What do we owe our dogs?

Understanding our moral obligations to another person is tough. Contemplating our obligations to a dog, a member of another species, can be overwhelming.

Sometimes, only occasionally these days, I give Milo a pretty harsh correction. He is big and strong, and we need rules. Bikes are NOT prey. I know some people think these corrections are wrong.

Sometimes I’ve seen people who I like and respect treat their companion animals in ways that strike me as just plain wrong too.

It can be useful to flip our focus from sorting out what might be wrong, to thinking more clearly about what is right.

Philosopher Jean Harvey’s view of our moral obligations to our companion animals resonates with me. Here is the gist of her position:

It is part of the nature of most dogs and cats (yes, cats) to give love and loyalty to the human companion. As with anyone who loves, it makes them vulnerable—to the hurt of not being loved at all, to being manipulated, exploited, or traumatically abused or abandoned. The nature of this relationship is central to the ethics of companion animals, or at least dogs and cats: the deep and abiding affection the animals give and seek, the profound emotional and physical vulnerability they face because of it, and the blunt fact that humans in general control the relationship and have the power either to treasure or betray their animal companions. … The primary moral obligation we have with respect to companion animals is to develop, nurture, respect, and protect this relationship.

Jean Harvey, “Companion and Assistance Animals: Benefits, Welfare Safeguards, and Relationships” 2017

This helps me think more clearly about my obligations, my moral obligations, to Milo. Am I protecting our relationship? Am I being responsible in the face of the power imbalance between us? Am I treating his love and vulnerability with respect?

More and more it seems to me that the project of developing a philosophy of dogs and people boils down to love.


Go forth good people, “develop, nurture, respect, and protect” the relationship between you and your dog!


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