I’ve had dogs in my life pretty much always. In fact, I really can’t think of many times that there wasn’t a creature that needed walking, feeding, cleaning up after and a game of tug-o-war in our home.
There was one dog in particular that really had a profound impact on my life. Her name was Beatrice. She came into our life when she was about eight years old. She was a beautiful German shepherd that had a rapidly developing case of degenerative myolopathy. It’s a condition that slowly eats away at the spinal cord and causes loss of leg function and eventually breathing ability. During the two years that she survived with this condition, and lived with us, I learned all of this about dogs, and about love, life, God:
The pure sense of joy that dogs have is a complete mystery to me. Their happiness seems to be connected to how much they are willing to hope, and to be vulnerable, and to be satisfied with small things. It suggests to me that if we want to know a similar joy, we need to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, be willing to hope and see the value in the small gifts that God bestows on us, every day.
Nothing rests more honestly than a dog! Not only does God tell us we need to rest once every week on the Lord’s Day, but a dog’s example can help us to live more fully by really investing in our leisure time, so that it’s not just “other work to do when we’re not at work” but real “down time.”
Over the years my wife and I raised two wonderful children and cared for some elder members of our family, but it was Beatrice, who needed her diapers changed and to be carried from room to room after she lost the use of her legs, who taught us about graciously, humbly accepting our care. The lesson? There is no shame in needing help from people who love us; it gives them a chance to express that love in a different way that might actually be fuller and more honest. In the long run, our humility in accepting help from others may assist in their salvation too.
Even when you’re all wrapped up in all the troubles of life and the world, a dog is completely attentive and undistracted; you are their world. There is a good lesson in there, about giving attention to our family members, but a bigger lesson is this: when we turn to God, he isn’t distracted by the troubles of the world either; we are the world to him.
There is nothing more loyal than a dog. Except for God. Who made dogs to teach us this.
Feeling a dog lay up against you is a wonderful thing, and it banishes loneliness. Often we forget that. We get wrapped up in our personal woe, and feel isolated, and then suddenly, the dog is there. You’re not alone. God is always there too, and yes, we can forget that. We may have a dog’s companionship for a few years, but we have God’s companionship for all eternity.
Whenever I’d feel down, “B” would try to get closer to me. She’d nudge me with her nose, even when she could barely move. God can nudge us too, trying to get closer, but sometimes he just completely embraces us with the warmth of his love and concern for our well-being.
Dogs will wait for you to be done with whatever you’re involved with. They wait to be fed, to be walked, to be let outside; in fact, when they’re not sleeping or playing, I think they’re probably just waiting. For us. To turn to them and call them near. Do I have to draw you a picture?
Have you ever given a dog a bone and been the recipient of that sloppy, excited gratitude? Wouldn’t it be great if we could have that level of gratitude for all the gifts that God has given us, even when it seems like little more than a bone tossed in our direction?
The unconditional love. Is there another creature on earth that embodies it so perfectly? If “Love one another as I have loved you” is perfect love, then perhaps “Love one another as your dogs loves you” would run a close second, and most of us wouldn’t succeed any better at the second than the first.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous; love is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” My love is imperfect and fails, everyday, at some of these. My dog embodies them. Only God could do better.
Jeffrey Bruno is art director for Aleteia.org.
In loving memory and grateful appreciation. Beatrice.