If you have ever lost a dog you adored, you will identify with the grief Dr. Andrew Root felt when he and his family watched their beloved dog, Kirby, draw his last breaths. But what his son, Owen, did next sent him on a journey of exploration and insight that lasted several years.
Owen got a glass of water, made the sign of the cross on the dog’s head, lifted his hands up and said, “I love you, Kirby,” consigning him to God.
How many of us have looked in to a dog’s eyes and wondered why and how they loved us? How many of us have buried dogs in our yards with a short service of some sort? How many have heard well-meaning friends tell us we will meet those faithful companions again after we die?
Shocked by the depth of his grief, Root, who is the Olson Baalson associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary and had written numerous academic works on youth ministry and practical theology, has now written a book that explores the intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions of our relationships with the dogs we love.
Delving into biology, history, theology, medicine, paleontology, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds), as well as many personal accounts of humans and their canine companions, Root eventually read 25 books by a wide range of authors, looking for answers to his and other’s questions.
The culmination of his studies is “The Grace of Dogs: a Boy, a Black Lab, and a Father’s Search for the Canine Soul,” a book that is both informative and entertaining. It was published by Penguin Random House in June.
First, Root looks at a dog’s innate desire to be near humans, to watch their faces, read their gestures and anticipate their intentions. He shows how dogs use empathy and kindness, bonding and healing play to build strong relationships with their owners. Finally, he shows that these relationships demonstrate that dogs can truly love us, giving us unconditional acceptance, which is the definition of grace. If, as Root says in an interview in Psychology Today, “soul isn’t something we individually have, but something we express with others,” then dogs must have souls that connect with ours.
One theory that Root explores is that dogs and humans evolved together, dogs becoming more “kind” and humans becoming more spiritual. Because dogs protected and served as alarm systems for their families, humans had more time to think and daydream, to speculate about the future and their place in the cosmos.
Trying to answer the question about dogs and heaven, Root quotes theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who told a weeping child that the boy loved his dog and God loves him and all animals, so yes, Bonhoeffer did think the boy would see the dog in heaven, because “God loses nothing that God loves,” meaning love “transcends biology, chemistry and history.” Love lasts forever.
The belief that we will be reunited with our pets explains why humans in every culture around the world have been ritually burying their dogs for more than 26,000 years.
So why does a noted professor, author and lecturer write a book about dogs? There was the large investment of time and money in his search for answers, of course, but also a desire to help others on their journeys, to give them a language for their feelings and to gather some previously overlooked scientific research to support his theories, he said.
Root will be speaking in area churches; Duke Divinity School will be running an excerpt and interview on their Faith and Leadership site, www.faithandleadership.com/people-news/writers/andrew-root. “The Grace of Dogs” is available locally at Micawbers, Barnes and Noble, Costco, Walmart and most other bookstores, as well as online. It’s a wonderful book for both scholars and dog lovers.