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The Grace of Dog

Our dog, Riley, has been sick recently. Early last week, he had begun coughing, and by that evening, was having trouble breathing and in distress. We took him to the emergency vets at the Small Animal Hospital at Texas A&M, where they kept him for a couple of days, giving him oxygen and antibiotics for pneumonia. Things were touch and go for a while, but he’s mostly back to his old self at home now. At 13, we’re aware that he’s very much a senior dog now and more susceptible to illness and complications. But that doesn’t make it any easier to face when your beloved animal companions are suffering.


Riley doesn’t let anything faze him though; all his life, he’s bounced back from challenges with a rapid wag of the tail and an affectionate lick of your hand, face, or whatever body part happens to be nearby. His resiliency, in fact, is one of the things that has always stood out about him. And, I think, one of the lessons he’s taught me.


Riley first came to us on New Year’s Day 2012, when John rescued him from the suburban SPCA near our home. He had been transferred there from the Philadelphia SPCA, where they had found him as a stray on the streets of the city, about a year old and suffering from fleas, worms, mites, malnutrition, and just about any other challenge you can imagine an inner-city stray would encounter. He was cleaned up and treated, but still skin and bones when we brought him home. He had had to fight just to survive that first year, battling the elements, other dogs, and the struggle for food and water. And yet, he was immediately happy and affectionate. He quickly acclimated to being at home, and from that first day, has been consistently the most affectionate dog I’ve ever known. He simply loves to be around people, and always sticks close by, no matter where you are.


As I’ve reflected on our time with him this last week, I realized that I’ve learned some important spiritual lessons from him. One of my favorite theologians, Andrew Root, wrote a book a few years ago called “The Grace of Dogs,” and his reflections on his companion Kirby ring true to my experience with Riley, this week and for the past 12 years. He writes:


“Sometimes, when I felt super busy and stressed out, I would find Kirby on the couch, legs splayed, not a care in the world, and I would feel a pang of jealousy. Why couldn’t I be that free? Why couldn’t I live in the moment, like a dog napping in a sunbeam. Then I came to realize that this reminder was itself a gift…I’ve always been fascinated with the capacity of dogs to sneak into our ordinary days and show us, in the words of Jesus, that the Kingdom of God is already here and among us.”


For me, Riley offers that reminder. And this week, he’s reminded me once again that at the end of the day, love is what’s most important. Even though challenges will come, the gift of a look of affection and a head resting in your lap can bring peace and grace when you need it most. Thanks be to God for the grace of dogs—and all those creatures that share in the love of the Creator.


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