IT’S JUST A DOG!
I write this from the perspective of a pastor of 40 years, and a therapist having been in private practice for 20 years. When I retired these careers, I went back to school to become a Certified Animal Behaviorist. With this brief background I am qualified to address those who look at a dog or have a dog as a pet and, for whatever reason, conclude, “It’s just a dog.”
My work is with dogs. As a behaviorist I specialize in rehabilitating very aggressive dogs and training various categories of Service Dogs for people with special needs. I think I am qualified to address this, “It’s just a dog” mentality.
Let me begin with our story. My wife’s service dog was a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard. We named her with the beautiful name, Nekayah. We got her at 8 weeks old and she was trained as a Hearing-Impaired Service Dog. She learned all her tasks, about 7 different buzzers in the house she was to alert to, each being a different sound. She was never wrong. She was perfect in her outdoor and traffic alerts. Twice she protected Linda from serious injury as she would have stepped in front of an on-coming car. One time she jumped into Linda, pushing her out of harms way, then stood between her and the on-coming car. I might mention, this “just a dog” was never specifically trained for that behavior. Mmm? That could suggest Nekayah was a thinking dog that could assess a situation, conclude the danger, and act protectively. To me, that suggests a fairly high level of cognition.
Nekayah, for 11 years, was a perfect Service Dog. Her last 6 months was a slow deterioration due to kidney failure. The loss of Nekayah on Good Friday of this year was a traumatic loss. Her death was our Katrina. Emily Dickenson wrote, “There are those storms that lay the trees low.” This was one of those storms that brought us to our knees. Here it is, more than two months, and we still cry every day. She had been with us every day, 24 hours, and always on duty. She would go outside for potty breaks and come right back in. If she was playing outside with another dog, she took self-breaks (Mmm. I think that is thinking and concluding), run in, check on us and go back out. If she was playing outside and heard a buzzer, in she came, through her doggy door, to make her alert. If in the house, sleeping, she never failed to jump up or off the couch and run to alert, then she would go back to lie down. Nekayah went to every store and every restaurant with us. She knew every Rest Stop between Muncie and Iowa, Muncie and Columbus, Ohio. There is no place we can go that she is not there, in the car, between us or beside me. She was always tuned in. Her abilities and her forward thinking was uncanny, mysterious, unexplainable.
So, with that little bit of history, you can better understand where I am coming from as I write this. To be honest with whoever reads this, I am a bit indignant and offended when I hear individuals make the thoughtless comment, “It’s just a dog.” If one thinks, “it’s just a dog,” he or she will probably understand phrases like “he’s just a friend,” “she’s just a wife,” “it’s just a baby,” or “it’s just a promise.” This “just a dog” brought into our lives the devoted friendship, trust, and pure, unconditional love every human needs to experience. Waking up to this “just a dog” was a daily joy as was her waking up to us.
I wonder if these “just a dog’ people ever really looked at a dog beyond its biology. Some turn to what Alexandra Horowitz describes as, “unsympathetic biology, free from subjectivity or such messy considerations as consciousness, preferences, sentiment, or personal experiences.” Have these persons ever been the recipient of the unconditional love that the dog bestows on its owner? I don’t mean “owner” in the sense that the dog is property. I mean “owner” in the sense of a responsible caregiver. The dog doesn’t care about one’s handicap, inabilities or for that matter, if one is uneducated or a doctor. Ethnicity matters not, income is immaterial and how one looks is insignificant. Dogs are equal opportunity beings. The capacity to love, for a dog, far exceeds the human reservoir. To a soldier far from home, alone, lonely, the dog is something real that helps ground him from sinking into despair. There are those who will say a dog hasn’t the capacity to love. It just acts out of instincts. But that is not true. These simply do not know what they are talking about. Because a dog’s brain is developed closely to the human brain scientists have placed electrodes on those areas of the brain that express feelings and affection. When tested they found the responses of the dog are similar to the responses of a human. Dogs do feel, express affection and love. In fact, there are those children and adults, because of the deprivation in their lives, are unable to trust giving or receiving love. In my field, the field of psychology, we call this an attachment disorder. One of the most successful treatments for these individuals is to bring a dog, specially trained, into the healing process with remarkable success, overcoming the deprivations of childhood. I’ll wager, to these people, it is not “just a dog.” I have treated many with PTSD and I have trained dogs as PTSD Service Dogs. I have been on both ends of this spectrum and I can tell you, those who deal every day with PTSD will never say of their Service Dog, “It’s just a dog.” As a therapist I often wonder how shriveled one’s life must be, how impoverished one’s soul must be when they see the impact dogs have on the lives of children and adults with special needs, often their own children, and still say, “It’s just a dog.” I actually have pathos for them, because I think it indicates one’s inability to form deep bonds, certainly not deep bonds with that which is or has saved the emotional, often the physical, life of their own child, family member or friend.
The dog is the most amazing creature next to humans that God created. One person said, “God didn’t create the dog. He already had one.” (That one will drive a theologian crazy.) I won’t even talk about the one noting, “God spelled backwards…” But, there is no other animal next to man that has the capacity to bond with, love, and protect its human partner. No other animal has been able to be fully domesticated. None. It is as though God wanted something to be on earth that could give to us pure love, the pure love He has for us (“on earth as it is in heaven”). The capacity of a dog to forgive is only rivaled by the forgiveness Christ offers us. Proverbs 12:10 states this, “A righteous man regards the life of his animal:”
When someone says, “It’s just a dog.” What does that mean anyway? It is a dog. That’s not insightful. What do they mean? “Just” is an adverb that, in this context, is meant in a diminutive sense. “It’s just an old cup.” It isn’t worth much. It’s of little value. Do people really believe that? Now, a person may not be a dog person. I don’t expect people to be like me, but to diminish something that is meaningful to another, or something that has saved another’s life, seems to be callous at best, cruel at worst. People who love their pet dog and special needs people with a Service Dog cannot imagine life without that dog. Their dog holds all that person’s feelings and secrets in the strictest confidence. Their deepest feelings and love have been poured into their dog. That dog has loved them at their best and their worst. A person never considers him/her as “just a dog.” One can never let go easily of something that, to him or her, has been all of this and more. The grief is deep, often overwhelming. We in the field of psychology know losing a pet can be akin to losing a child. For the special needs person with a Service Dog it is like an amputation. The loss is catastrophic, and the inner healing can take months, even years. It would be and is unfeeling to say to this person, “It’s just a dog.” Please, if this is what you have to say, don’t say anything.
Dogs have consciousness, they are self-aware, they are other-aware. They don’t speak audible words, but neither do deaf-mutes, but they do have a language. (I am fluent in sign language.) However, dogs also have a language and do speak if we will take time and develop the skills to interpret their language, as I did in the language of the deaf. Dogs have feelings, they can think, and they can act on those accordingly. Dogs are great judges of people and their intent. I always trusted Nekayah in what she was telling me about a stranger nearby. Only one-time in her life did she growl at a person nearby. I removed her and myself not knowing what that person had in mind. Stupid? No. Smart. I know Nekayah was not a person in fur, but she was every bit as feeling, smart, loyal and loving as any person in my life.
I close with this. If you think a wife is “just a wife,” please don’t get married. You’ll both be miserable. If you think a dog is “just a dog,” please don’t do a dog the injustice of getting one. A dog is called man’s best friend for a reason. No friend can be a friend if he is “just a friend.” At least, I couldn’t.