First of all, I do like dogs. I believe God uniquely created them to meet our needs just as he created everything else on this earth. I am amazed by the diversity of things they have been bread and trained to do. I have pictures and statues of them everywhere. I don’t want any of my dog loving friends and especially my own wife to take anything that I am saying personally. These are general observations that do not necessarily apply to anyone I know.
I almost decided not to finish this. I did put it aside for several days. I’ll explain as well as I can why I finally felt free to write it in the first place, but I just happened to see something a few days ago that really got to me. I’ve never quite been able to understand having a deep emotional attachment to an animal, yet watching a video of a complete stranger whose dog was shot right in front of him about did me in. The screaming of the dog and the crying of the man are now stamped in my memory like a very bad dream. I think maybe the Lord let me see that so that I would react with more compassion toward people who are close to their animals. I don’t know that it changes my opinion of how things should be, but it certainly changed my attitude toward the way things are.
When I was growing up, we had dogs at different times, but due to changing circumstances we never seemed to be able to keep one. Like many children, we wanted to have a dog, but usually didn’t do a very good job of caring for it when we got one. I suppose I loved them, but I would characterize it as the kind of affection a child might have for a favorite toy. Yet probably do to the books and television shows that depicted dogs larger than life, I always had an idealized picture of what a dog might be. I wanted the myth more than I wanted the reality. How many animals end up in shelters to be put down for much the same reason?
Even so, I never came to think of dogs as other than animals. The idea of loving a dog or any animal in the same way that we love other people is hard for me to understand. No dog can take the place of a human being. It is incomprehensible to me that anyone would put the needs of a pet over the needs of a family member or any human being for that matter. A pet may be considered a family member only in the broadest of terms. It may be loved and cared for by the family but should never be considered as an equal.
People say their dogs love them unconditionally. I am not sure I believe that a dog is capable of love. I don’t suppose that anyone can be certain of such things. Certainly there are verifiable accounts to be found of dogs doing things that sure look like love to us. I do not claim to know where the line should be drawn between instinctive and emotive behavior. After all, I will concede that much of my understanding of animal behavior comes from the same people who believe that we are nothing more than sophisticated apes. Despite such preposterous pretenders as the Pet Psychic of past television fame, none of us really know what they are feeling or thinking. As I think it through, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that some level of emotional attachment exists, just as a young child who cannot intellectualize what he feels still loves his mother and father. He may continue to love them even if he comes to understand that they do not love him.
I think that what happens between pets and people is often an unhealthy replacement for missing human relationships. Because the creature does appear to offer unconditional love and lacks the capacity to hurt us in the way that another human can, we find it to be a safe way to meet our need. However, it does not meet the need. There is no suitable replacement in the animal kingdom for the human relationships that God designed us to have. As childlike as a dog may be in many ways, it cannot ever be a child. It may perform actions that you interpret as love, but it can never tell you that it loves you in words. It has no real concept of words or the conscious and coherent thoughts which produce them. It does not simply lack the means to speak. It lacks the concept of speech. It can neither substitute for a child nor a real friend. It can only be what it was created to be, a dog. When the unequal relationship between human and dog impairs or supplants the God-given relationship between human and human, something is tragically wrong.
I know of a situation where an unhealthy relationship with a dog destroyed a friendship. I’m not at liberty to disclose the details of that, but I recognized the problem in my own life before it had a chance to become one. It was 1997 and I had just moved to Dallas. I was living alone in an apartment and I had been thinking about getting a dog for some time. This was the first place I had lived where I was permitted. I learned that a local shelter brought adoptable dogs to the pet store a reasonable walking distance from my apartment. I went up to look, but something didn’t feel right. The first week I didn’t bring one home. I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach that usually meant God was telling me “no.” That’s not the answer I wanted to hear, so I rationalized it and went back the second week.
Thus began a mighty tough week. I brought home a chihuahua dubbed Mickey by the shelter, but thinking every big-eared chihuahua in the country is probably called Mickey, I changed his name to Mighty. It kept the mouse theme and I thought it was a great appellation for a little tiny chihuahua. He wasn’t the sort of dog I imagined having. I’ve never really liked them. Most of them I’ve ever known were noisy and neurotic. Mighty was friendly and quiet.
With the vet checkup, food, and supplies plus the pet deposit I dropped $500 on that free dog before the day was out, but I had everything I thought we would need. I still remember the feeling I had sitting in the chair next to the TV with Mighty on my lap. I had a friend. I had something to love. I imagined the beginning of a fulfilling companionship that would last for years and keep me from being alone. We played with the squeaky ball and rolled around in the floor and I had what I wanted.
I knew better. Even then I knew what I was trying to do. I needed a friend. That little dog could never really be the friend I needed. As you might guess, the next few days brought home the reality of owning a dog, particularly a house dog. Due in part to the emotional instability I was experiencing at the time, I soon realized I couldn’t handle it. I wish now I had been able to hang on. The no-kill shelter took him back and I suspect he found a good home, but I’ll never know. I did learn my lesson though. God wanted me to leave room for real relationships in my life and not to substitute anything less.
Eventually I took in another one. When I moved to where I live now I not-so-subtly hinted that I would like to have Savanna, a chow/collie mix that had originally belonged to my sister and was with my parents at the time. I wasn’t sure how attached they were to her so I didn’t want to come right out and ask. I had always liked her. She was sweet as they come (provided you didn’t walk on four legs) and smart. She was an outside dog, though well behaved in the house. She preferred to be outside and wanted me to be outside with her.
By then I was in a very different place in my life. She didn’t come with the same baggage. I enjoyed having her around. I always felt guilty though. Dogs may just be animals, but when we take them for our own we have a responsibility to meet their needs too. It’s even written in the Bible. Proverbs 10:12 says in part “A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal…” My life was just too busy. I worked down town, often had church functions, and spent most of the remainder of my time in front of the computer at home. Most of the time my interaction with Savanna was to go out and fill her food and water bowls. Like the clichéd guilty parent, I bought her toys hoping she would occupy herself with them, but it’s hard to play fetch with yourself. So, when my sister moved back to a place where she could have a dog and was considering one for the kids I told her she should take Savanna back. I did miss her when she left. Every time I walked past the back door where she would stand begging me to come out and play I felt a little pang of sadness.
I believe it was best though at least with the information I had at the time. Dogs are designed as social creatures. They need lots of interaction with either people or their own kind. If you want a well behaved dog around people the former needs to be foremost. I would not have willingly taken on another unless circumstances changed such that I had a need for the dog or the desire to spend the time necessary to treat it right.
But I did. Her name is Tia. She came with the wife. I was actually happy to have her in the beginning. She was the perfect dog for me; someone else’s responsibility yet available to me when I felt like interacting with it. I didn’t really think that way, but looking back that’s what I see. At first I walked her, tried to play with her and establish a bond. The relationship quickly soured. Linda and I had very different ideas about what was acceptable behavior and about a dog’s place in the household. Tia had been a companion and source of comfort to Linda for many hears and neither seemed very willing to make adjustments for me. That isn’t entirely true, but it was hard for me to see it.
Though not able to really understand Linda’s feelings about the dog, I recognized that nothing I could do would change them. I knew that to try to force my preferences on her would only result in Tia being between us long after her life had ended. I didn’t hate the dog. She has some behavioral issues, but she’s just a dog. She can’t have any concept of the emotional tumult surrounding her much less have any responsibility for it. She simply acts like a dog.
I think the Lord was dealing with me on what I really needed to do. As an act of love for my wife, I needed to make a best effort to love the dog. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The best I could manage was to treat Tia with kindness and not allow my pain and frustration to be taken out on her. Sometimes when she would do something that bothered me I confess I thought about smacking her, but I never did it.
God is gracious. Despite my reluctance to do what I needed to do, He moved Linda to take the first step. A few weeks ago, she agreed to a change I wanted made from the beginning. That issue was the greatest obstacle to me being able to accept Tia and believe that I was really the most important to Linda. We’ve had a major training breakthrough, and my whole attitude has changed. I love my wife more than ever, and I might even learn to love the dog too. I’m certainly motivated to give it a try.