Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

What Dogs Can Teach Us

We put Sherlock down a few weeks ago. It was time, time that for dog owners goes much too swiftly.

I went back to Gene Weingarten’s, “Why Old Dogs are the Best Dogs.”  It is the story of his dog, Harry, how age gradually sneaks up, and how the slower years are some of the best years. For Sherlock, however, there was no such time to reflect and write about his golden years. Age came suddenly. His prancing on the beach was abruptly replaced with an inability to stand, let alone navigate stairs. Sleeping habits turned into one long habit.

Unexpectedly, our other terrier is beginning to slow. I have never known a dog with more energy than Brea. Up to recently, Brea would run in circles when I returned, even if it was from a brief trip to the store. But now, she hardly stirs—even if I have been gone for days. For most of Brea’s life, she has been captivated by tennis balls and TV. At the toss of a ball, she has always shot out like a rocket. TV shows, especially with dogs, have often enticed her to try to jump into the screen. These days, she hardly pays attention. She used to tug the leash. Now I pull her.

Which brings me to Coburn. In a moment of weakness (aka brain lapse), we drove north to meet with a breeder and purchase an eight-week-old Welsh Terrier. I can’t explain why. Maybe to help Heather in her grief over Sherlock’s passing? Prepare me for the inevitable loss of Brea? Nate and Kate and Ola are over the moon, but then, they don’t have to pay the costs. And have you noticed what dog–dog food, dog crate, dog pen, dog medical, dog insurance, dog treat, dog toy, dog license, dog etc., etc. expenses are?

All I know is that I am in desperate need of assistance (financial and otherwise). I need some canine cognitive scientist who can guide me through the process of puppy development. I found Alexandra Horowitz’s article, “When Your Dog is a Teenager,” a useful resource when Brea was in her adolescent years. These are the post-puppy years when there is clearly an underdevelopment of the brain. But what do you do when you have acquired a beast in which there is little to no evidence there is a brain? What if Coburn’s MRI reveals there is no neural activity?

Coburn has this much going for him—curiosity. I am mindful of my need to be about writing, preparing for Easter preaching, and getting ready for a study tour in a week, but I think I could sit all day and watch Coburn discover. There’s something about watching a dog step outside for the first time. Coburn jerks back at the drop of a raindrop; leaps onto the grass, reveling over its feel; and sniffs at every smell. I watch him stare at the sound of a plane, pause at the chirp of a bird. He is captivated by a leaf, fascinated by the movement of a fly, and spellbound by almost everything.

And all of this humbles me. There is something about age that diminishes our curiosity. If I am not careful as a preacher, I begin to lose my wonder at what God may be hiding in the text, inviting me to sniff out. My exegetical tools can sometimes get in the way of the marvel that ever awaits me.

Curiosity is what leads to questions we should—we must—ask of one another, questions like what makes you tick? What are you learning in this new chapter of your life? What book is radically changing your thinking? What dreams are you still dreaming? What cultural shifts are upending you?

I wonder if we are losing our ability to inquire, probe, even pry. Could this be behind so many conversations that are dull, so many where we sit in quiet, wondering what to say? Perhaps we no longer realize there is a novelty that is yet to be mined if we would simply dig.

The loss of a family dog can lead to grief. And people who find this behavior odd are often the ones without pets. It is hard to understand, in the abstract, the degree to which a companion animal, particularly after a long life, becomes a part of you. I find Weingartner’s words again so relevant: “In our dogs, we see ourselves. Dogs exhibit almost all of our emotions; if you think a dog cannot register envy or pity or pride or melancholia, you have never lived with one for any length of time. What dogs lack is our ability to dissimulate. They wear their emotions nakedly, and so, in watching them, we see ourselves as we would be if we were stripped of posture and pretense. Their innocence is enormously appealing. When we watch a dog progress from puppy­hood to old age, we are watching our own lives in microcosm. Our dogs become old, frail, crotchety, and vulnerable, just as Grandma did, just as we surely will, come the day. When we grieve for them, we grieve for ourselves.”

But this I would add—“When we acquire a new one, we also relearn something about life, something that just might awaken.”

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