God, Dogs, and Unconditional Love



On the Monday following the terrorist rampage in Orlando, a dozen Golden Retrievers showed up in the Disney city. They were part of the K-9 Comfort Dogs team, a ministry run by Lutheran Church Charities. The dogs had come to give the kind of love and comfort that come only from a furry friend.

There was a time when bringing in dogs to care for the emotional needs of the traumatized would have seemed odd. But now it’s common. K-9 Comfort Dogs came to the emotional rescue after the Boston Marathon bombing, after the Sandy Hook shootings. “We’ve had a lot of people here that start petting the dog, and they break out crying,” said Tim Hetzner, president of the charity. “Dogs show unconditional love.”

“Unconditional love” is a near-cliché. People use those words as if it happens rather naturally. Not long ago a young couple with their first baby told me how much they loved this girl. It was, they said, unconditional love. I told them how great that was and how much I hoped they could offer such pure love to their daughter. Because in actual practice that kind of love comes easily for God and Golden Retrievers, and very grudgingly for human beings. Our love comes with a lot of conditions, a lot of strings. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people, it just means we’re human. We know that mom or dad loves us, but they love us more when we visit more often, stay longer and discipline the kids a little more. Same with husbands and wives. There’s a baseline love, but more can be earned in all the ways we know.

Yet the one thing every soul seeks is simply that unconditional love, where there is nothing to be earned. So when I read stories about Golden Retrievers being flown in to offer stringless love to grieving humans, I can’t tell whether that’s a beautiful thing (how we’ve finally understood the emotional and spiritual capacity of our pets) or whether we have outsourced our love needs to animals because we can’t find a way to do it ourselves.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to recognize how hard it is to offer unconditional love. That way we can start working on our love life. Selfless love—agape, Jesus called it—doesn’t come naturally. It takes work, practice. We have to find some way to unplug the mind, which is a non-stop judging machine, and move deeper into the heart. All the caveats that cling to our loves come from the unchecked mind. The saints of all time and every tradition have committed themselves to some daily spiritual practice that moves a man or woman out of the hamster wheel in the head and into the depths of the heart. There I can see all the limits I put on my love, and there I can choose another way.

The only beings who naturally offer unconditional love are either God or dog. If you’re a human being the only way to get there is through a lot of inner work—and a flood of grace.

7 Responses to God, Dogs, and Unconditional Love
  1. Michael
    June 20, 2016 | 9:46 am

    David, great post. Helps to know that something is being done to ease the suffering down there. About dogs and love: I thought of the creation story where God brings Adam all the animals to see what he could call them. “And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found a helper to meet his needs.” Then came Eve. And Adam was satisfied: “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” We all know how this story progresses, but at the beginning, the first human wasn’t satisfied with canine or bovine or equine love. He wanted real, human reciprocity. It’s what we all want, but sadly, as you say, some animals deliver this better than many humans.

  2. Caroline Oakes
    June 20, 2016 | 8:30 pm

    What a great reminder about trying to stay with a daily practice. It is so easy (for me) to move away from that practice.

    “The only beings who naturally offer unconditional love are either God or a dog” reminds me of this wonderful little video — (and reframes the last line a bit)! Thank you, David.

  3. Barbara Miley
    June 21, 2016 | 12:44 pm

    In reply to Michael’s comment about Adam and Eve and animals…Isn’t it interesting that the name chosen for Adam’s dog was GOD spelled backwards?? I thought it was. If we humans would ONLY….look at children and look at dogs…and think HARD about what we SEE them doing and how they do it, the world might be a better, more peaceful place. The “if onlys” :))
    Peace and Blessings to you.

  4. Matt
    June 23, 2016 | 8:34 am

    I was in a dark hole awhile back and my Lab would just sit patiently by my side even though I was trying to push her and everyone else away. To say I have a soft spot for her now would be a massive understatement. There is no paying that back no matter how many walks we go on together and she doesn’t seem to care.

  5. Johnna Fredrickson
    June 24, 2016 | 4:24 pm

    Thanks, David. I think God and dogs also share another trait: they delight in others – Imperfect, beautiful, cranky, scared, sacred others. What a gift!

  6. Jim Hedges
    July 13, 2016 | 11:45 am

    Thank you David,
    You touched two nerves in me that I thought I might share. Initially, as I get older and realized the challenges in life, as a man, it struck me as odd how we often use the term human and humane to describe a more god like loving or forgiving sort of behavior towards other humans or members of the animal kingdom. Yet the longer I watch us behave in our daily lives the harder it is to justify our behavior in Godly terms.
    The second nerve is one I recently experienced as I move into the nonprofit world is the challenge the state of Connecticut has in meeting its budget requirements and the cuts made to nonprofit services. Specifically, like many states, CT is releasing many of its incarcerated citizens to save money especially if the charges had been related to substance abuse. That seems logical especially considering the cost to keep them in prison.
    On the other hand cutting the grants to Re- Entry programs to help these formerly incarcerated people and their families deal with reintegrating them into their family, a job and society seems not only illogical but inhumane since they have “paid their debt to society”.
    Likewise, one the last statements Jesus made was not only to forgive the sins of the convict, being crucified next to him, but to guarantee eternal life with him for the convict’s belief that Jesus was the Christ and son of God.

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