I grew up in a Bible Church home, which means I went to tiny churches that held their services in school basements or town hall meeting rooms. That is, until high school, when I got to attend a much larger Presbyterian church that actually had its own building complete with steeple and a cross over the entryway. In college, I rebelled and rocked out to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” I sang the lyrics with a spiritual rebel’s gusto, nodding my head knowingly.
Then the New Age wave hit and I started reading books like Illusions by Richard Bach. From my experience, this book, which questions reality with savoir faire, should not be given to college students who are already questioning reality and are in danger of deciding they don’t exist. I will admit that it really messed with my head for a while. I bought crystals and beads and incense, though I really didn’t know what they were supposed to do for me spiritually. My roommates and I burned so much incense in college that I can still smell it when I sweat.
As part of my general spiritual quest, I also explored out-of-body experiences. You lie in bed and slowly tense and relax your muscles one by one, and envision your roommate in the next room — and voila! Your spirit is suddenly hovering over her. The next day you excitedly ask whether she was wearing a blue sweatshirt last night and she says “Yes!” and you sigh because it’s all so wonderfully otherworldly. The vagueness of it all (what exactly is a “spirit”?; Why would I want to hover over a friend?; Do you eventually get to transverse different spiritual planes, and if so, where do you end up?) didn’t occur to me at the time.
The problem was that we didn’t have a dog at our house on Pleasant Street in Boulder, Colorado. If we had, I’m sure he would have set us straight and banned the incense and laughed at the concept of hovering bodies. He would have offered us a chance to learn about the real concept of faith. This is not because “dog” is “god” spelled backwards; I’ve seen so many T-shirts and bumper stickers bearing this bit of knowledge that it has ceased to enlighten me. It’s also not because “dog” is part of “dogma,” which is somehow meant to warn us off organized religion.
My dogs have taught me about faith, particularly about faith in the unknown. They taught me how to take a leap of faith with their undying trust in me. They also introduced me to unconditional love, which encouraged my mind to wander and my heart to seek this amazing thing, whether in the form of God, gods, Buddha, angels, a guru, or anything or anyone you see it in. They taught me how to be persistent to get what I wanted, and to know that prayer can be a powerful thing. Just consider a dog sitting at your elbow at the dinner table, watching each bite you take, never moving, almost in a meditative state as he silently asks for a piece of meat to drop.
In childhood, my faith was strengthened by the dogs in our house. Many of the virtues I was taught in my family’s faith were echoed by my pets: patience, love, respect, kindness, gentleness, empathy, courage, dependability, forgiveness, loyalty, gratitude, and simplicity. These and other qualities are universally accepted by many religions and spiritual practices and, of course, by many people who are agnostic or atheistic.
The very existence of dogs also gives us a reason to believe in something or someone beyond our realm. I saw myself as agnostic for many years until my beloved dogs started succumbing to old age. At the third dog’s passing within about five years, I found that my grief was not being assuaged by any agnostic thoughts of comfort (“She lives on in your memories” and crap like that). It made no sense that I loved these creatures so much but would never see them again once they died. So my return to a concept of God was from a need to picture myself in some sort of heaven, surrounded by my dogs and maybe a few humans, too.
Around this time, I discovered the philosophy of Taoism and realized how it supported many religious concepts but without the dogma associated with religion. It did, however, seem to describe dogs’ way of approaching life, so I started watching my dogs for signs of their Taoist leanings. Sure enough, Amber, Hudson, and Falstaff — especially Falstaff — went with the flow of things (or followed the “Way”), were connected to nature, didn’t worry about anything unless it was in their faces at that moment, and generally appreciated life no matter what. This strengthened my faith in Taoism, and I use my dogs as reminders of the lessons it teaches every day.
Mostly, I’ve learned that “dog” does not equal “god,” but that dog is, rather, an example to follow when you’re seeking a connection to the unknown. Now if only someone would come up with a new popular phrase for dog lovers’ T-shirts and bumper stickers.
Whatever your faith is, wherever you seek unconditional love, and whether you’re even a spiritual person, looking to your dogs for a connection to your inner self or beyond the boundaries of reality is enlightening and can help you form a close bond with your pooch. Has your dog influenced your faith or spiritual path? Do you learn spiritual lessons from your dog? Do you believe you’ll be reunited somehow in an afterlife?
Editor’s note: Thank you to Nigel Sussman for the fabulous art!