We have had two dogs. They were both Airedale terriers. They both lived just over 14 years, which is a good run for a middle-sized dog. Our first dog was lovable and shy. She had the distinction of being admired by Steve McQueen and Steve Martin. I remember her playing happily in the snow at Lake Tahoe. She just got old, could barely hear or see, and could no longer get up unassisted. Her life was no longer worth living, so we reluctantly put her down.
Our second dog was lovable and bold. She had the distinction of being admired by Mel Gibson. I remember her looking out the car window for me whenever we left her for a short time. She remained vigorous until she developed metastatic cancer and shortness of breath. Still, on her last day on earth she ate a whole chicken breast for supper. We sadly decided not to wait till she was in misery, and put her to sleep that night.
So I am taking the time to contemplate what I learned from our dogs.
● First, there is love. Of course, I already knew about love. I had learned a great deal from my parents, and even more from my wife – from whom I am still learning. Human love is far more complex than the love of an animal. Even so, dogs have something to teach us about love.
They can teach us about pure, unalloyed love. They can teach us about love unencumbered by resentments and unfulfilled expectations. Dogs do not have a fantasy, an image, of what they expect us to be. So we cannot fall short of their expectations. We cannot fail to reach the perfection of their image. Instead, dogs love us just as we are – warts and all.
● Second, there is what is important in life. When I had problems at work, my dog’s love was unaffected. She couldn’t have cared less what my title was, or whether or not I was promoted. She had no idea of what my salary was, or whether I had gotten a raise. She didn’t care whether my clothes were new. She enjoyed my old clothes – they smelled like me. She enjoyed a ride in my old car quite as much as she would have enjoyed a ride in a new one. All she knew was that we loved her and she loved us, and that she had plenty to eat and a warm place to sleep.
When I looked at her, I was reminded of what I had been taught by religion, but had forgotten. I was reminded that what was required of me was not to be promoted, or get a raise, or become famous, or even to be successful in my work. No, all those were optional. What God required of me was to treat His creatures with kindness, and to see that those dependent on me received everything necessary for life, health, and comfort.
● Third, there is loyalty. A dog’s loyalty is not conditional. It does not depend on whether my career is on the way up, and the dog hopes I will take her along as I head for the corner office. It does not depend on hopes for future advancement or future riches. It does not depend on the dog’s expectation that I will lose weight, or stop smoking, or dress more fashionably, or get rid of my mustache, or stop watching so much TV, or whatever.
Once a dog bonds with a person, with rare exceptions it’s for life. In our case, the bonding occurred in puppyhood, which is strongest, but bonding can occur later as well. Unlike cats, dogs rarely leave owners who mistreat them, so this trait may not always be applicable to humans. We hope people will leave abusive partners. Still, we can admire unconditional loyalty unto death – and with the exception of serious abuse, we can strive to emulate it.
● Fourth, there is duty. As a physician, I was no stranger to this concept. But even here, others were watching as I fulfilled my responsibilities. If I failed to show up when I was on call, there would be criticism, loss of reputation, and possibly a lawsuit. But with a dog, no one but she would know if I failed to feed her or walk her daily. No one but she would know if I stayed out late and neglected her.
But that didn’t matter at all. I enjoyed saving part of my dinner for my dog, because I knew how much she would enjoy it. I was glad to come home promptly, because I knew she was waiting to greet us. I had no difficulty getting up in the middle of the night to check on her when she wasn’t feeling well, because I couldn’t have slept if I had not done so. The bonding, you see, goes both ways.
● Fifth, and most important, there is the realization that everything we love is not owned, but rented on a day-to-day basis. We pay the rent in the form of love and care. If we are conscientious, we pay daily. If we are like most people, we miss a few payments, or more than a few.
But sooner or later, the day comes when the Owner wants His creation back. Then it does no good to regret the payments we’ve missed. The time to consider our obligations is when the lease is still in effect. If we make our payments faithfully, it may or may not extend the duration of the lease, but it will reduce our regrets after the lease is terminated. It’s a comfort to know that we have fulfilled our obligations. It’s a consolation to know that we were almost as loyal as the dog was.
All this is a small part of what I learned from our dogs. But to say it better than I could, here is the poem I posted when our 14-year lease ran out:
THE POWER OF THE DOG
There is sorrow enough in the natural way From men and women to fill our day; And when we are certain of sorrow in store, Why do we always arrange for more? Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware Of giving your heart to a dog to tear. Buy a pup and your money will buy Love unflinching that cannot lie – Perfect passion and worship fed By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head. Nevertheless it is hardly fair To risk your heart for a dog to tear. When the fourteen years which Nature permits Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits, And the vet's unspoken prescription runs To lethal chambers or loaded guns, Then you will find – it's your own affair – But...you've given your heart for a dog to tear. When the body that lived at your single will, With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!); When the spirit that answered your every mood Is gone – wherever it goes – for good, You will discover how much you care, And will give your heart for the dog to tear. We've sorrow enough in the natural way, When it comes to burying Christian clay. Our loves are not given, but only lent, At compound interest of cent per cent. Though it is not always the case, I believe, That the longer we've kept 'em, the more do we grieve: For, when debts are payable, right or wrong, A short-time loan is as bad as a long – So why in Heaven (before we are there) Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?
If dogs mean anything to you, read "Suspect" by Robert Crais.
On the question of whether there are dogs in Heaven, I quote Will Rogers: "If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went."
Part of the problem is that in Romance languages like Latin, and Germanic languages like English, we use the same word for Heaven (the next world) and for the heavens (where stars and planets are). But in Hebrew, there are separate words for the heavens, "shomayim," and for the next world, usually described as "Gan Eden," the Garden of Eden. And what are there? Plants and animals.
So I believe there are dogs in Heaven, not as a reward because they were good dogs, but because we love them.