My West Highland terrier, Pearl, is a good dog. I’m a dog person – not that I don’t appreciate cats – but I grew up with dogs and naturally gravitate toward canines. So, this isn’t about the virtues of dogs versus cats; there’s no inherently better type of pet. Unless it’s a dog. Just kidding!
That being said, I’ve learned a well-treated dog can provide plenty of insight into the kind of behavior we often attribute to God and to the better angels of our own nature. It may sound silly, but Pearl gives me a glimpse of the Holy. By extension I can better appreciate the holiness in others and in all things. And I’m reminded that I have the opportunity to demonstrate those same qualities.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from Pearl:
- Patience. I’m not sure if dogs experience the passage of time as humans do. I only know Pearl is extremely patient with me. When I promise to take her on a walk but am interrupted by a long phone call, she waits quietly. This happens a lot. “Ready to go? Oh…sorry. Let me do this thing first.” A human might throw a fit or stomp away indignantly.
Not Pearl. She’s shown me our best-laid plans are often interrupted or denied, and we can either be frustrated at what we can’t control or go with the flow. It’s important to understand the world will keep turning and to take joy in the opportunities given us rather than stew about promises delayed.
- Empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another is a highly prized human trait. Some folks appear to have stronger empathy muscles than others, but it seems to be a universal quality in the dogs I’ve known. A few months ago I went through a long recurring cycle of the flu, sinus infection, and generally feeling miserable. Pearl – who’s usually content hanging out at a distance – suddenly became a lapdog, curling up by my side as I moaned and snorted and grumped.
I would awake to find her staring intently at me. Normally spunky, she slowed down to mirror my aching, plodding steps. It was as if she intuitively understood I felt bad. Merely knowing that helped me feel not so bad. Being a friend to someone in need can simply mean being present, attentive, and having the insight to move at their pace.
- We have the instinct to do our own thing, but the ability to do the right thing. When a dog comes to understand that chasing a squirrel across the street or chewing up the sofa are dangerous and destructive behaviors with bad consequences, they’ll typically change their ways. Humans often do dumb and harmful things – usually to gratify ourselves – but when shown how our actions can cause hurt, we stop. We learn that what might feel good can be bad for ourselves and others.
We all have the power to choose. Deciding to do the right thing often means personal sacrifice, but we do it anyway. That’s not just maturity; it’s a basic spiritual practice that grows our capacity to move beyond our needs into a life of greater service to others.
- Unconditional love, and undisguised joy. Many is the evening I arrive home worn out and wanting nothing more than to flop down and decompress. Pearl won’t have it. If I ever fall into the funk of feeling less-than, defeated, or frustrated, she’s a persistent reminder that someone believes in me and is joyful just to be with me. No matter the hole I may have fallen into, I’m never diminished in her eyes. Her unconditional welcome demonstrates that a more powerful force exists in the universe and through her furry happy self I’m reminded I’m still linked up with it, no matter what.
That’s love. If I can better learn to express that same simple acceptance, welcoming and joy with every person I meet, I think I’ll be closer to living a dog’s life, which in my book is a positive, grace-filled, and serenely spiritual place to curl up and wag my tail.
The Rev. David Green is pastor of Salem Church in Doylestown. He can be found there Sundays at 10 a.m. His podcast is at salemstrong.org.