Jonathan Wittenberg explains his dogs have taught him – more than anything else – how to appreciate the wonderful world in which we live.
I couldn’t imagine life without a dog by my side and I agree with the person who said, ‘If there are no dogs in heaven I’m not going’.
I wrote Things My Dog Has Taught Me to share the happiness my dogs have brought me. It’s a tribute to what dogs give to humans, as companions, guide dogs and assistance dogs in so many ways.
It’s also a protest against cruelty, how people beat dogs, burn them with cigarettes and abandon them.
They stare out at you from kennels in rescue centres with longing eyes: ‘Give me a home; take me into your heart’. It’s as if they’re bewildered that humans can be so treacherous.
I’m a rabbi, a minister of religion in the Jewish community. My dogs have taught me about fellowship and faithfulness, consolation and encouragement, and even God and prayer too.
They’ve made me a better human.
There’s an ancient Jewish saying: ‘Who is wise? Someone who learns from everyone’. For me, that ‘everyone’ definitely includes dogs. These are some of the things I’ve learned.
It may not feel like fun when your dog chooses midnight to give you that ‘you have to take me for a walk-right-now’ look. But it’s different once you’re out there following his disappearing tail while the moon throws tree-shadows across the path and an owl cries out from the neighbouring park. It’s true dogs like to dawdle by lampposts and fence-posts. But it’s also true that our dogs make us see so much beauty we would otherwise miss, like the dawn, and the stars and the snowdrops in the frost.
People claim their dogs understand every word they say. I’m not so sure. But I’m certain they understand what you don’t say, the feeling behind the words. They know when you’re upset or lonely. They lick your face, or just sit quietly next to you. People often come to see me with heartache. My dog is an excellent listener. He lies there patiently, never interrupts, never makes insensitive comments, never offers trite advice, never says ‘The same thing happened to me, only worse’, and his confidentiality is unimpeachable.
Dogs are never ‘only in the good times’ friends. They’re there through thick and thin. They’re always up for an adventure, unless they’re so exhausted by the last excursion that they’re asleep on the sofa behind a trail of muddy paw-marks. But they don’t abandon you when you’re down. ‘During my husband’s last illness’, a woman told me, ‘the dog lay the whole time beside his bed. She didn’t ask for her usual walks; all she wanted was to be with us.’ For many people, dogs are their only companion, their most loving significant other in a lonely life.
When you get back home, the dog’s the first to the door with his tail-wagging welcome. If you forgot his breakfast in the rush, if you yelled ‘out of my way, I’m late’, the dog doesn’t hold it against you. It’s not that dogs just forget; they truly forgive. They don’t ruminate over every rash word you said; they don’t rake over the past; they don’t harbour grudges. They live and love in the now. It’s only if they’ve experienced persistent cruelty that they’ll back away into the corner, trembling, with frightened eyes.
Dog’s place their trust in us. They depend on us for food and water, walks and help when they’re ill. It’s true, we also have to trust them, if we’ve trained them properly, to behave in public, never poo on the pavement, or bite our employer (or anyone else). But, unless they’re guide dogs, we don’t put our lives in their paws as they put their lives in our hands. Our dogs depend on our good faith; their hearts are in our care. I often wonder: are we more faithful to them, or they to us?
Maybe it’s the simplicity of the relationship, no rows, no ‘but you said’ ‘but I said’, which makes it easy to tell the dog you love her. Get a dog and, before you even know it, the furry new arrival has crept its way into your soul. The child home from school who talks into her dog’s ear; the homeless man whose dog warms his heart on the freezing night pavement; the old lady whose dog is her true next-of-kin: – we love our dogs and they love us. They teach us about having a heart.