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 firstname.lastname@example.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,
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.
Are dog curious? Of course they are! Surely has constant marks on her nose as she sticks it under the fence to see what’s occurring on the other side. Goody spends a lot of time investigating the yard to see what he can find. But the real question is, “Can, or do, dogs search for causes for the actions and events around them. My daughter’s and son-in-law’s dog Maverick was extremely curious. He learned to turn the door knob to let himself out of the house. He watched Brie and Derrek open the door and figured out the connection between the door knob turning and the door opening. The door now is now opened and shut with a key. Brie and Derrek keep the key well hidden and out of Maverick’s reach.
Can dogs read the minds, motives and intentions of others? Surely slyly sneaks discarded food from the kitchen garbage can when the opportunity presents itself. She waits patiently until Julie and I have left the kitchen and then sneaks for the can. One day I hid around the corner and waited until she made her move. She froze as I stepped out from my hiding place with a look on her face of “I’ve just been busted.” She knew that I knew exactly what she was up to. She then backed out of the kitchen.
So, can dogs be religious? They can conceive of other entities. They are curious, can discern the causes behind certain actions and seemingly can read the intentions and motives of others at least some level. Of course, engaging in these rudimentary abilities does not mean nor make any one actually religious! Conceptualizing and engaging in a working religion involves navigating an incredible number of multiple levels. Trying to sort out the desires of God, the meaning and interpretation of the Scriptures and the relationships with other church people is incredibly complex to say the least.
Finally, let’s consider one final question: Do dogs go to Heaven?
Psalms 49 is a Psalm about the rich materialist who lives for riches and not for the Lord. Note the contrast between the spiritual man (body, soul and spirit) who lives for eternity and the materialist who lives for now (body and soul only).
“But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish…. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, … death will feed on them…. But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself…. Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, … Though while he lived he counted himself blessed—and men praise you when you prosper—he will join the generation of his fathers, who will never see the light [of life]. A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish.”-- Psalm 49:12-20
Notice the phrase, “like the beasts that perish.” This verse implies that there is no life after death for animals. God designed man with three parts: body, soul, and spirit. Materialists are compared to animals who have bodies and souls, but no spirit. The Bible teaches that the spirit is eternal. If animals have no spirit, then they are incapable of living on into the next life—neither are rich materialists.
On the other hand, I long to see Becky again! So I look to Paul’s concept of redemption in Romans 8. According to Paul the entire creation will one day be redeemed.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”-- Romans 8:18-22
Do dogs go to Heaven? I think the definitive answer may come from the title of that Walt Disney movie: “All Dogs Go to Heaven!” Therefore, I am looking forward to great reunions with many of my friends and family who have already gone on the Heaven. After I see Jesus, I can hardly wait for Becky to lick my hand—and for me to rub her tummy—again!
Now, let’s talk about cats. “Do cats of to Heaven?” That has to be the $1,000,000 question. After all who could ever understand what goes on in the mind of a cat!
In closing, Kenton, Thank you for asking your question. I hope you don’t mind me taking some extra liberties in answering it. I had fun. I hope you did, too.
I hope this is helps.
PS- Kenton, for excellent dog training and advice, Melanie’s phone number is 520-886-1010.
Dr. Roger Barrier recently retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.