Is canine courage unique or inbred?

I had an interesting walk the other day with my girlfriend, our dogs and our children. As we came up the path toward our cars, her daughter ran ahead, straight for the parking lot. We noticed this too late to interfere except to holler our warning. Then we noticed Whoopsie running just in front of her, circling back to bring her to a stop. My friend stood in wonder as I tossed an extra biscuit Whoopsie’s way. We paused to consider it. Though Whoopsie is a love, she is no more gracious or well-behaved than any other educated dog. She, like me – like all of us – has her strengths and her weaknesses. Was her reaction a telepathic, noble gesture – a sign of forethought and heroism? Well, yes and no, I thought at the time, though a satisfying answer to that question was not to come for several more days.

Of course, I know of many stories of a dog’s extraordinary involvement. Anyone who has shared his life with a civilized canine will have his own tales to tell – the comic dog who could make anyone laugh or a particular dog who understood language, selecting an ordered toy from a basket; a dog who would calm a colicky baby; or a certified therapy dog who would lighten the hearts of the elderly. True stories of lifesaving heroism are even the topic of several dog books, and certainly no one can forget the bravery shown by the rescue dogs of 9/11.

What these animals have in common is that they are in touch with their people’s lives. Though their behavior is often overly anthropomorphized, it does reflect a mindfulness that cannot be argued. The question then becomes are these dogs born of a unique spirit or is there a capacity within the heart of any dog?

As I have said, my considerations were not satisfied until later in the week, when I was in the midst of coaching my advanced group dog-training students. As I observed the humans’ determination and perseverance, I recalled my own persistence with Whoopsie. As a young dog, she was an impulsive, eternally cheerful Labrador Retriever who simply didn’t understand human disapproval. She was neither incorrigible nor defiant. She was simply thrilled with everything life. Training her became what seemed like an endless ritual of repetition and reinforcement. Somewhere along the line, however, it stuck. As her impulsivity waned, she grew more focused on my whereabouts and reaped her joy from our shared adventures rather than her self-absorption.

To answer the question of “heroism” as one animal’s particular calling, I do not believe it is. Dogs that are well-mannered enough to be included in daily activities will naturally mirror their person/people’s organization, routines and priorities. In our family, togetherness is prized above separation, as is order to chaos, and in our social circles the children are held most dear.

What Whoopsie did in the parking lot was the result of nature and nurture. Reading our distress – as dogs have been bred to do for millennia and as she was trained to do – she immediately gathered the wayward “pup.”


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