As a never-married person, I usually feel lonely around St. Valentine’s Day. That’s particularly true right now since I no longer have a dog.
Dogs prove God’s unconditional love. And over the years six dogs taught me this.
The first dog I ever knew was my grandparents’ dog, Whiskers, a sheepdog mix found abandoned in a Chicago alley by my Uncle Joe. Whiskers and I used to snuggle together underneath the rolltop desk in the middle of their apartment whenever there was thunderstorm. She was as scared as I was, but let me rest my head on her and hang onto her soft fur. Whiskers once saved my grandfather when a would-be attacker came at him one night—just by growling.
My grandparents’ next dog was Pepper, a cocker spaniel who would chase his tail and be so surprised that it hurt when he caught it.
When I was little, my parents, sister and I lived in apartments that allowed no pets. After we moved into our own house, we got a dog. My mother was worried my sister would be lonely because I was going off to college, so I always say I was “replaced” by a dog. Fritzie was a purebred miniature schnauzer who cost $125 in 1966—$25 more than I cost my parents to be born.
Our family decided that the fact that Fritzie’s father was also his great-grandfather was responsible for how neurotic the dog was. He never stopped barking until he was good and ready. He got lost once for three hours, and we all prayed to St. Anthony that he’d be found—and he was! He lived to be almost 19, proving that ornery survives.
Once I had a house of my own, I’ve had three dogs: Spot (short for Spotless), Nikki and Murphy. I never say I “owned” a dog because all were much more than possessions.
Spot was a poodle-terrier mix, smart but hyper. I got him from my sister because he may have bitten my then one-year-old nephew and she wanted to send him off for rehabilitation someplace. Spot never did like children, but he was protection and company for me.
I got Nikki from a friend’s family. She was a German shepherd-retriever mix. Because she was much bigger than other dogs I had known, we went to obedience classes together. Nikki normally had a very sweet temperament, but being stressed would bring out her herding instincts. Once when my sister’s family was visiting me and I left the room, she rounded up all five of them and kept them confined to the couch area.
Murphy was a rescue (www.theanimalrescuesite.com or your local animal shelter’s site), a mix. I adopted him at nine or 10 months. He had been neglected and seemed forlorn from the beginning. He passed obedience training also, but only because the instructor didn’t want to see him again. He said he had no pack instinct, which made him very difficult to train.
Three years later, I had to bring Murphy back to the animal shelter because he was so rambunctious. On walks he had pulled me to the ground six times. I just knew that the next time that happened I would break something. I have to trust that some good person with a lot of land took him or that he was humanely put down.
Each dog had a unique “dogality,” virtues and vices, just as people do. But all of them gave me unconditional love and forgiveness if I yelled at them. I miss being enthusiastically greeted every morning and every time I came into the house. The only problem with dogs is that their lifespan is too short: We are always getting used to new pets and mourning old ones.
Jack Wintz, O.F.M., suggests in his book, Will I See My Dog in Heaven? God’s Saving Love for the Whole Family of Creation, that dogs are a unique part of God’s creation and that the afterlife will include them. Of course, no one knows for sure, but Father Jack makes the case, arguing from Scripture, tradition and liturgy—as well as the life and teachings of St. Francis—that God has made room in heaven for dogs, even the “bad” ones.
Native Americans in the Southwest tell a creation legend about dogs. After creating all living things, the Great Spirit decided that there should be a great divide between humans and other creatures. As the land was broken apart in an earthquake-like rift, dogs came over to stand with us.
Truly, dogs are on our side, evidence of God’s love for us. After all, dog is God spelled backwards.
I have a vision of being overwhelmed at the gates of heaven by these six dogs I’ve known and loved. Now all I have to do is get there myself.