God gives, and has given, many gifts. One of the great gifts he gave me in the past was the gift of our family dogs. On the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, it is interesting to ponder what he would have thought about dogs. Domesticated dogs are a rather modern phenomenon and it is quite likely that in Francis’ time dogs were considered more feral and even vicious pack animals that ran wild.
Scripture says little about dogs and when it does it is never flattering. Most of the references make one think of wild dogs who ran in packs. Psalm 22:16 says, “Many dogs have surrounded me, a pack of evildoers closes in upon me.” Or again from Philippians 3:2, “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers.” But in recent centuries we have really taken dogs into our hearts and through training and animal husbandry converted their pack loyalty into a kind of friendship and an image of almost unconditional “love.”
Yes, they have been a great gift to me. Such loyalty, such unconditional “love.” There were times in my life when everyone was disgusted with me; even I was disgusted with me. But even on days like that my dog would still run to greet me and curl up next to me; they are such wonderful, “forgiving,” and uncomplicated creatures.
And they have much to teach us. Likely you have seen this list, but it is always worth another read.
THINGS YOU CAN LEARN FROM DOGS
- Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joy ride.
- Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.
- When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
- Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory.
- Take naps and stretch before rising.
- Run, romp, and play daily.
- Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.
- Be loyal.
- If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
- When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently.
- Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
- Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
- When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
- No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout … run right back and make friends.
- Delight in the simple joys of a long walk.
All these are simple but profound lessons, lived without words and with a simple integrity. Yes, dogs are very special.
Prince, our eighty-pound Dalmatian, was the dog of my youth (see picture, upper right). He had the energy and strength of a horse and was a commanding presence in our backyard as he laid down the law with squirrels and other would-be intruders. Prince loved to go for car rides. When we took him for a walk, it was really he who walked us, so powerful was his pull. He also ran five miles a day with my father.
A remarkable thing about Prince was that he could smile. When we would return home, he’d run to the door, furiously wagging his tail and with the cheeks of his muzzle pulled back and his head shaking back and forth. People who saw it for the first time couldn’t believe it; he was actually smiling. It seems to be a unique gift of some Dalmatians and Collies.
Prince was also quite a dreamer. He’d lie on the floor near the sofa and doze off to sleep. Soon enough his legs would start moving, and he’d start huffing and even barking as he dreamed. No doubt he was in the midst of a great chase.
In his last two years Prince began to decline and this gave me my first close lesson in aging and death. Gradually, the majestic dog grew crippled and struggled even to walk. I learned to give him aspirin and that helped him for a while. But there came a time when his walking grew rare and finally his kidneys failed. We knew we had to let him go.
My father was a gifted poet (if I do say so myself), and some of his finest works were composed upon the death of our dogs. It was his way of grieving their loss. Here is what he wrote of Prince as he recalled their long runs together and the sad moment when Prince had to be put down:
We were solitary, old friend, you and I.
In the sun and rain we tramped together
And walked and ran the miles;
A hundred phantoms caught you
In scent and sound;
You raced to ancient summonses
That led the pack across the wild
In joyful bound:
You tried to tell me.
I listened, but could only hear
Your barking in the wind,
And see the eager paws
Trace out your gladness in the ground.
When I returned from being gone,
You greeted me with the abandon of your kind,
In leaps and yelps and wags,
Telling me you loved me
And not knowing why,
Yet knowing that I loved you, too,
And had missed you,
Even as I do now
That death’s deep slumberings
Have had their toll,
Since I held you in my arms,
And you looked at me
And said goodbye. (Charles Evans Pope, 1982)
Next came Missy (pictured at left), a stray who adopted us. She had been abused and so had a timidity that was endearing even as it was troubling. She loved to look out the window of our house and would loudly announce to any passing dogs that she worked here and that they should get on along. She, too, loved car rides and romping for hours in the yard or in the nearby field. She was a tender little dog who seemed traumatized when we left the house and joyous when we returned. She loved to snuggle close and really stole my parents hearts. Of her, my father wrote upon her death,
I thought that I saw you,
But you were gone, dear;
The yard was empty then,
The brown of your fur lost
on the green of May.
In memory’s shade
You snuggle next to me,
My little love, again. (Charles Evans Pope, 1998)
Finally there was Molly, a border collie and a dog who perfectly illustrated that happiness is an inside job. She seemed content with whatever happened. She even seemed happy when she went to the kennel to stay while my parents travelled. She was happy to go and happy to come home. My father said that her motto was “Whatever happens is just great for Molly.” She was just always happy, full of energy, never giving a day of trouble; she was the perfect dog for my parents in their old age. She outlived them both and died about a year after my father passed.
Even in death Molly was charmed. She had been diagnosed with liver cancer, but never seemed to be in any pain. The very day she died, she had romped about in the yard and come in to sleep in her own little bed. Molly died while she was napping. Of her, my father wrote,
You are down,
You are up;
In jumps and traces
In secret places,
You have really
Struck a nerve,
The house with verve,
You are clever
You’re a bounder,
But our very
Favorite hounder. (Charles Evans Pope, 2000)
Thank you, Lord, for the gift of our pets, those special animals designed by you to be our close companions. Thank you for the gifts of Prince, Missy, and Molly. In recent years, you’ve given me my cats, too: Tupac, Gracie-Girl, Ellen Bayne, Jerry McGuire, Benedict, and now Jenny-June and Daniel. I don’t know if animals can love, Lord, but I sure do feel your love through them and I thank you and praise you for the quiet, simple lessons you have taught me through them. May you be praised, O Lord.
The pictures in this post are my own.
Here’s a wonderful video of a very smart and helpful Jack Russell Terrier:
And who can forget Faith, the walking dog, who manifests that handicaps can be overcome?