More than 23 million American households — nearly 1 in 5 nationwide — adopted a pet during the pandemic.
When working as a home health physical therapist, 80 percent of my patients had a dog. They depended on their dogs for more than companionship; they credited them for their overall well-being.
Many studies have noted the physical benefits of having a dog: more exercise, lower blood pressure, fewer heart attacks, decreased depression, but the spiritual benefits of having a dog are less well-known.
Spirituality is a belief in something greater than ourselves and often focuses on finding meaning in life, on growing into a better more compassionate person. Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have developed religions and belief systems to try to comprehend the meaning of life. The commonalities between these different religions highlight spiritual traits that dogs exhibit: unconditional love, connection to Mother Earth, faith and gratitude.
Unconditional love is an aspect of most faith systems and a trait dogs demonstrate daily. Josh Billings said, “A dog is the only thing in the world who loves you more than he loves himself.”
This love is a basic foundation of world religions. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” The prophet Mohammad said, “… You will not enter paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another Muslim what you love to yourself.” Love is one of the virtues in Sikhism.
Dogs teach us how to love unconditionally. They are not judgmental. My dogs don’t notice if my jeans are out-of-style, or my hair is turning gray, or if I drive a 2004 Volvo. They are not afraid to let loose of their inhibitions and demonstrate their affection. Imagine what the world would be like if humans demonstrated that kind of love in all their interactions.
Since ancient days, communion with Mother Earth has been a way to feed the soul. Those of us living in cities might struggle to find ways to commune with nature. Enter dogs. Even in Manhattan, the dog must be walked.
The faith systems of indigenous people centered on the Earth. Jose Hobday, a Native American elder and Catholic sister wrote “A Three Step Morning Prayer,” which begins with the sentence, “Plant your feet firmly on the earth. 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 of the quiet Earth to you.” Psalms 65:8 praises the creation: “The whole Earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.”
When I’m outside with my dogs, nature becomes real and personal. I notice a flower I might otherwise have missed. I feel the breeze like a cleansing spirit.
Dogs ground me to the rhythm of the day and the seasons. With their love of the outdoors, dogs remind me how my relationship with the Earth is necessary for both physical and spiritual health.
Many stories and films record the hope, faith and loyalty of dogs. Famously, in the Richard Gere film, “Hachi,” (spoiler alert) after his owner dies, an Akita waits at the train station for nine years. His owner never returns. Hachi never gives up. He dies at the train station.
From ancient times, dogs have shown their faithfulness. A dog named Delta, thought to be a Cane Corso, was found in the ashes of Pompeii. Delta had a silver collar inscribed with her name and a list of her heroic deeds. She saved her owner from drowning in the sea. She also fought off robbers and protected her owner from a wolf attack.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, faith is an attitude of devotion that opens a gateway 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.” During the pandemic, when there was no end in sight, faith sustained many of us.
Dogs are masters of gratefulness. They show their appreciation with a slobbery lick, an earnest look in your eyes, or twirling in circles. They jump up and down to be let outside, to be let back inside, to have a treat, to get fed. The list goes on.
In Judaism, practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours. A traditional Islamic saying is, “The first who will be summoned to paradise are those who have praised God in every circumstance.”
Gratitude and joy are closely linked. Buddhist brother David Steindl-Rast says, “The root of joy is gratefulness. It is not joy that makes us grateful. It is gratitude that makes us joyful.” In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon wrote, “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.” 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 dine on food scraps 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 the behaviors of dogs is a good reminder of the lessons they can teach me.
As the Psalmist said, “Today is the day the Lord hath made, rejoice and be glad in it.” Every day is a new day, and my dogs remind me to rejoice and be glad in it.
Diane Owens Prettyman is a parishioner at All Saints Episcopal Church, a lector, and president of the St. Catherine’s Chapter of Daughters of the King. She formerly worked as a healthcare administrator and physical therapist. Diane has published two novels and numerous essays.