The bond between humans and dogs is legendary, warmly depicted in books and on the big screen, their origins going back beyond the beginning of recorded history. For those of us who love dogs, our canine companions become not just friends but also members of the family.
“Once you have had a wonderful dog,” wrote the novelist Dean Koontz, “a life without one, is a life diminished.”
My childhood included two magnificent mutts, a beagle mix (creatively!) named Snoopy and a shepherd mix who we called Daisy, a name affectionately chosen by our mother after our dad parked the car in front of a patch of the flowers outside the North Shore Animal League on Long Island.
Graduate school and single life in an apartment made owning a dog too cumbersome and so I went years without one. But after my wife and I bought our first house, we started talking about it. In a moment of inspiration, probably after flipping through the latest L.L. Bean catalog, I thought it would be great to surprise Julie with a puppy at Christmas.
Hinting about it over breakfast one morning, I quickly learned she preferred to rescue a dog instead. “If you love one of those dogs,” she said, “They’ll pay you back the rest of their life.”
So we started going to the Humane Society each weekend. None but one seemed to fit the bill. But someone else wanted him and the clerk flipped a coin. We lost.
Disappointed, we drove home past a big box pet store. A local Great Dane rescue group was holding a fair out front, so we stopped and were immediately taken by the grandeur of the animals, and the steely, stately stature of one in particular, a black Dane named Apollo.
Within a week, Apollo was ours. Fascinated by his ability to stare at us ram-rod straight, we renamed him Shep, inspired by our favorite Fox News anchor at the time, Shepard Smith.
Only a few months before, Julie had suffered a miscarriage 12 weeks into her first pregnancy. A series of doctor visits and tests had followed. Then expensive treatments. The dream of starting a family remained elusive. Months of disappointment soon turned into years.
In the interim, Shep’s black muzzle began turning gray and his once spry gait began to slow. Nevertheless, he remained the faithful, loyal companion, especially through the tears of the years of infertility.
But then came the call from a friend and through a series of miraculous events only explained by God’s sovereignty, grace and the power of prayer, we adopted a baby boy.
Riley was the literal and physical manifestation of a dream come true. After thinking we may never become parents, resolving that God had other plans, his arrival was the most welcome turn of the tide of our lives.
In the winter after Riley’s first birthday, on a cold night of below zero temperatures, Shep startled us when he started pawing at Riley’s closed bedroom door, an uncharacteristic move for our usually docile, aging dog. I tried to shoo him away, but to no avail. He began growling and barking.
Opening up the door, we discovered a room filled with smoke. The space heater had malfunctioned and for whatever reason, the smoke detector above the crib had not gone off. Thanks to Shep, Riley was now safe.
Shep lived another year or so, a relatively long-life for a large breed dog. His end came on a cold night much like the one where he alerted us to Riley’s peril. Struggling to get comfortable on his sleeping couch, the old dog slipped and paralyzed his back legs. We had to carry him out to the car, past Riley’s room, his long eyes locking with ours.
Most of us who love dogs can often point to one who stood out, the pet that gave us their heart but also took part of ours with their passing. Shep would be that dog for me.
We welcomed him into our home thinking we were rescuing him, but not only did he save our son in the process, but he also shepherded my wife and me through an emotionally and spiritually challenging chapter of our lives.
The late Dr. Billy Graham was once asked if dogs go to heaven. His response may have qualified him for a Nobel Peace prize in diplomacy. Always a contentious question between believers, Dr. Graham responded, “God will provide us with everything we need to be happy in Heaven -- and if animals are necessary to make us completely happy there, you can be confident He will arrange for them to be with us.”
I believe they’ll be there, too.