A Dog’s Life

      Comments Off on A Dog’s Life

Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

David E. Sharp, a senior airman in the United States Air Force, returned home to Georgia after serving in the Middle East in 2002.

Overwhelmed by residual trauma from his deployment, he felt little joy.  He picked fights and drank too much.  A friend encouraged him to get a dog.  He adopted Cheyenne, a brown and white American Staffordshire Terrier puppy – a breed closely related to the pit bull.

Sharp’s state of mind, unfortunately, continued to spiral downward.  Two of his military buddies committed suicide.  “I couldn’t deal with what was in my head,” he remembers.

The veteran went to his room and picked up the handgun his father had given to him years earlier.  “I was crying and calling myself a loser.  Then I pulled the hammer back, put the barrel in my mouth, and my thumb on the trigger.  And as soon as I did that, one of the weirdest things happened.  This little pup, who was maybe six months old at the time, came up and licked my ear, which distracted me.  So I took the gun out of my mouth to ask, ‘What did you do that for?’  And then she came over and sat down in my lap and put her head on my right thigh.  The pistol was on my left.  I understood it was an ultimatum.  To choose her or to take my life. 

“I chose her, and I never looked back.”

In 2009 Sharp founded Companions for Heroes, formerly known as Pets for Vets.  The organization unites dogs with military veterans and front line workers, offering free vet care for a year and unlimited access to a trainer.  The vets choose the dogs themselves.  Sharp reports that happy matches occur about 98% of the time.  For many, finding an animal companion is the first in a series of positive choices that gradually bring hope and healing to a wounded soul – and a fresh shot at life.

The story of Cheyenne and David Sharp is the leadoff tale in Rebecca Asher Walsh’s remarkable book Devoted: 38 Extraordinary Stories of Love, Loyalty, and Life with Dogs

Dogs are indeed extraordinary.  Many of them establish connections with their human companions that defy explanation. 

Walsh recounts the story of a man who suffered a serious stroke.  His dog ran to get the phone, even though he had been taught to do so only when asked.  He put the phone into his owner’s dialing hand.  But that was the hand paralyzed by the stroke.  The dog promptly shifted the phone into his still-functioning hand so he could dial 911. 

An elderly couple were trapped outside in a severe winter storm.  Their dog dug a tunnel in a bank of snow and pulled them both to safety.  Walsh describes the incredible role played by dogs who provide comfort to teenage girls testifying in court in the presence of their accused rapists.  It’s not uncommon for a victim to become traumatized during cross-examination.  Her dog, sitting alongside, will sense this and promptly draw close, lowering her blood pressure. 

Then there’s the story of the Great Dane who stood between his owner and her violent boyfriend.  He absorbed the blows and injuries, refusing to leave her side.  When she arrived at the domestic violence shelter, she was told, “No pets allowed.”  She refused to enter unless her dog accompanied her.  That case of mutual loyalty between dog and human ultimately revolutionized the animal companion policies at many shelters.  As Walsh points out, a number of abused women over the years have stuck things out with their violent partners because they don’t want to leave their dogs behind.

Dog owners are quick to affirm that they’ve rarely had human friends as loyal as their canines – which is why so many beginning Bible readers are disillusioned when they discover the absence of “pet verses” in Scripture, and that dogs actually seem to be singled out for scorn. 

During Bible times, people of low status or questionable morals were frequently called dogs.  The apostle Paul identified some false teachers as “dogs and evil workers.” (Philippians 3:2)  Goliath was personally offended when the Hebrews could only send out a runt like David to face him in combat: “What am I, a dog?” he mocked.  Dogs licked up the blood of the wicked Queen Jezebel when she was thrown from a window, and licked the sores of the poor man named Lazarus in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16. 

Then of course there’s the verse from Proverbs that every Sunday School kid loves to quote: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.” (26:11)

So, what’s up with the Bible and dogs?

Historical context is helpful.  Even though canine domestication had already been underway for thousands of years in various parts of the world, dogs in the Middle East during Bible times were not pets.  They were typically feral creatures.  When roving in packs, they might represent a serious threat to personal safety.  No ancient Hebrew could ever have imagined Chewy.com, the Westminster Kennel Club, or a cartoon character named Underdog arriving just in time to save the day. 

The internet is rife with articles claiming, on a biblical basis, that God must have it in for dogs.  But it would be an extraordinary mistake to extrapolate the biases of an ancient culture into God’s standing orders for humanity.  Just because the earliest Hebrews, for instance, did not swim or take vacations and were terrified of the ocean doesn’t mean you should cancel your summer trip to the beach.

More individuals and families than ever have welcomed dogs, cats, birds, geckos, and guinea pigs into their lives – and those numbers have only risen since the beginning of the pandemic.  For many, animal companions have proven to be life-enriching, even life-sustaining friends.  And we should keep in mind that Isaiah’s vision of God’s new creation features wolves, lambs, lions, and oxen – and yes, even snakes (check out Isaiah 65:25). 

Even though pet ownership is a comparatively recent global phenomenon, doesn’t the Bible have anything to say to those who share their lives with animals?

It does.  And as you might expect, Scripture’s one and only verse on that subject just happens to be found in Proverbs:

“Good people care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.”  (Proverbs 12:10)

To that we can add Proverbs 20:6:  “Many will say they are loyal friends, but who can find one who is truly reliable?”  As John Grogan observes in Marley and Me:

“A dog has no use for fancy cars, big homes, or designer clothes.  A water logged stick will do just fine.  A dog doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, clever or dull, smart or dumb.  Give him your heart and he’ll give you his.  How many people can you say that about?  How many people can make you feel rare and pure and special?  How many people can make you feel extraordinary?”

Dogs just might turn out to be some of the world’s best exemplars of three virtues that God cares about a great deal:

Loyalty, humility, and unconditional love

Living a dog’s life?  We should all be so blessed.