More than 23 million American households — nearly 1 in 5 nationally — have adopted a pet during the pandemic.
When I worked as a home physiotherapist, 80% of my patients had a dog. They depended on their dogs for more than companionship; they attributed their general well-being to them.
Many studies have noted the physical benefits of having a dog: more exercise, lower blood pressure, fewer heart attacks, less depression, but the spiritual benefits of having a dog are less known.
Spirituality is a belief in something bigger than ourselves and often focuses on finding meaning in life, becoming a better and more compassionate person. Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have developed religions and belief systems to try to understand the meaning of life. The commonalities between these different religions highlight the spiritual traits of dogs: unconditional love, connection to Mother Earth, faith and gratitude.
Unconditional love is an aspect of most religious systems and a trait that dogs demonstrate daily. Josh Billings said, “A dog is the only thing in the world that loves you more than it loves itself.”
This love is a fundamental foundation of the religions of the world. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you. Prophet Mohammad said: “…You will not enter paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another Muslims what you love for yourself. Love is one of the virtues of Sikhism.
Dogs teach us to love unconditionally. They don’t pass judgment. My dogs don’t notice if my jeans are out of date, my hair is turning gray, or I’m driving a 2004 Volvo. They aren’t afraid to let go of their inhibitions and show their affection. Imagine what the world would be like if humans showed this kind of love in all of their interactions.
Since ancient times, communion with Mother Earth has been a means of nurturing the soul. Those of us who live in cities might struggle to find ways to commune with nature. Enter the dogs. Even in Manhattan, the dog must be walked.
The religious systems of Indigenous peoples were centered on the Earth. Jose Hobday, a Native American elder and Catholic sister wrote “A Three-Step Morning Prayer,” which begins with the phrase, “Plant your feet firmly on the ground. Using your five senses, give thanks…for the countless ways God comes to us through creation. In Celtic beliefs, the elements of nature are included in their blessings, such as: “Deep peace from the quiet Earth to you. Psalms 65:8 praises creation: “The whole earth is filled with awe before your marvels; where the morning rises, where the evening fades, you call songs of joy.
When I’m outside with my dogs, nature becomes real and personal. I notice a flower that I might otherwise have missed. I feel the breeze as a purifying spirit.
Dogs anchor me to the rhythm of the day and the seasons. With their love of the outdoors, dogs remind me how necessary my relationship with the Earth is for physical and spiritual health.
Many stories and films testify to the hope, faith and loyalty of dogs. Famously, in Richard Gere’s film, “Hachi”, (spoiler alert) after the death of its owner, an Akita waits at the train station for nine years. Its owner never returns. Hachi never gives up. He dies at the station.
Since ancient times, dogs have shown their loyalty. A dog named Delta, believed to be a Cane Corso, was found in the ashes of Pompeii. Delta had a silver necklace bearing her name and a list of her heroic deeds. She saved her owner from drowning in the sea. She also fought robbers and protected her owner from a wolf attack.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, faith is an attitude of devotion that opens a door to spiritual practice. In the book of Hebrews, the apostle Paul wrote: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” there was no end in sight, faith sustained many of us.
Dogs are masters of gratitude. They show their appreciation with a drooling lick, a serious look in the eye, or by turning in circles. They jump up and down to be let out, to come in, to feast, to feed. The list continues.
In Judaism, practicing gratitude means acknowledging the good that is already yours. A traditional Islamic saying goes: “The first to be summoned to paradise are those who praised God under all circumstances.”
Gratitude and joy are closely related. Buddhist brother David Steindl-Rast says, “The root of joy is gratitude. It is not joy that makes us grateful. It is gratitude that makes us happy. In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon wrote, “I therefore recommend the joy of living, for there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and rejoice.” Rich or poor, we are called to be grateful for the “good that is already ours”.
Or to sum it up, be more like a dog. Whether they live in a Fifth Avenue apartment and eat fresh meat or eat leftover food under a bridge, they are always eager to show their affection. They spend their lives eating, drinking and playing with gratitude and joy.
Unconditional love, communion with Mother Earth, faithfulness and gratitude are just a few of the spiritual traits of dogs. Paying attention to dog behaviors is a good reminder of the lessons they can teach me.
As the psalmist said, “Today is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad.” Every day is a new day, and my dogs remind me to rejoice and be happy.
Diane Owens Prettyman is a parishioner at All Saints Episcopal Church, a reader and president of St. Catherine’s Chapter of the Daughters of the King. She previously worked as a health care administrator and physical therapist. Diane has published two novels and numerous essays.