What I Learned From My Dog

I’m a dog lover…I really am.  I can identify a lot of breeds pretty quickly and I enjoy interacting with dogs.  But candidly, you might not know that about me since I don’t actually have a dog and I don’t really want one.  I did have a dog for a very long time.  Laila, a mixed breed animal (I detest the word “mutt”) lived with us for close to 14 years.  She was friendly, obedient and a great member of our family.  We had a fence around our yard so we didn’t walk her in the neighborhood that often, which I regret.  When Laila passed away, we tried replacing her, which turned out to be a very hard thing to do.  We had forgotten how difficult it can be to find the right dog.  We actually adopted six different dogs in a span of four years (ouch!).  The last one, Hope, was a retired racing Greyhound.  She was an elegant, graceful dog who, soon after we welcomed her to our home, was diagnosed with separation anxiety.  That, we soon learned, meant that unless someone was with her 24/7, she’d display her anxiety by soiling our floors and carpets.  We wound up returning her to the NJ Greyhound Adoption Agency and haven’t tried to adopt another dog since then.

I’m telling you this because even though I don’t have a dog and don’t want one, I cherish the years that we had a dog while our children were growing up.  I think our kids learned a lot of valuable lessons from having a dog in the house.  Because we required them to walk and feed Laila, they learned responsibility.  As Laila grew older, they learned how to display respect for the process of physical deterioration that all living beings eventually experience.  I have vivid memories of our son Eitan picking up Laila on Rosh Hashana a few years ago when she could no longer walk and we all knew she would die soon and carrying her outside of the house so she could relieve herself with some measure of dignity.

There is a Midrash in which the Sages teach that one of the roles that animals play in the world is to help human beings learn how to behave toward one another.  An example of that is to be found in this week’s Parasha, Ki Teitzei, which contains the well-known Torah law stating that before taking eggs or hatchlings from a nest, a person must shoo away the mother bird.  The mitzvah is known as “Shiluach Ha-Kan.”  I don’t think any of us is in a position to fulfill this mitzvah very often, as we get our eggs and poultry from the grocery store.  But the idea that we ought to show compassion to a mother bird is a compelling one.  The Sages tells us that if we can show compassion to a bird, how much the more so will we be inclined to show compassion to our fellow human beings.  Shooing away a mother bird is meant to be spiritual practice for caring for safeguarding the feelings of a human parent.  In a similar way, the Jewish rules of Shechita, the ritual killing of animals for human consumption, are meant to nurture within us the expression of civility and respect for life, even as we take it for our own sustenance.

Compassion, generosity, understanding, tolerance, civility, respect and, of course, love are desirable human characteristics.  We want our children to learn them at the earliest possible age, and we want and hope that the people we encounter in the course of our lives embody them.  We ought to strive every day to cultivate these qualities in our own lives.  Clearly, the Torah wants to teach us that we can learn these characteristics from our interaction with animals.  I know that I and our children did from the dogs that have shared our lives.

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