What Dogs Can Teach Us

God knew we needed dogs, not just to hunt and herd and protect, but to humanize us.

Posted in , Jun 5, 2015

Portrait of a golden retriever. Dogs--what a gift from God!

Guideposts Editor-in-Chief  Edward Grinnan lost his beloved golden retriever, Millie, to cancer. Before Millie passed away, Edward contemplated her intelligence and her many gifts.

First thing this morning, before I could save myself, I fell victim to click bait: How Intelligent Is Your Dog?

Of course my dog Millie is a genius and her noble breed, the golden retriever, is the smartest. I don’t need anyone to tell me that. Then again, you probably say the same thing about yours. We all believe it.

Most of us don’t go around saying our kid is Einstein incarnate but we generally think our dog is the canine version. When I take Millie to the Chelsea dog run, I overhear owners constantly boasting of their dogs’ intellectual prowess. I’m usually one of them.

But since Millie’s cancer diagnosis, I’ve been thinking a lot more seriously about what goes on in a dog’s mind…and heart. I’m thinking about that ancient bond between human and canine, a love and devotion that crosses the bounds of species. They’re not pets. A goldfish is a pet, I suppose.

A dog is something else, a gift to us endowed by God with a kind of soul—or at least a divine spark—that makes it possible for us to love them as deeply as we love our own kind. That is the only explanation I can think of.

Discover the Dogs Who Shaped Edward's Life in His New Book, Always By My Side

Millie in the forest.God knew we needed dogs, not just to hunt and herd and protect, but to humanize us. To teach us to be better people through their examples of bravery and devotion and compassion. Of love. I bet if there had been a dog in Eden that snake would never have been allowed to show its forked tongue to Adam and Eve.


What amazes me about all the dogs I’ve been blessed to love and write about, especially Millie, is not so much their cleverness but their uncanny emotional intelligence, this profound sense of intuition about us they seem to have, as if they can see into our hearts and bypass all of our muddled manmade thinking—our doubts and fears, our plans and our schemes, our pride and our prejudices—and reach us on a much purer level. 

I don’t know if Millie knows she’s sick. We have her on an experimental product being tested at the University of Pennsylvania, and she is showing no signs yet of the cancer her vets say will likely kill her in three to six months. I pray, but I hold no illusions. The heartache of loving dogs is that you outlive all but the last one.

Yet in these past few weeks I have felt Millie growing closer to me and to Julee. Not needy, no. Reassuring.

The other day out hiking, Millie and I took a break at one of our favorite spots by a marshy stream. I sat down and leaned up against a rock, closed my eyes and let the sun hold my face.

Normally Millie would sniff around the water’s edge, maybe take a demure dip. But instead I felt her move up beside me, sit down and lean her weight against me. I opened my eyes and met hers. They were eyes with a message. And I knew absolutely what that message was. It was going to be okay no matter what. She wanted me to know.

I don’t know how dogs know. I really don’t. I think it is one of God’s great mysteries, the understanding of which will be one of the most profound revelations of heaven.

In the meantime golden retrievers are said to be the fourth smartest breed of all. But does it matter? I think what matters is love, and that is immeasurable.  

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