This piece was written for International Dog Day, August 26.
What do you do when your kid doesn't play nice with other kids, yells at random people on the street, and tries to bite delivery people that come to your door? You discipline them, right? Ground them, take away their allowance, give them extra chores and a stern talking to.
Unfortunately, that doesn't work for dogs. Of course, dogs are much less work than kids. But a stern talking-to typically reinforces bad behavior in dogs. And dogs don't typically get allowances, unless they're paid in the form of treats.
So, what am I supposed to do when my dog barks at everyone she doesn't know, pulls at the leash, and tries to lunge at people, other dogs, and delivery persons?
To be clear, our dog Flake (short for Snowflake, though my wife and I don't call her that much), has improved greatly since she came home with us from the small-animal rescue where we found her. Her foster caretaker said that Flake's previous owners had left her at the Elkhart County Animal Shelter overnight, stuck in a cage outside in the pouring rain.
As we got to know Flake, it became clear that those people were not good to her. After a year of living with us, she will sometimes still flinch when I raise my hand. She is still scared of loud noises, and terrified of people walking by our apartment window. It's heartbreaking to see how this wonderful, loving animal can turn hostile in a heartbeat — through no fault of her own.
We've been working with Flake on all of this, and she has gotten better. She can meet and acclimate to new people (after barking at them for a solid half-hour). She plays well with my in-laws' dog. She can pass people walking on the opposite side of the street without pulling on the leash and barking at them (usually).
Despite her leash-pulling problems, Flake loves being outside on walks. Photo by Zachary Headings.
As the adage goes, "Don't pray for patience, God will give it to you through difficulties." This adventure over the past year has been a test of patience. I'm used to outdoor, independent farm dogs. My wife is used to well-adjusted indoor dogs. We were not prepared for the level of trauma that Flake has gone through. And she has tried our patience to the tattered edge.
We train her, walk her, feed her, love her — we do everything to make sure she's comfortable and enjoying her new life with us. Sometimes it feels like she is stuck in her past, fearful and angry. Some days her training can feel like one step forward, two steps back. But this isn't unique to Flake. Any dog owner has their struggles.
I think God created dogs to model the unconditional love that God has for us. I've often heard the phrase "we don't deserve dogs." And sometimes I feel that it's true, just as we often don't deserve God's love. But we are loved by both, regardless. Our dogs love us, no matter how many times we take them to the vet, run out of treats, or serve them oil-soaked food because they may have swallowed a fabric pin. God loves us even when we sin, fall, and make mistakes.
Dogs exemplify God's love for us. They teach us patience. I don't know if they go to heaven, but they should. They're all good dogs.