Yesterday, I had the sad and solemn privilege of being alongside a friend whose dog was being put to sleep. I was there both as a friend and as a priest. The dog was of an age, to be sure, and needed to move on. But my friend and the two vets who had come to euthanise her yearned in some way for her to stay, to have the moment postponed, to wheel back the wheel of time, to demand in that moment that time simply stop.
Being alongside a dog as it breathes out its last is not quite like being alongside a dying human being. It is a different kind of ministering to the dying. Prayers written for such situations are often quite sentimental. They can lack clarity when it comes to what comes next; eternity, the afterlife, the notion of a new creation and thus of salvation itself.
I believe it is possible to speak of salvation when you are ministering in the context of a dying animal. I was just as conscious of the whole of creation, and of its need for salvific healing and life, as I would have been had I been at the bedside of a dying person. I was also made intimately aware of a particular kind of love that human beings are capable of, but for which we seldom have words and often have to deal with privately. This is the complex and deeply personal love we have for the animals who share our lives at close quarters.
Dogs oblige you to share your life with them, whether or not you realise it and, at times, when you don’t even want it. Dogs can be disruptive. They expect things to happen at certain times. They shed hair. They bark suddenly and loudly for no apparent reason. They embarrass with their exuberant affection for people, especially, it seems, for people who don’t have dogs because, presumably, they don’t like them very much. A dog is not a very discerning creature when it comes to the distribution of its affections among humans.
Sharing one’s life with the dog is not like the sharing involved in any human relationship. There is a certain amount of ‘taking for granted’ which is OK between us and dogs, but which might not be OK in other family relationships. The reason for this is that dogs only understand what they choose to understand at any given moment, so they don’t get annoyed or take offence. They only understand what adds to the sum total of the goodness of the arrangement which you have with them. The more you give of yourself to this arrangement, the greater will be their understanding of you and their love for you.
This allows them to take you for granted, to trust you. Trust, in regard to dogs, is quite a simple matter, unlike the trust that needs to exist between humans. For one thing, no amount of complaining will persuade a dog that his or her presence can at times be unpleasant, from a purely odorific point of view. Or that sudden barking is both uncalled for and distracting, as is snoring, loud lapping of water and other licking sounds. But we would not be without them. If, like me, you are a writer, their goodness, despite the practical drawbacks of having them in the same room, aids the creative process.
Dogs seem to be gifted with goodness. Perhaps other species are as well, but seldom in such an uncomplicated way as dogs. It was a privilege to be with my friend and to spend a few minutes whispering to this dying animal, reminding her of her goodness and of eternity. I was tempted to believe that perhaps the words I was whispering to her were spoken more for the humans present than for the animal, but the animal grew calmer as I whispered. Something greater than the preliminary medication used in such procedures was stealing into what was left of her consciousness.
Her goodness and the essential goodness of all dogs is also a constant reminder of how God’s own goodness is revealed in the sheer doggishness of dogs. As a result, talking to a dog leads into prayer and prayer sustains creativity, although the dog is quite unaware of any of this, believing that one is talking only to them in an oddly passionate and grateful way. Their response is to lie back, paws in the air, lips slightly flapping to reveal a magnificent set of teeth, with eyes half closed in something resembling bliss.
When our last dog died, I started reading poetry to the small remaining dog, a miniature wire-haired dachs. The dachs was enthusiastic but, sadly, quite uncomprehending, although she listened and stared intently. I sensed that she was trying to make up for her friend’s absence, and for her own loss, by being even more of a dog than she already was, out of loyalty and devotion. She too moved on not long after her predecessor but the memory of her remains, as will that of my friend’s dog, a sign of the relentless forward movement of life and of the goodness of God.