The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines altruism as "unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others." Altruism is one of our best traits as humans, and it’s the emotional characteristic that is the engine of the animal protection movement. But it’s not uniquely human, and I wrote about its expression in animals some months back.
Here at The HSUS, I learn of many acts of animal altruism, especially from dogs. There are dogs like Jesse, a 13-year-old golden retriever mix, who recognized a dire circumstance and didn’t just look out for herself. When a fire started late one night, Jesse, a service dog, woke her owner who had lost a leg in a car accident. Once Jesse helped the woman out of the house, Jesse brought her the phone to call 911. When a cat who remained in the house cried out, Jesse raced back into the burning house. She never made it out alive, and both animals perished in the blaze. Jesse risked her life for others—the most self-sacrificing form of altruism there is.
Or there are dogs like Shana, a German shepherd mix who helped her elderly caretakers escape a life-threatening storm. After finding her 81-year-old owners huddling together for warmth, trapped by fallen trees, Shana worked for more than four hours to dig a path through the deep snow and pull the two to the safety of their home.
Jesse, Shana, and many other dogs have exhibited bravery that saved human lives. To recognize them, and to broaden understanding of the rich emotional experience that animals have and all they bring to our lives, The HSUS has launched a special program—the Dogs of Valor Award. We’re taking nominations now, through May 30, for acts that occurred during 2007. Later this year, we’ll be making selections and have an awards ceremony to recognize these animal heroes.
If you know of a story of canine altruism and wish to make a nomination, please do so. We’ll take the stories we can verify and make a series of selections and provide awards for dogs who have exhibited courage. If you are aware of other species who have exhibited altruism in 2007, I’d like to know those stories, too. Share the story in a comment or in an email, then I’ll publish some of them in reader feedback on the blog.
Animals have so much to teach us, and their acts of altruism are models for our own behavior. But it’s important to remember that we don’t have to risk our lives to exhibit altruism and exhibit heroism for animals. Small choices we make in our lives—choices that hardly inconvenience us, such as eating lower on the food chain, buying cruelty-free household products, or rescuing a dog or cat from a shelter—can make a remarkable difference in the lives of other animals and prevent suffering and misery. It’s the place where altruism blends with basic decency and personal responsibility.