Society ‘Going to the Dogs’

October 4, 2010 - 4:01 AM

Recently, a police dog in Fort Myers, Florida, was accorded full honors commensurate with a fallen officer. The ceremony was held in a local Baptist Church. The service included speakers, a 21 gun salute, Taps and a presentation of the American flag to the animal’s keeper. Other area police departments joined in the service and formed an honor guard as Rosco, a four-year-old German shepherd was, as the media reported, “laid to rest.”

Rosco was killed by an armed suspect during a shootout with police. The teenage male suspect was also killed.

In former times the loss of a member of the canine corps would perhaps have been mentioned in reporting the incident. It may have even led to a spin off human interest story of how these dogs are chosen for the job and how they are trained. The real story, however, would have been the tragedy of the young man losing his life and how such tragedies could be avoided in the future.

This change in emphasis has serious consequences for society on a number of levels. First, it is indicative of the blurring that has taken place in human thinking regarding our ability to make distinctions between human beings and animals. Secondly, in designating animals as heroes we diminish the accomplishments of those persons who do in fact perform heroic actions.

Thirdly, honors are conferred on heroes to celebrate their actions and encourage others to emulate them. No one should be encouraged to imitate a dog. Finally, when we do this, we diminish the solace such services are designed to render the family of a fallen hero─ the message being ‘your late loved one has the same value as a trained animal.’

Humans have always been regarded to be at the pinnacle of living beings, and our relationship to animals has always been one of utility. This has been commonly held by religious people and atheists alike.

Dogs, like Rosco, are trained to do certain things to protect humans, because the life of a dog is of limited value compared to the infinite value of the human person. This is due to the fact that humans have reason. This rationality confers on us freedom, as well as rights and responsibilities. A dog can lay claim to none of these.

In light of this, the designation of ‘hero’ can only be applied to a person, since the action applauded by society is one that had been reflected upon and done through free will. A dog like Rosco is not free.  He did not choose his job. He is simply conditioned to react in a certain way. There is no altruism exercised. Animals operate on reward and punishment.

Rosco undoubtedly received treats during his training for good performance, which was his sole source of motivation. In no way could he weigh the consequences of intervening on behalf of his human handler. In other words, the possibility of injury or death, the possibility of leaving behind friends and loved ones, animal or human, could never have entered Rosco’s mind. Nor could he have ever been held accountable for any of his actions as could a human being.

We honor human heroes because they are exemplars of our species. Ceremonies celebrating them are also an invitation for others to act in a self-sacrificing way. No police officer should ever be encouraged to emulate Rosco. Careful thought is expected of human officers as to possible alternatives for subduing a criminal suspect without loss of life─ the suspect’s or their own.

Lastly, these honors are given to comfort those left behind. What comfort is there when humans are led to believe that my spouse, my parent, my relative, my friend or my comrade has the same worth as a dog? After all, as much was implied when, according to newspaper reports the Fort Myers Police Chief said that he is reluctant to draw distinctions between his police dogs and police officers.

No doubt Rosco was a fine animal, but that is where the accolades should end. The events honoring him were an affront to human dignity. They have cheapened human life and the sacrifices our law enforcement officers make on our behalf. Unless this nonsense stops, one can only say, our society has ‘gone to the dogs.’