Dog Is My Copilot

’Tis the season for pet blessings! Churches everywhere are celebrating the Feast of St. Francis […]

Carrie Willard / 10.9.17

’Tis the season for pet blessings! Churches everywhere are celebrating the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4), that famed lover of animals, by blessing their congregants’ furry friends. Our family are dog people, and we always bring a dog or two to the pet blessing at our church. My husband and I had dogs before we had human children, and I hope to take the advice that someone gave me to get a puppy when our children are teenagers, so that someone will be happy to see us at the end of the day. We currently have two rescue dogs, and my children’s favorite vacation destination is my sister’s house, where she fosters puppies. Our dogs have Christmas stockings and a place on our beds. We have done DNA tests on them, but not on ourselves. They have photo ID cards from the vet’s office, but I don’t know exactly where my children’s social security cards are. We are obnoxious Dog People.

When my husband and I were first married, we had two dogs: his English Cocker Spaniel named Georgia, and my parents’ ancient Labrador Retriever named Cody. Cody was already elderly when we brought her home with us, retiring from an unsuccessful stint as a hunting dog and being more suited for life on the sofa. She’d been part of our family since I was a teenager, and so, given that long attachment, I knew that her senior years would be hard. When she died, I was devastated. I asked my husband, an Episcopal priest, to say a little something as we sprinkled her ashes in the pond in our backyard where she loved to swim. There aren’t a ton of perks that come with being a clergy spouse, but I figured that a proper farewell to the beloved pet who got me through adolescence would be one of them. We stood by the pond with her ashes, and I wondered for a moment where my husband’s stole and prayer book were, until I realized that he didn’t need them.

“Goodbye, Cody.”

That was it.

I went inside and called my parents. “If you wanted, like, an actual liturgy for your funerals, now’s the time to speak up and ask for that.”

I know there have been one million and three theological, and then liturgical, debates about whether all dogs do, indeed, go to heaven. I wasn’t interested in all of that. I was mourning the loss of a sweet companion, and I didn’t want to pick hairs about whether she had an actual soul.

Fast forward a few years, to when we had another black lab, this one named Tippet. Shortly after we adopted her and in the span of a few short months, I had moved across the country, experienced two miscarriages, and gotten in a bad car accident. We took Tippet to meet her new vet, who diagnosed her with an autoimmune disease. I took Tippet home and into our bedroom, lay down with her, and whispered in her ear, “I’m going to need you to be OK.” Everything else was falling apart around me, but I needed her to be OK.

She was OK, and she still is OK, for the most part, but several years later, she’s fading. As we’re approaching the end of her life, I wonder what it is about these dogs that attach themselves to our hearts. I think, in large part, it has to do with the way that they love us for who we are, without pretense. They don’t care if we’re dressed up for work or dressed down on a sick day, and they certainly don’t care what we netted last year or how many miles are on our cars or how much our shoes cost. (Full disclosure: we do have one dog who freaks her freak if I pull my hair back into a ponytail, but she does have a very small brain.) Without fail, when we come home from work, they are delighted to see us. Every time. They’ve seen us at our very worst, and nothing seems to stop them from loving us.

I’m not saying that dogs are God-like, but I do like to think that God sees us in a little bit of the same way that our dogs see us. Even seeing us completely for who we are, nothing can stop Him from loving us. Of course, like a lot of things in this broken world, this is an imperfect comparison, especially for folks who aren’t dog people. But I do think there’s something to be said about a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom in the form of a creature who loves us, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve cleaned out the refrigerator or “exceeded expectations” on a performance evaluation.

Amy Sutherland noticed this type of love and wrote about it in a “Modern Love” column for the New York Times this past February, “Opening the Heart’s Floodgates, With a Paw.” She noticed that in volunteering for an animal shelter, she began to like dogs more and like her fellow humans less at the same time. But the more time she spent at the animal shelter, she realized that the dogs were bringing out a softer side of the humans who loved them:

Everyone knows that dogs can be firehose-like gushers of unqualified love. Humans, in contrast, have always struck me more as takers than givers, fickle lovers who are cagey with their affections and hearts. But in watching people tumble for goofballs like [certain dogs at the shelter], I saw that my own species longs, maybe even needs, to gush unqualified love too, something we rarely do with other humans, even with a mate.

A dog may eat our Italian loafers but will never ghost us, or say, “We need to have a talk.” With them, we can let it all hang out. At the shelter, that’s what people did with our one-eyed pugs, our ancient hounds with bald patches and juveniles who hopped like kangaroos.

Watching people fall in love so completely with dogs, I began to see how humans long to give their hearts away.

And so, when we bring our pets for a blessing this fall, we are asking God to bless the love that these animals bring into our lives and the joy that they bring us. This probably seems goofy to a lot of people. But if these goofy creatures can give us just a glimpse of what it is to be loved wholly and unconditionally, I’ll take it.