When I was a boy growing up in the 1950s, two of my favorite TV shows were Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Both were about a boy and his dog, an intimate relationship in which the dog at times seemed almost human.

To my memory, none of us who watched those shows actually believed that dogs were really that smart or capable of having so many human-like capacities. We just enjoyed living in the fantasy world for half an hour and then turned off the television.

Something, however, seems to have changed. Take a look, for example, at the following poem from Heykee’s Store, an online service that offers “personalized memorial poems, beautifully printed on a background image paper, laminated, and inserted into high-quality photo mounts” that can be sent to a friend when his dog dies:

Don’t Grieve For Me

Don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free;

I’m following the path God laid for me.

I took His hand when I heard Him call;

I turned my back and left it all.

I could not stay another day, to laugh,

to love, to work or play.

Tasks left undone must stay that way;

I found that place at the close of day.

If my parting has left a void, then fill it

with remembered joy.

A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss; Ah

yes, these things, I too will miss.

Be not burdened with times of sorrow,

I wish you the sunshine of tomorrow.

My life’s been full, I savored much;

good friends, good times, a loved one’s touch.

Perhaps my time seems all too brief;

don’t lengthen it now with undue grief.

Lift up your heart and share with me,

God wanted me now, He set me free.

For at least some people, believing that dogs have human-like capacities is apparently no longer either a fantasy or just for young boys. So, I decided to go over to the Dog Park in Forest Park and find out what 37 adult dog owners believed about their pets regarding the possibility of a divine/canine relationship. Following are the results of the survey.

 By a seven to one margin the dog owners believed their pets had a soul.

 Twenty-six said their dogs would have an afterlife while eleven said no.

 Twenty-nine believed their pets were not capable of sinning while eight said they were.

 Twenty thought their dog would be waiting for them in the after life. Sixteen said they would not.

 The great majority said they were would not consider having a funeral for their dogs or having them baptized.

 About half believed that their dogs “sensed God’s presence or prayed in some way.”

 As a measure of how much they valued their pets, ten said that if their dog became sick or injured, they would be willing to spend $2,000 on them, ten said $5,000 and six said $10,000 or more.

One dog-owner named Monica elaborated “I believe dogs and all animals are connected to God from the time of Eden. They know “our” right from wrong. They do not think of sinning. Because their souls are connected to God, there is no need for baptism or a pastor at their funeral. Their soul is in heaven already.”

Another survey respondent, Brian, had a different take on the question: “My own spiritual beliefs for both humans and dogs are more mystical/transcendentalist than deist. I believe that the difference between human and animal consciousness is a matter of degrees, not quality.” Brian, by the way, did not believe in an afterlife for his dog.

A third canine enthusiast, Donna, even thought humans should look to dogs as models of spirituality. “All animals are here by the will of God. Their loyalty and love is what people should strive more for in their relations to others. And when you think about, “dog” spelled backwards is “God.”

How do you explain this elevated view of our pets? Some people think it has more to do with what is going on in the heads of the dogs’ owners than with increased insight into canine nature. They speculate thatwhereas human relationships are complicated and messy, with a dog the owner is always in control and the pet never holds a grudge. One pastor quipped, “Now humans are trying to create both dogs and God in our own image.”

Also on the critical side, Rob Walker wrote in The New York Times Magazine regarding the huge amount of money Americans spend on their pets, “Needless to say, the real market here is not the pets themselves but their owners, who spent more than $34 billion last year on their dogs and [other pets]. . . .Perhaps pet lovers can be accused of treating their animals as mere props to be decorated as brand extensions of their owners.”

In contrast, Stanley Coren in The Intelligence of Dogs writes, “They may not be ready to vie for the Pulitzer Prize, but it seems reasonable to accept that dogs can communicate with each other and with us at about the same level as our own human offspring up to the age of two or so.”

Likewise, Lama Surya Das, in an essay in the book, Dog is my Co-Pilot, asserts, “My own late Tibetan Dzogchen master, Khyentse Rinpoche, said that dogs can perceive the clear light, the inner luminosity?”which is a reflection of the indwelling spirit or higher mind in each and every one of us.”

A reviewer of the book, Dog Heaven, said on the Amazon.com web site, “Dog Heaven is so touching that I cry not only reading it, but on describing the book to others. Given to me as a gift on the passing of my own beloved Tara, I can think of no better tribute to our dogs. The illustrations are brilliant, God is depicted as human and approachable, and the words of the book speak straight to your heart.”

Interesting. The last quote implies that God, as well as dogs, is seen as being human. But that’s another article.