There is No “Just a Dog”

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I couldn’t write this until now.

Actually, I may not be able to write this now, either.

Our dog, Nigel, died the other day. He was 15.

I haven’t been able to talk about it, not even with friends. I have to quickly change the subject. I can’t handle the emotions. I’m serious. I’m going to try it now.

Maybe in little bits and pieces.

God loves animals.

I know that. He created them, and He was very pleased. And what’s more, when people try to discount or minimize just how important animals are, I love to remind them that God’s covenant with Abraham wasn’t just with Abraham: It was with his animals, too.

Think about that: God made a covenant with animals. They matter.

God sees when a sparrow falls. He notices one little bird.

If you’re crying because your dog died, or anyone tries to tell you it’s “just a dog,” you tell them that.

There is no “just a dog.”

Dogs are a big deal.

I got a note from my niece a few weeks ago. She’s a young adult, embarrassed a bit by just how crushed she was by sorrow at the loss of her dog, and how very much her dog meant to her. I told her some people just don’t get it, and don’t worry about what they think.

“They told me to get over it, and it’s just a dog, and…” No. Not “just a dog.”

Grieve. It’s okay. Don’t listen to those people.

And not just because animals matter, for dogs aren’t mere animals. I love how Matthew Scully puts it, in his marvelous book Dominion: Dogs are “God’s emissaries from the animal kingdom.”

Think about it: There are millions of animal species, and they’re all scared of us. They run way in fear. Or, if they attack us, well, that’s in fear, too. They see us and head for the hills. Fear and fight. Fear and flight.

…but dogs?

Dogs like us better than they like other dogs.

So many species, so much fear and alienation. But dogs come bounding.

Here’s one furry beast, something wholly other, that somehow crosses the divide, tail wagging… and wants to lick us on the face.

Truth is, I didn’t even want a dog at the time. We already had one, and she was a handful. I’d scheduled a “Doggie Adoption Drive” on my radio morning show, and asked the shelter to bring in a “sample” dog we could at least talk about and pet while we were on the air.

They brought in the sorriest-looking beagle-mix-mutt-thing of all time. He was not only scraggly and downcast, he was missing fur… and a leg. They said he was a stray and they found him after he was hit by a car. They did surgery on him, but no one wanted to adopt him.

I called him to me. He ambled over and leaned into my leg, and just stayed there. He just wanted me to pet him. That’s all. He leaned against my leg the entire morning show.

I had no chance. I had to call my wife. “Uh… there’s this dog leaning against me, and he’s missing a leg, and…”

Our Doggie Adoption Drive totals for the morning? One (1) whole dog was adopted.

By the morning show host.

 

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Nigey used to run with me. I’d go out jogging, and he loved it. Brant and Nigel, tethered, running miles together. At first I thought before long runs, “Wait, can he do this? He only has three legs…” and then I remembered I only have two.

Enough feeling sorry for him! Nigey had 50% more legs than me.

He had a different gait, to be sure. Kind of a limp-gallop. I remember once when I sprained my ankle when we were running. I had to stop running and try to limp home. I remember passers-by staring at us.

I guess the sight of a three-legged dog being walked by a one-legged guy was entertaining.

Kids take it hard when they lose a pet.

I think parents can take it harder.

Because (and here’s where the tears are inevitable for me) when we buried Nigel – and I know this isn’t logical but – it felt like we were burying even more.

In my heart, his lifespan wasn’t just 11 dog years. It was 11 of the sweetest years of my life. It was 11 years of our our boy and girl growing up. We got Nigel when they were children, nestled in our home. We made up songs and stories about him. He was one of us.

Now, our boy is an Air Force officer, and our girl is a college senior in New York City, and I’m on a hillside in Pennsylvania on a bare cold morning, and I feel like I’m saying goodbye to more than just a precious animal.

That’s why parents feel it. It’s all the memories. It’s another kind of loss, another permanence.

I just went through about 15 Kleenexes writing about it.

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Will dogs be in Heaven?

Of course dogs will be in Heaven.

No, I can’t quote a Bible verse, but I’d bet the house on it. Heaven will be a restored earth. Things will be set right. An earth without dogs is messed up.

There are plenty of references to animals in Heaven. I’ve already mentioned God loves them, and He’s proud of His creation. (By the way, when we told Nigel – as we did 43,902 times – that he’s “a good boy!” we were so deeply right. When God created animals, He said they were good.)

What’s more – and you may think I’m being crazy, here – I suspect something else: I think we’ll be able to clearly communicate with animals. And I hope I’m right, because I have many questions that need answers. (“So, let’s talk about why, only when guests came over, you’d walk around our living room licking the floorboards, and…”)

Yes, I have many reasons for thinking they’ll be able to talk, but they mostly boil down to the fact that kids in every culture seems to imagine it and yearn for it.

You might think it’s playful or silly.

Maybe. But I think our yearnings point us home.

Okay, just jotting some of this stuff down makes me feel better. Thanks for reading this.

I think it’s tough to talk about this, because I hear the voice of the critic in my head, the one that minimizes animals because of human suffering. As in, “Well, that’s sad, but nothing like what happens to millions of humans every day, and…” as though importance is a zero-sum game, and if animals matter, then humans mustn’t. Or something. I don’t understand it.

Truth is, dogs and humans, ocelots and oceans, stars and sparrows, all get their significance from their Creator, and His caring isn’t in short supply. There’s enough to go around.

Yes, of course, my kids mean much more to me than a dog, but man, that still leaves a lot of space. A dog sure means a lot.

Nigey was buried in “Nigey’s blanket.” We always put it in his bed so he’d be comfortable, and have something that smelled just right to him.

He was a very quiet dog. He didn’t like to bark. He was a kindly, sweet gentleman dog.

The last time I was with him, he leaned into my leg, and let me pet him. That’s all he really wanted. Just like the first time, you know?

He was an odd little dog. A misfit. But a very good emissary, indeed.

A precious friend, even.

Don’t let them tell you it’s “just a dog.”

After all, there is no “just a dog.”

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