Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at roger@preachitteachit.org.

Dear Pastor Roger:

Please allow me a request that is a bit off subject. For all us folks who love dogs, would you explain your method for training your dogs?

Thanks so much,

Kenton Miller 

Dear Kenton,

Let me first answer your initial question and then let me deal with the questions you perhaps wanted to ask, but didn’t: “Can dogs be religious?” and, “Do dogs go to Heaven?”

Julie and I love our dogs. I never knew they could become such a part of our lives. David mentioned in Psalms 23 the names of the two “sheep dogs” who watched over God’s flock: “Goodness” and “Mercy.” I loved thinking on David’s “Surely Goodness and Mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”

So, when Becky, our fourteen-year-old border collie went to be with the Lord, after an appropriate time of grieving we looked for another. Julie fell in love with a lovely Golden Retriever puppy we met in Oklahoma City. We flew home to Tucson with the puppy under Julie’s airplane seat. Since I wanted three dogs, and not just one, we named the Golden, “Surely.”

After several months of chewed up furniture and a failure to teach her to come on command, we decided we needed help. I knew how to pastor a church, but I had no idea how to train a dog!

We reached out to Melanie Guthrie, a horse and dog trainer on the far-east side of Tucson. Her specialty is guard dogs, but she has also trained many of the movies animals at Old Tucson Movie Studios. Within three weeks Surely was acting like a soldier at dress parade!

When we bought our Welsh Corgie, Goodness (we call him “Goody” for short) from a breeder in Phoenix, we had similar problems. When Goody ripped the cloth skirt off the couch in our den we returned to Melanie. She needed four weeks with him.

You may be wondering about “Mercy.” After bringing Surely and Goodness home, Julie said, “No.” I have to agree that three dogs are one too many for our household! Maybe someday we will have a “Mercy.”

Now, let’s deal with two of your possibly unasked questions.

First, can dogs be religious? The answer to this has to do with developing a theory of the Mind. Many theories of the Mind are put forward today from multiple perspectives and premises. But several essentials stand out in all of them as necessary for religion to develop. First, there is the concept of self-awareness. No one unaware of him or her own self as a distinct entity can possibly conceive of a distinct and separate supreme being.

Next is what we might call curiosity—most religions look for causes behind things that occur in life. The explanations often take the form of actions attributed to a thinking deity.

Finally, religion requires the ability to have insight into the thinking, motives and intentions of others.

Let’s apply the same three criteria to dogs. Are dogs self aware? As more research is done the answer is becoming increasingly clear that the answer is “yes.” The mirror test to see if a dog recognizes itself as distinct from the one in the mirror is a poor test. A dog’s brain does not understand mirrors in the same way that most dogs fail to identify dogs on television or why a dog does not recognize its master’s voice on a telephone. Goody is not Surely. They both know it. Surely and Goody have different and distinct personalities. They are aware of their own needs and have multiple ways of communicating their wishes and desires to us. Researchers have identified over twenty-different barks and sounds that dogs use to communicate both with other dogs and with humans.