There’s a picture in the family photo album of a small infant recently brought home from the hospital cradled alongside a dog’s belly, a yellow lab lying on his side named oh so creatively, Labbie. I have seen that photo so often as a child, of my parents having laid their newborn so vulnerably at the lap of the family canine, the picture of me or my brother—don’t recall which, it having been taken nearly forty years ago now—and the element that I remember the most is the look upon the dog’s face: joy! That is by all means a memory and interpretation clouded by tremendous anthropomorphization, but I’d stand by it. Labbie had joy. That dog was experiencing and expressing joy, the pure joy of presence.
That’s what dogs do. They are present, for their humans.
Sure, years of evolution have enabled them, many of them, to have particular abilities: hunting, guarding, and shepherding. And even in some cultures, ultimately food. Yet for all the traits and working habits that dogs bring with them, it is their uncanny presence, their pureness in being pets.
There is scientific disagreement on how exactly dogs came about. One of the leading arguments is that a particularly curious, opportune, and relatively non-skittish family of wolves—dogs’ genetic ancestors and closest relatives are wolves—approached human encampments drawn most likely by our refuse. Over time these “friendlier” wolves developed some sort of détente with the humans and domestication eventually occurred almost mutually between wolf and human, as benefit was discovered in this closer relationship. We did not start out as friends, therefore, but rather, allies. How did this happen? Was it a slow process of particular wolves over time? Was it hastened along by some human intervention, say the stealing of pups? These questions are still up for debate. When this happened is also not entirely clear but the oldest dog bones have been traced to 31,700 years ago. It did eventually take place and the dog thus became the first domesticated species.
What I find fascinating and pertinent here is how quickly that relationship developed into something more. Sure, it is certainly a very modern notion to get all sentimental about our pets, but I wonder if with dogs it is something more than that. The archeological evidence shows that it is not so modern, the affection. In a twelve thousand years old grave site in Israel was found “a dog is embraced in death by what is undoubtedly a woman. It suggests that the dog…was already the object of human affection at the dawn of the age of agriculture.” And in another example “is in the Chauvet cave, in southern France: a set of twinned footprints, twenty-six thousand years old, of an eight-year-old child walking side by side, deep into the cave, with what is evidently some kind of hound—a small wolf or a large dog.”
There is an estimated one billion dogs on the earth. What is it—not only historically—this unique relationship that humans have with dogs? Unique, I would suggest, is an important aspect here. For instance as Adam Gopnik shares in a 2011 New Yorker piece, Dog Story: How did the dog become our master?, the British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw in his book “Dog Sense” contends in Gopnik’s words, “dogs are odd, essentially unique—the only animal on earth that needs no taming to live with people while still happily breeding with its own.” More unique in my estimation, however is what professor of psychology at Barnard, Alexandra Horowitz points out in her book “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know” that Gopnik reports:
Above all, Horowitz details the dog’s special kind of intelligence. When other intelligent animals are presented with a deduction or “object permanence” problem—a ball vanishes into one of two boxes; which box did it go into?—most of them solve the problem by watching where the ball goes. The dog solves the problem by watching where his owner looks. Dogs are hypersensitive to even the slightest favoring actions of the owner, and will cheerily search for the treat in the box the owner seems to favor even if they have seen the treat go into the other. This was the ancestral bet that dogs made thousands of years ago: give up trying to prey on the prey; try pleasing the people and let them get the prey. Dogs are the only creatures that have learned to gaze directly at people as people gaze at one another, and their connection with us is an essential and enduring one.
The dog/human relationship is unique because dogs are so present to their humans. They are on to us like few others are. They see us. They watch us. They know us. Often it will be said that dogs love unconditionally. That may well be true but I make no argument for or against it here. Rather, I’m taken by how remarkably present this animal is to their human. And admittedly, that certainly can be experienced as unconditional love. Be attentive can certainly be a part of love, for it seems without it, love could not be present.
I have come to find that of all the things we can do to show love, being present to one another is first and foremost. We worship a God who in Chirst is with us. And sometimes as the book of Job attests, there is nothing else to do or say but to simply show up, to be with, the ministry of presence. Perhaps it is in this light that so much of my theology rests on Romans 8:38-39, pared down to this: For I am convinced that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Perhaps that is why the human/dog relationship is so profound and unique, that unlike so much in creation, even too often our fellow humans, dogs have learned to be present. Perhaps that too is the reason why when the time comes at the end of a good dogs life, the absence can be so painful.
On February 3, 2015 my Weimaraner, Prince was laid to rest. Over the years he has made various appearances on the postings of the Twelve. He has been a very dear presence in the ministry of which I’m a part. I’d like to believe he has entered the nearer presence of the Lord (but do not wish to get into a discussion of souls and heaven, creatures and new creation). His presence was profoundly lived and will be terribly incredibly missed.