else are the ideas which form the foundation of the moral character of an average civilized man.

Standing on this foundation we find in greater or less degree the higher virtues — sympathy, loyalty, self-sacrifice, resignation; all those things, in short, which may be roughly summed up in the word " self-devotion."

Now all these fine qualities form the basis of the moral character of a good and civilized dog. Upon this basis some of the plainer virtues may be superimposed; but unless supported by discipline, the upper part of the edifice is never very steady. The truth is that dogs have no abstract sense of right and wrong, but they have, in addition to a high degree of intelligence, which teaches them to avoid pain by virtuous practice, a faculty analogous to the religious faculty in man.

They worship the higher race, apart from whose influence they have no conscience at all. Their minds in contact with the mind of man display at times an astonishing amount of moral perception. Take the fact that the average dog undersands the nature of an accident. He makes allowance for motive. We have seen a shark-tempered terrier very suspicious of strangers receive a severe blow, accidentally inflicted by some one he did not know, without showing any temper, and accept the careless person's apologies with the utmost graciousness. Had he suspected wanton cruelty, he would undoubtedly have resented it; and in the case of any injury inflicted by another dog he would not have considered the, motive, but would have had instant recourse to violence to ease his feelings.

Nevertheless, all dogs will steal unless they fear punishment, or at least a show of displeasure. We have never heard of a dog who avoided stealing from other animals. They love to fight, and feel not the slightest remorse when they see their adversary lying dead before them. They take pleasure, in killing any small, helpless thing below them in animal rank. Yet towards the children of the higher race their forbearance is endless. After any successful piece of deceit—travelling in railway trains when forbidden to go on a journey, or creeping behind hedges that they may accompany their masters upon a forbidden walk—they show signs of extraordinary contentment and pleasure.

On the other hand, a really clever and devoted dog will strain every mental faculty that he may enter into the mood of his master, and be able to show him sympathy and resign himself to his master's will, and, when his master's actions are dictated by temper or caprice, will forgive him till seventy times seven.

On the whole, dogs are of course highly courageous animals; but individuals among them have timid idiosyncrasies, which alone they seem unable to control ; yet anxiety for the safety of a master or mistress will supply them with moral force to keep down physical fear. The present writer can vouch for the fact that a dog who all his life had exhibited an extreme and ridiculous terror of cattle, refusing to go through a field in which he could see a few cows, and insisting on making long detours to avoid going near them, one day saw from a distance that his mistress was being chased by a cow, who finally knocked her down. He rushed to her aid, and by the time some laborers could get to the field the animal was not only driven off, but severely torn and injured. That dogs prefer to meet death with their masters rather than to save their lives alone is a fact too well known to need insisting on.

What would a dog be like who, having always lived among men, and possessing a highly trained intellect and a great natural predilection for the comforts of civilization and the luxuries of indoor life, disbelieved in man? Such dogs are rare, but the present writer is certain that he has known one. His life was a tragedy. Morals he had none. Yet even in him one saw the germ of a better nature, which might have developed if he could but have worshiped man, if the circumstances of his early youth had not rendered him a confirmed and cynical sceptic.

He was a rough-haired English terrier— if he was anything—with a constitutional tendency to be stout. He was very clever, and his comprehension of language seemed at times almost uncanny. So far as the present writer, who owned him during the last years of his life, could trace his history, he grew up in what is called a good position—that is, he belonged to a gentleman who lived in the country and had many servants. So far as it was possible to make out from the dog himself, even his earliest youth was not happy. The sight of a whip or the sound of a loud voice upset his nerves to the end. In early middle life he was given away to the butler. A dog given away into a different social rank is seldom very happy. The poor little fellow, chained in a kennel and roughly used in the house, was wretched. His distrust of men was confirmed. He had no pleasures except those of the palate.

After a year or two his circumstances changed again. He was made over to the writer, who pitied him. "` Pig' is his name, and it describes him," said the butler; and certainly in all his troubles, both mental and physical, " Piggie's " appetite never failed. It took him a year to understand that dogs going in or out of a door held open for them have no occasion to apprehend a kick. He learned at last to lose all fear of his human acquaintance, but he never cared much about any one of them.

In his new home he found a collie, who at first resented his intrusion; but "Piggie " acted a meek and unresentful part, so the big dog soon gave up bullying him, and the two became great friends. That is, " Piggie " gave to him all the devotion he could not give to man, and the collie returned him toleration. The friends were seldom apart, for " Piggie " could not bear the collie out of his sight. They played together, hunted together, basked together in the afternoon sun, and slept together in front of the hall fire. They had their meals at the same time, and the little dog, for all his devotion to his friend, could never refrain from making raids upon his dish, and invariably ended by eating most of his meat. The latter always growled most alarmingly, but they never came to blows.

The odd thing about " Piggie " was that he was not in the least jealous. The collie's attachment to his men and women friends gave him no uneasiness, and he could watch him receiving their caresses without a qualm. He knew, or thought he knew, human nature, and he believed it to be bad. He was pleased enough with any notice that came his way, but he always contrived to give an impression that he was not deceived by it. There could be no doubt that his friendship made him happy. His whole manner changed for the brighter when in the collie's presence. But he was for all that a bad companion for the object of his devotion. Civil, and even servile, to every member of the household he lived in, he occasionally bit insignificant strangers, such as errand boys, for no sort of reason. The complaints of the latter were at first entirely disbelieved in the face of " Piggie's " bland countenance and wagging tail. Also he took the larger dog out poaching on dark afternoons, and taught him to jump out from behind a door or gate and startle nervous people by barking in a rude way.

It always seemed as if " Piggie " had something to do with he final exile of the collie, who, having got rather out of hand under " Figgie's " influence, expressed a dislike, which he had for a long time suppressed and kept within civil bounds, to a neighbor against whom he had a grudge. Like most collies, he could not forgive—and like many men, neither could the neighbor. The quarrel went too far to be patched up, and the less important of the parties concerned had to leave the parish.

When he went away—to an excellent home—his human friends sorrowed, but " Piggie " broke his heart. Never any more did he go barking forth to chase birds upon the lawn, nor hunt a rabbit in the adjoining field. He seldom moved ten yards outside the house, and never again showed the slightest interest in anything but his dinner. He simply moped and grew fat. Now and then someone would persuade him to go for a short walk. On one such occasion he was left for a few minutes outside a house, and took the opportunity to kill eleven ducks. It was thought that sorrow had begun to unhinge his mind.

One day a retriever came to replace the collie, and it was hoped that " Piggie " might be aroused from his apathy, and once more nourish his soul by friendship. He was roused, indeed, but only to a bitter hatred. If the new dog passed him, he would always snarl and generally snap. But retrievers are good-natured, and slow at the uptake; the new-comer refused every day to accept the challenge, backed away from the small white fury as a man might back from a bursting soda-water bottle, and for several months took no vengeance for many sharp bites. The family ceased to feel anxiety about a scene which never came to anything; and though the little dog lived chiefly in the house and the big one chiefly outside, they met at will. Suddenly one day the retriever turned, and poor little " Piggie," too fat to be in a condition to fight, never recovered from his wounds. So he died out of mistaken loyalty. His whole life and character were ruined by misanthropy; and after all it was not his own fault.



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