The best thing to happen to me in 2017 was not getting my Master’s Degree or any other personal accomplishments but was adopting my Dalmatian, Jericho. Jericho is the most affectionate and playful dog that I have ever seen. When I come back from going somewhere, even if only for a few minutes, he pounces on me with overwhelming happiness. He even leads me to the couch and climbs on top of me where his hips are on one side of my head, and his neck is on the other, and he wraps his whole body around my neck while kissing and nibbling on my ear (it’s not erotic. Don’t judge him.) Jericho fills my life with tremendous joy.
Jericho lived with a hard task of following up my childhood dog, Riley. Riley was about half the size of Jericho (weighing slightly over 30 lbs). Riley was extremely loyal. Our family belief was that Riley didn’t perceive himself as a dog and thought he was a human. He didn’t like other dogs and seemed to look down upon them. Riley only wanted to be around us and to be a member of the family. He lived until he was sixteen years old and when he passed away, I wept like I hadn’t wept in years. I am not someone who cries much, so when I do, it’s often an indicator of not only mourning but the depth of relationship that I have just lost.
I remember several experiences in my past, however, were speaking like this would make this seem like an irrational act. I remember my freshman year of college when one of the leaders on my floor contested that dogs do not have emotions but are only driven by stimuli. Why would something be so devastating if I am relating to something that doesn’t relate back to me? I’m giving myself; he’s giving a neurological reaction.
The other was a coworker who told me that dogs are simply conditioned behaviors. Dogs only react the way we train them to react. Drawing from the behaviorist Ivan Pavlov who trained dogs to eat by ringing a bell. When a dog reacts, it’s programmed to do so. Andrew Root, when writing about his experience of dogs, is right when he contests that this is also a logical failure. If this is just hardwired behavior that made them perform these tasks that seem so loving to me, does an android phone love me when my alarm goes off each morning? After all, I have programmed this to do so. While something might be conditioned, the difference between some creatures and technological devices is that there are desires present within those creatures that are not existent within technology.
Root, in his book, The Grace of Dogs, discusses the work of Brian Hare. Hare, while doing his Ph.D. work, was working in a lab that was testing apes to see how they responded to human language and gestures. Over and over, the apes could not pick up on these aspects of verbal and embodied language. Hare brought up that he believed that his dog, Oreo, could pick up on them. Through many tests, it was shown that Oreo would respond to these gestures, and what separated Oreo (as well as other dogs), is that Oreo would look at the face before responding. If a treat were hidden under several cups, all the animals (including apes and wolves) would try and dig, knock it over, or do other means to try and attain the treat before giving up. After the dog tried to dig to get the treat, it would look upon the face of the human for some recognition or reaction. The dog would survey the face and eyes, unlike the other animals, to draw upon a solution for the treat.
As every human being knows, the face is a source of intimacy and connection. When people care for each other, they look at each other. When people are more intimate with one another, they can hold eye contact for the extended time. It is in this experience that we find a form of transcendence. We experience love in extended eye contact that makes us aware of something greater than ourselves and is bonded with one another. It’s an experience of being held, as the blind theologian John Hull, puts it in regards to the loss of his sight and the grief this caused his marriage.
This source of bonding isn’t the only means that dogs reach out to human beings. My mother often tells the story of our dog, Riley, when in one of her terrible tension headaches, Riley could sense her pain and came over and rested his head upon her to try and bring her comfort. This was not an act of sympathy, where Riley felt bad for her, but of empathy where Riley experienced her pain and shared it with her.
Root, also acknowledges the role of play, in this sort of transcendental relationship. He writes, “Play is the energy that moves us near to one another. When we take a break from the demands of everyday life, we enter a space in which we can see each other anew. For a mother with her child, playing both the way into and the witness of, a shared bond.” As I shared above, I have never met a more playful dog than Jericho. He lives to play with me. I have to constantly go to the store to buy him new toys for him to play tug of war. His embodiment communicates to us, “Let’s have fun. I enjoy your presence. You are a gift to me. I love you.”
While a dog may never be able to understand the doctrines and person of Jesus, there is a metaphysical witness present within them that reveals, Emmanuel, “God with us.” Jesus, like Jericho, like Riley, just wants to be with us. Dogs provide a witness to the type of character and love present within God.