The claim that dogs forgive has always rung false to me. Each step of Lyra’s trust is hard won. And yet …

Today, I accidentally kicked her in the face. Or rather, I swung my leg back, not knowing she was behind me. I can still hear the clack of her teeth on impact. She was startled (no kidding!) and jumped back. I checked her mouth for any sign of injury (none, hurrah), gave her a biscuit, and tossed a ball to show my deep contrition.

Her behaviour towards me is unchanged. I don’t feel “forgiven”, though. Instead, it set me thinking about what forgiveness means. If you own a fearful dog, you know (too well) that dogs remember events. Months ago, Lyra met a man while “coming down” from a drug. She barked in high alarm (a one-off reaction; she hasn’t barked like that since). She saw him again last night and was wary (more so even than usual with strangers): no growling or barking, this time, but she did not want him to touch her (sadly, this offended him).

I feel certain that if she’d met him in better circumstances, she would like him now. Or at least, not be scared. I think he is “tainted” for her with the first meeting — even though he didn’t harm her then (or since). So why does she not seem to mind when I hurt her in fact? Any time I (or anyone in my family) accidentally hurts her — tripping over her, mostly — her only response is to avoid injury. She does not show her teeth or growl. It’s as if she “knows” we don’t mean it. I can’t test my hypothesis, of course, because I’m not about to hurt her on purpose!

Can forgiveness — among dogs — denote a state of letting go that is distinct from forgetting? I expect that Lyra has a bank of information about me. A bad moment goes into the bank, but if the good moments are much higher in value, then the bad moment does not signify — because on its own, it tells her nothing worth acting on. (I am curious, though, about whether the lack of my intent, or anger, lowers the “value” of the event in her mind; imbues it with less information.)

Is it so different from people, then? What does it mean to forgive? In Old English, it means to give something up; the word then evolved to “give up the will or right to punish” someone. Forgiveness implies ownership, of a sort — even a kind of debt or bargain. Forgiveness for a pure accident makes little sense. Forgiveness implies agency on both sides; injury caused by wrongdoing, and the will to cancel a debt. But I think there must be a practical element in there too — because not all forgiveness is equal. Do we forgive more easily — for a deliberate wrong — where the balance of value (as we perceive it to inhere within the other person) tilts toward the good? Where we expect to benefit down the road?

For dogs — stripped of concepts like social contract and punishment — there is no analogous wrongdoing and so no purpose for true forgiveness.  Yet, I feel grateful to Lyra for letting go. Because I am impossibly human.


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