I am an animal lover. I guess I always have been. Over the years, our family has had our share of dogs, cats, rodents, reptiles, and birds. I’m not alone. According to the American Pet Products Association, sixty-eight percent of U.S. households (85 million families), own a pet. I prefer dogs—like most people. Dog owners have edged out cat owners for years, despite the recent social media campaigns that involve cute cat videos. I just love dogs. In fact, I used to be Facebook friends with Boo, widely accepted as the “World’s Cutest Dog.” He was the incredibly adorable Pomeranian who became an Internet sensation with more than 17-million followers. One look at Boo brought an immediate smile.
Recently at church, I was in conversation with a friend who let me know “my dog died.” As he talked about his dog’s passing, his eyes grew moist. I knew at that point, he too was a dog lover. He said, “I’ve had plenty of dogs, but there was just something special about this one.” I confessed that I understood. Not only did I sympathize with his loss, but I also empathized. I know the joy and pain of owning an animal.
Snickers is my wife’s dog. She is Silk Terrier—a gift for my wife on her birthday about six years ago. Snickers is not my wife’s dog because she was a gift, but rather, she has chosen my wife as her primary person of affection. I know this because, despite my calls for attention, Snickers follows my wife around everywhere. When my wife goes to the restroom, Snickers awaits outside the door. When my wife leaves the house, Snickers will whimper at the door for a while.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. Despite the fact that I participate equally in the lion’s share of the work to maintain Snickers’ happiness and comfort, she remains unimpressed. I make sure that she has adequate food and water. I let her out 37 times a day to do her business or to chase the pesky squirrels that taunt her from the yard. I give her treats at the end of the night. But, she always finds her place next to my wife.
Snickers does appreciate my affection from time to time and she can be coaxed to leave my wife’s side—if I have food or a treat. But after the temptation has materialized into consumption she is back to my wife’s side. I’m not hurt, in fact, that’s okay with me. I told my wife, years ago, I will never get too close to another dog.
Hershey was an eight-pound Yorkshire Terrier. She was my dog or at least that’s what I liked to believe. Hershey was part of the family, perhaps more, because she was treated like royalty. We made sure she had special treats, a special bed, and regularly got frou-frou’d. We even allowed her to lick the bowl when we finished our ice cream.
Hershey was loving and playful and enjoyed the endless array of toys we provided. She loved to play tug of war and growled ferociously, playfully enjoying the conflict. Hershey was the first one at the door when I arrived after a long day—her little tail wagging excitedly.
Unlike Snickers, Hershey didn’t always want to be held for long periods of time. Although she loved a good tummy rub, she generally had more important things to do like ensure our safety. Although only eight pounds, Hershey was our self-proclaimed guard dog. Although invited to sleep on the corner of our bed, she never would. Rather, she would strategically position herself between our family and the front door. Her love and devotion manifested itself in our protection. Hershey was an intricate part of the family and had a special place in our heart.
Unfortunately, Hershey left too soon. She had some health conditions unbeknownst to us. My wife found her one day laying underneath the back porch unresponsive and lethargic. When my wife came to get me to share the news, I knew something was wrong. She said, “you need to come quick.” Her face was guarded, but intensely emotional. I held my breath as she said, “Something is wrong with Hershey.” A million thoughts and questions rushed into mind.
Hershey was laying on the kitchen floor, panting. I’ll never forget her looking up into my eyes as I stroked her fur. Generally, her brown eyes were warm, loving, and inviting, but not today. In her current state, she appeared to be unaware of her surroundings. I’m not even sure she recognized me. She had a look of fear and pain. My face had the same look, I’m sure, as I cradled her in my arms like a child.
We rushed her to the vet, but despite the great care and professionalism, they informed us that the most-loving thing we could do was to say goodbye. The words didn’t immediately sink in. As our family stood in that sterile exanimation room, time stood still. I was in a state of shock and disbelief. It was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make. The decision to remove her pain meant to intensify mine. There was no win/win. Along with my family, I wept in the vet’s office and gazing deeply and lovingly into her eyes held her close and said goodbye.
In the days that followed, my pain was intense and did not pass quickly. I would tear up regularly. I vividly remember driving home several days later and becoming emotional knowing that Hershey would not be there to meet me at the door and me saying out loud, “what’s wrong with me! It was just a dog!” As the years have passed, the pain has not disappeared, but merely subsided.
As I conclude this paragraph, I allow a tear to run down my cheek. The remnant and reminder of true, unconditional love. Instead of asking, “what’s wrong with me?” I’m thankful for what’s right. Although “just a dog,” Hershey had a special place in our family.
There’s something beautiful about having a pet. We adopt them into the fabric of our family. Sometimes, we invest a great deal of resources into them. Sometimes, we give them our hearts. It’s a risk that we’re willing to take. We know that, perhaps, one day we will have to say goodbye, but the love and devotion in the journey, we decide, is well worth the pain.
As a pastor, I’m asked on occasion if there will be animals in heaven. I reply that the Scriptures talk about all kinds of animals. In fact, Jesus comes back riding on a white horse. I also chuckle and tell them there will be at least one dog in heaven—Hershey. She’ll come running to meet me when I arrive. Naturally, Snickers will be there too, but she’ll probably run to my wife—unless, of course, I have some kind of treat.