Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Are There Dogs In Heaven?

The belief that dogs have a soul and can go to heaven is widespread.

Image elements from prettysleepy1, Pixabay and Wikimedia CC0
Source: Image elements from prettysleepy1, Pixabay and Wikimedia CC0

There is plenty of data that says that many people consider their pet dogs to be part of their family (see here or here for more about that). Given that fact, it is not surprising to find that people spend time thinking about not only their dog's physical health, but also their dog's spiritual existence in a more religious context. Such concerns are not new.

For example, Martin Luther, the German priest and scholar whose questioning of certain church doctrines led to the Protestant Reformation, had a daughter named Mary Catherine and a dog named Tolpel. One day, Mary came into his study with Tolpel. Mary loved the dog very much but he was growing old and frail.

“Father,” she asked, “What happens when my dog dies? Does he go to heaven?”

This is a question that has been asked many times—not just by children, but by adults, scholars, and clergymen. In early history, there was no question that as to whether dogs had souls and would be allowed into heaven. Rameses III, who became Pharaoh of Egypt in 1198 BC, buried his favorite dog Kami with all the ritual ceremony due to a great man including a coffin, linen, incense, jars of ointment, and the ritual scroll that he would need for his entrance into paradise.

In later religions, dogs would actually become psychopomps. That meant that when a person died, it was is a dog's job to escort him to the next world, to protect him and show the way. Yima, the Zoroastrian god, has set two four-eyed dogs to guard Chinvat Bridge, which is known as the "Bridge of Decision," between this world and heaven. These dogs are placed there because they, like all dogs, are good judges of character and they will not let anyone pass on to paradise if they have deliberately harmed a dog in this world.

The rise of Christianity seems to have ushered in the belief that dogs would not make it to heaven. Despite the fact that the word animal is derived from the Latin word anima which means “soul,” Christianity has traditionally taught that dogs and other animals have no divine spark and no more consciousness, intelligence or soul than rocks or trees.

These views were strongly held, and Pope Pius IX, who headed the church longer than any other pope (1846–1878), actually led a heated campaign to try to prevent the founding of the Italian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on the grounds that animals have no souls. Pius quoted Thomas Aquinas to prove his case, since Aquinas often noted that animals are not beings, but just “things.” However, Aquinas seems to have had some doubts since he warned, “we must use animals in accordance with the Divine Purpose lest at the Day of Judgment they give evidence against us before the throne,” which would certainly suggest that animals would be around in the afterlife.

It is interesting to note that Pope Pius (who created the doctrine of Papal Infallibility) was contradicted in 1990 by Pope John Paul II who said: "also the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with smaller brethren." He went on to say that animals are "as near to God as men are."

One should not blame the Church, however, since the Bible is silent on the matter of whether our dogs will make it into heaven. There are some hints, however, particularly in the “Apocrypha,” which are a collection of books that don't make it into all bibles and are recognized by some sects but not by others. One such is the Book of Tobit, which describes how Tobias went off on a trek to collect a debt to help his blind father. He was accompanied on this journey by the angel Raphael and a small dog. After all the adventures were finished, Tobias returned home and the dog ran ahead to announce his arrival. Tradition maintains that this dog even preceded Tobias into heaven. Actually, it is this story that accounts for the sustained popularity of the name Toby for dogs.

The actions of individual saints also suggest that some believed that dogs would be in heaven. According to Irish folklore, Saint Patrick repaid the legendary character Hossain, who helped him set up the church in Ireland, by assuring him that he could take his hounds to heaven with him when he died. I suppose that they are still romping with Tobias's little dog there.

I encountered my favorite analysis of the question of dogs in heaven when I was in the army and was stationed in Fort Knox Kentucky. I spent a good deal of my free time in the surrounding countryside talking with people about dogs, and on one such day, I ran into a man who had some interesting looking hounds. As he described the history and breeding of his unique animals he motioned me over to some heavy wooden rocking chairs on the porch and offered to get me a beer. It turned out that he was a Baptist minister in charge of the little church next door, and he had the appropriately biblical name of Solomon, although I have no recollection of his last name. As we sat and talked, he commented: “Yep, these will be the most handsome dogs in all of heaven.”

I commented, “So as a man of God, you feel that there will be dogs in heaven?"

Solomon smiled a slow smile and started to speak in that sing-song cadence that the clergy always uses in their sermons.

"Let me tell you, brother, it is a real arrogance that we have that says that only humans have a soul—that only humans can go to heaven. Are we special simply because we rear up and walk on our hind feet? Is our mouth any closer to the Lord's ear than the dog's mouth, simply because his front paws are still planted on the ground and ours are in the air? Are we worthy of some special salvation, or to have a divine afterlife reserved for us alone, just because we wag our tongues instead of our tails? I think not. If a dog is good and keeps the faith the way a dog should by doing what a dog is supposed to do, is there any reason why should he should not be in heaven? And even more than that, would Good God Almighty try to convince us that an existence without the company of dogs could really be heaven? No sir—if there are no dogs in heaven then I don't want to be there. I tell you, dogs are a blessing, and since heaven is for the blessed, there certainly must be a whole lot more dogs than people on the inside of those pearly gates."

Solomon's arguments did not depend much upon scripture, or the formal dogma of the church. He spoke mostly as a man with a certain faith and a belief that a just God would grant a good person the company of dogs. It is a view held by many people, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, author of novels such as Treasure Island, who declared, "You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there before any of us."

My own view is much like Solomon’s. For those who love dogs, it would be the worst form of a lie to call any place where dogs were banned "paradise." Certainly, no loving God would separate people from their canine friends for eternity. If there are no dogs in heaven, then for me there isn’t any heaven.

All of this brings us back to Martin Luther and his daughter Mary Catherine’s question about whether her old dog, Tolpel, would go to heaven when he died. In answer, Luther rose from his desk, walked over to the dog, and bent down to pat it. As he did so, he said to Tolpel with great assurance, “Be comforted, little dog. Come the resurrection, even thee shall wear a golden tail.”

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.