a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Sacrifices

Thursday, October 08, 2009


SUMMARY: Who would you save, and at what risk?
Many years ago--many many many years ago--I was in maybe 8th or 9th grade--I liked to hang out at the planetarium at the local Junior College. The people there were fun to be around, the planetarium gear always fascinated, and I loved sitting back in the chairs as the Cove Blue faded and the sky darkened and a few meteors shot by overhead. Spent quite a bit of time down there with all the regular planetarium crew.

The Boss, however, was seldom seen. I didn't know him well at all. He was much older than everyone else there, and definitely more Grown Up. Here's what I don't remember about this particular evening: How on earth we got onto this subject.

Here's what I do remember: I said that, if my dog were drowning and a human who was a complete stranger was drowning at the same time, I was pretty sure that I'd save the dog because she meant so much more to me. I couldn't be completely positive, but I was pretty sure. And the end of the conversation was that he told me to never show my face in his planetarium again until I had straightened out my priorities in terms of whether a human's life or a dog's life was more important.

For some reason this came to mind tonight, as I listened to the news tell of a house fire last night, in which the mother and child escaped safely but separately, but the father went back into the house after he had been outside safely. They don't know why; the speculation is that he didn't know that his daughter had gotten out onto the roof and had been rescued. He never came out again.

I started thinking, what if I were safely out of the house, and realized that my dogs were still in there. What would I do? I know--I KNOW--that it is extreme folly and incredibly dangerous to return to a burning house. Firefighters with all the proper equipment avoid doing it if they can possibly do so. And yet, my dogs are so important to me that it would be agony to think of them being trapped in the house and unable to get out. I would live with the guilt of not saving them and the pain of their absence probably for the rest of my life. I think I can imagine what the man must have been feeling.

This led back down the circle of: If my dogs are so important to me that I might actually think about risking my life to save them, are they also so important to me that, if one of them were drowning at the same time as a human who was a perfect stranger was drowning, I would first rescue my dog?

I don't think that most people understand that relationship. Even people who have dogs, or have had dogs, but haven't become a team with them, felt like part of their family, can quite understand. One gentleman I recently met, who is a former dog owner, expressed surprise when I said that an agility friend's dog had just died and I had sent a sympathy note. "You'd send someone a sympathy card because their *dog* died?" he asked. Not in disgust at all, just pure amazement in that it was something it would never have occurred to him to do, nor understood why it might be important enough to do.

I've worked so closely with my dogs, lived so closely with them, developed a teamwork and understanding so far beyond what I ever had with my family's dog or even with my first dog of my own, with whom I was very close and whose death devastated me. Competition and training agility and tricks and everything else has built this relationship; we've learned how each other thinks and reacts and what we like and dislike and what motivates us and how to communicate, and I've learned how to appreciate what my dogs do and how. (Some people say their kids make them laugh every day; my dogs make me smile or laugh sometimes many times a day.)

Sure, they're just dogs. They're not human. They're not like having a significant other, or children of one's own. They're a different species. We anthropomorphize them, but I know that they think and act differently from humans and have different motivations and needs.

And still: Would I go into a burning building to save my dog's life? Would I rescue my drowning dog before a drowning stranger?

How about you?


  1. I understand the relationship between us humans and our very special dogs. Going back for them in a fire? Absolutely I would try to do that. Choosing between the dog and a person? I'm struggling more with that..because I think the dog would be smart enough to keep his head up longer than a person, a dog would panic less I think...so I'd hope to get the person out...and go back for the dog. If I could only choose one...it's got to be the dog...

  2. (Reposting from Facebook as requested)
    You could always turn it around - if you were drowning, would your dog try to save you? Most dogs, there'd be no question. I don't like to think badly of humanity in general, but I suspect my own dogs would be more likely to put themselves in harm's way to try to save me than a random person would.

    Having recently had a baby, I'm realising that some of the intense connection with the dogs has to do with our sense of responsibility - that if my dog was drowning, there's a very high chance that something I did put the dog in that situation or in a situation that made that one likely. Having a baby elicits similar feelings of protectiveness, that it's innately your responsibility to care for this individual since you're the one making the decisions.

    I'm not sure I wouldn't react the same way as you in the hypothetical dog/stranger drowning situation. I might not, particularly if the stranger was a small child, but in general I think I'd react the same way as you.

  3. Good comments. I'm realizing that many of us can't answer this question in advance, as there are so many factors involved.

  4. Burning building... I don't think I'd leave without the dogs in the first place. The cats unfortunately are another matter -- they could hide in a million places and I'd choke to death just while looking for them.

    Drowning... that's really tough. Don't think I'd know until I were actually in that situation.

    Okay so hopefully all that water has neutralized all that fire and nothing terrible will happen to any of us! :)

  5. I already know what I'd do with the burning building having done it in the past. Some years ago, I came home to my house on fire. Awful, scary and yet my animals were still inside. The fire department was on the roof and everywhere else. I walked unhesitatingly inside - someone tried to stop me but backed off when I said it was my house & I was going in. I found my animals; got them out and safe. Of course my kid was luckily not there or she would have come first but I'm totally sure I still would have gone back in for the animals. As for drowning - stranger versus my team-mate - I'd go for my team-mate and probably perish going after the human on the second effort..May we never have these choices. Too difficult.

  6. Fire: I already know I'd go after my animals having had this happen to me. SOme years ago I came home from work to find my house on fire with the fire department on the scene as well as police. I went into the house without hesitation. Someone tried to stop me but backed off when I said it was my house & I had to go in. I found my animals (cats at the time) who were hiding and got them to safety. Luckily my kid was at daycare or she would have come first. I'm sure in the drowing instance, between my teammate and a stranger, I'd pull my teammate to safety if I could. I'd probably perish going after the stranger next but I feel responsible for my dogs. Their safety is my responsibility so that's undoubtedly what I'd do. May we never have to make these choices. Stay safe & cherish your loved ones - human & otherwise! Peace.

  7. Go back in during a fire, you bet!!! Some real life examples: I once scooped up JoJo in the middle of a pack of 10 dogs attacking him, didn't think twice that it would even hurt me. One little bite is all I got. Stupid maybe, but there was no way I was watching him get killed by those dogs.

    After our nasty car accident, who did I check on first after I got my wits back? My dogs. Then once I was satisfied they were ok, then I check on the people in the other car. Instinct, just instinct. I think we humans have it for the ones they love...just like dogs have instinct.