Walking the Divine Fido
How Dogs Can Help Us Heal and Inspire Prayerful Practices
Praying to dog? Studies have shown prayer has a positive impact on mental and physical health and healing—regardless of who or what you pray to.
When it comes to divine attribution, felines generally grab the limelight over canines. I suppose that isn’t surprising.
Cats have a spectacular way of embodying a transcendent aloofness. Well, at least in my house, they do. And although my spouse constantly advocates for introducing some canine energy, I resist. Because Deacon’s shelter trauma still has him jumping in alarm at the doorbell—or even a squeaky step. Thus, for the time being, a frisky canine roommate is out of the question.
And so I am living vicariously through other’s experiences of dogs.
Remarkably, my dog-loving friends often invoke spiritual connections. “Let’s pretend that one fine spring evening, we are walking our dog in the vibrant green grass of a lovely park among the stately trees and the wildly beautiful flowers. A cool breeze softens the heat of the day. And, there―walking the Divine Fido―is God,” posits my friend Rabbi Wayne Dosick in his book Radical Loving.
Although my personal view of God is ungendered and bodiless, I smile at this illustrative story, nevertheless. Because I am sure if God could walk, God would travel with a dog. As a snarky theologian, I have some compelling exegesis to back this up: The Bible I grew up with is devoid of house cats, yet, plentiful dogs appear within its pages.
Indeed, dogs are present in most cultures―ubiquitous both in antiquity and now. “Dogs loom large in various ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamian religious cultures as servants in temples, companions in death, messengers of the goddess, and healers,” notes Laura Hobgood-Oster, in Holy Dogs & Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition. And although many canines were brutally sacrificed in the name of religion, over 700 dogs were found reverently buried in a city just west of Jerusalem.
Of course, biblical accounts of dogs are not always pleasant ones—read Proverbs 26:11. Nor kind to humans for that matter—it’s said canines ate Jezebel. Plus, the word dog was often used biblically to mean “despicable humans.” (An unfair and unkind practice still used today.) Yet, in the Hebrew scriptures dogs also bring visions in dreams. And a speaking dog helps an apostle preach in an early Christian text.
Perhaps my favorite biblical canine story is related to Lazarus, an impoverished street man. While he begged for scraps, dogs came to lick his sores. Now, I know that sounds a little gross. And some scholars suggest the act illustrates how down-and-out Lazarus was. But others suggest the story attests to the healing capacities of dogs and an empathetic response to human suffering.
Nowadays, this later explanation likely comes as no surprise. Therapy dogs—and animal-assisted healing in general—help people recover from PTSD, companion those with dementia, facilitate children with autism as they engage with the world, and assist struggling kids in learning to read. Dogs show up in addiction recovery houses and prisons and they even helped quell some of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims’ anxiety.
Admittedly, not all working dogs are treated fairly. Questions remain about the ethical use of other species for human purposes. We need to maintain a close eye on how these dogs seem to respond to their work and how they are treated to ensure their welfare is paramount.
Recently, I’ve started reflecting on the potential for dogs to help us spiritually. I often see dogs sitting in my seminary students’ laps during lectures. (They are excused from homework, of course.) Dogs are notorious for joining our movement practices. Amusingly, one boxer sometimes dons a pointed Bishop’s hat. In response, I vacillate between concerns about cultural appropriation followed by wide grins and chuckles at his seeming delight in the attire.
And it’s of interest that many of my students have developed deep connections with canines. Some involve their dogs in spiritual practices by meditating or praying with them.
Perhaps most interestingly, more than one has expressed that in response to struggles with prayer and the term God, they cleverly reversed the letters to instead “pray to dog.” Their baggage with “the G word” removed, spoken prayer flowed easily from their lips to the divine in its myriad forms.
While this may seem heretical to the religiously fastidious, it should give all of us pause. Studies tell us that prayer positively affects mental health. Notably, who or what you pray to seems unimportant for health benefits. And so, if you find resistance to the idea of praying to God, perhaps it’s time to see what happens if you direct some prayerful musings to the Divine Fido.
Keep reading about divine animals: “Is Your Feline Sending Divine Signs?”