Dogs: Weapons of Mass Redemption


The New York Times Sunday national edition on Easter Sunday (p. 19 of the front section, April 4, 2010) had a story titled, “Service Dogs Help Ease Veterans Postwar Pain.”

The story relates how returning fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan are being ravaged by post-traumatic stress disorder (or P.T.S.D) as they see threats all about them even when they are in the safe surroundings of home. This keeps them isolated and prevents them from healing in their relationships. But when they are matched with service dogs their recovery can go much quicker than with traditional treatments alone. These specially trained dogs are taught not only to to help the ex-soldiers overcome physical barriers by picking up things, turning off and on lights, etc. but also to help them cope with their fears by blocking strangers from approaching too abruptly. Besides all of that, the dogs give faithful companionship. 

We have also heard that programs such as Puppies Behind Bars doubles the impact of this healing power of dogs by placing pups-in-training with prisoners, who are then given companionship and the blessing of taking on responsibility for another living thing. We heard in a radio piece that Puppies Behind Bars brought prison inmates who had trained dogs together with the veterans who had been matched with those dogs. What happened was that everyone cried. Battle-hardened soldiers and prison-hardened inmates cried together because they all shared a deep recognition of the power of these animals to heal.

The federal government is now investing $300,000 in a study to determine if the dogs can indeed be such effective healing agents.

At Heatherhope Farm our bet is that the results of this study will be in the affirmative. Yes dogs are our friends. Yes they can be trained to do amazing things like turn off lights, dial 911 and herd sheep. But there is more. In a collection of quotes about farm dogs that my sister gave me I found this:

   I can’t think of anything that brings me closer to tears than when my old dog—completely exhausted after a hard day in the field—limps away from her nice spot in front of the fire and comes over to where I’m sitting and puts her head in my lap, a paw over my knee, and closes her eyes and goes back to sleep. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve that kind of friend.

The author of that quote is Gene Hill. I have no idea who Gene Hill is, and that’s just the point. Millions of ordinary people have had similar experiences. This month in the Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association newsletter there is a piece from Michelle Guderian of Cambridge, Minnesota memorializing her Border Collie who died very recently. She writes:

Typing on my computer without you under the desk at my feet is so empty. Lots of years, lots of sheep, so many memories… had so much heart and always gave every ounce of it. I will miss you waking me up in the morning with your cold nose and staring at me intently.
And issue after issue of the WWSDA newsletter has similar testimonies.
No government study will ever quite get to the bottom of this. It is a mystery of God’s love, and we can know something of mysteries, but never the whole story.

What cannot be scientifically parsed is that God is breaking out all over the place but it is so commonplace that we miss it. And one of the most common places is in the gift of companion animals. It is happening all the time, but when we are awake and aware we are full of surprise. Dogs surprise us with their infinite regard for us. They believe in us more than we will ever believe in ourselves. And in this they remind us that even when we quit believing in God, God stubbornly believes in us.

That indeed is a weapon of mass redemption.

We applaud and support the work of Puppies Behind Bars. We urge others to do the same. Contact them at

And those of you who would like to go deeper in reflecting on the relationship between people and companion animals, especially dogs, please check out On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals, by Stephen H. Webb. It was put out in 1998 by Oxford University Press and you should know that Oxford doesn’t tend to publish shoddy argumentation.  Webb contends that we get more from animals than we give. In fact, we get more from them than it is in their narrow self-interest in giving. If we reflect on that in a philosophical or theological way we have ourselves a window on our proper relationship with God and God’s creation. Our dogs “are more like gifts than something owned, giving us more than we expect and thus obliging us to return their gifts.” We have, in our dogs, windows into the “otherness”  of Creation, and “this relationship of mutual giving can enable us to reform our treatment of other animals, how, that is, our capacity to receive what is other and give more than we take can help us to treat all animals with more kindness and compassion…The human-dog relationship reveals clues to understanding how we can approach the world both as an inevitable extension of our own plans and projects and as something unpredictably and surprisingly valuable in itself.” (pp. 7-8)

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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