More Than a Best Friend

Your dog loves the person they know you truly to be.

Jason Micheli / 3.8.22

Having pastored for over two decades, I’d wager the number representing the deaths for which I’ve been present hovers at least in the three figures. Most of those vigils were kept for old folks who died in ordinary ways. Many of the leave takings, though, were grim in the circumstances, fraught in the family dynamics, or tragic in the timeliness. Still (and maybe this sounds fucked up for a pastor — or, a human — to say), nothing wrecks me like petting a best friend as she adds her number to life’s near 100% death expectancy.

We said goodbye to Sydney today, an Australian Shepherd named not for the city down under but for the character played by Jennifer Garner. If you’re an Alias nerd, our surviving dog is named Vaughn. The next surely will be named Sloan or Franny. The silliness of her name and the depth of our feelings for her feels about on par with every other death I’ve stewarded. In dog years, Sydney was addled enough to launch an invasion into Ukraine. Truthfully though, she was always crazy and was only ever good according to the standard we all quietly and graciously agreed to set for her (Okay, fine, you can sleep on the bed, but not on my feet). But when it comes to man’s best and ever-present friend, I think we’re on dangerous ground as soon as we start to use the language of good.

I have thought often, especially so today, about the cliché I’ve spied printed across bumper stickers, in GIFs, and on the pet-themed sweatshirts of the people at the dog parks: “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” How this is a prosperity-pitch is as mystifying to me as the mantra I’ve read scrolled across the screen at the dermatologist’s office (advertising plastic surgery): “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.” In the latter case, the pitch-line provoked me to say, out loud in the waiting room, “If their goal is for me to appear on the outside how I normally feel about myself on the inside, then I’m already as ugly as I need to be.”

But the person my dog thinks me to be is not the stuff of aspiration. My dog knows better than me that my ideal self doesn’t actually exist; in fact, my dog knows that my actual self isn’t all that far removed from her habit of drinking from the toilet so vociferously you’d think she was anxious about being forced to share the water. It’s but an indication of our addiction to what the theologian Gerhard Forde calls “the glory story” that we conscript the creatures who know us best into a schema that tempts us into pretending we’re better people than our canine friends know us to be.

Whoever came up with the canine-flavored, self-help slogan Be the person your dog thinks you are was either dangerously self-deluded, the owner of the world’s dumbest dog, or possibly both. You’re an open book to your dog to a degree you are with few others. Sydney knew my propensity to fall asleep in the leather reading chair, Cheetos crumbs all over me, only to wake in the middle of the night with the important book I’d meant to read unopened next to me and my thumb on my phone in mid-Twitter scroll. Sydney knew that time when my son, who was little at the time, threw up on the floor and I let her eat it up so I didn’t have to clean. Sydney was there to overhear the irritated mutters one of us in the house exchanged about another. The not very Christian comments I’d make while checking work email, or every four-lettered rage I inveighed against her while she took forever to do her business in the snow or the many times she would irrationally bolt out the door and run straightaway into the neighborhood pool. Sydney surely remembered the time I forgot her outside in the rain, while I wasted two hours of my life going down a rabbit hole of Wikipedia pages about 1980’s professional wrestling.

She heard every fight and false boast and broken promise.

Yet every day, as though she possessed some divine amnesia or imputed to us a goodness we have not accomplished, she was there on the sofa to put her head on my lap or to lie against us on the bed.

Much like the One from whom no secret is hidden, Sydney knew exactly who I am yet loved me without condition.

Rather than the glory story lie, Be the person your dog thinks you are, the truth makes the parting sad, Your dog loves the person they know you truly to be.

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