Living With Labs

October 6, 2013
Rev. Dr. Leonard DeRoche

For those of you who were wondering what dogs and animals have to do with religion, I say it has everything to do with religion and life. Our Transcendentalist forebears pointed out that if you can find the divine in a scripture, why not look for it in the fabric of creation which from their perspective was closer to the divine than a written record. As a humanist, feeling part of something greater than myself is through observing humanity and nature. Nothing humanizes us more effectivly than animals.

One of my first Jungian analysts was a Benedictine nun in Scituate who raised Great Pyrenees. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this breed, they are an all-white dog, about 125 pounds who are similar to in size and temperament to the Newfoundland. Since I was a dog person, her four dogs attended all my sessions. It was like being analyzed by five analysts. Mary maintained that the dogs were better judges of character than she was. I find that my dogs are also a good judge of character. At my last year's animal blessing, someone in the congregation kept my dogs during the service since I couldn't keep them with me in the front. Marcus, the big male that died last month, actually hid when one member approached him. This was unusual for this big friendly dog. The leadership had to ask this person to not come to the church two months later because of his behavior was contrary to our principles. There was something non-verbal that Marcus recognized in him.

A successful Unitarian minister wrote his first book called "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten". I think many of those lessons we learn in early life we learn from being with and observing our animals. There is something we learn from our pets that is civilizing. They help teach us what it is to be human. In one study, a survey of death row inmates in a southern state revealed that none of those on death row ever had a pet dog. This isolated fact I believe has some implied truth in it. In a 1980 study, owners of pets had a one-year better survival rate after being in a coronary care unit. It was further found in 2002 that people with cats or dogs react better to stress cardiovascularly than do people without animals. You now understand why I needed three dogs to come here to be your minister. Just kidding.

But our extensive prison system has done some revealing studies concerning the civilizing effects cats and dogs have on their most violent clients. In New Mexico there is a training program named Project Second Chance that works with teenage offenders and shelter dogs to encourage empathy, and healthy social relationships.

The three-week program has the teens cleaning kennels, walking dogs and two hours per day training the dogs in obedience. At the conclusion the dogs are returned to the shelter for adoption. Then, the teens write a letter telling about the dog and why the animal should be adopted. The letter writing reinforces how a loving and nurturing environment can affect behavior and better understand their situations. In another study at a woman's maximum security facility, inmates who obedience train puppies who go on to become working dogs with the governmental agencies or with disabled people. In this program, for five years none of the inmates who worked with the dogs who were released returned to prison.

This civilizing relationship of animals has been known from early history. Biblically in the story of Noah, the metaphor of Noah with his sons and their wives entering the ark, with every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind - every bird, every winged creature that had the breath of life went into the ark with Noah and the Lord shut him in.- is a metaphor for our co-inhabitance of this planet. We are all on this planet together and our cohabitation depends on the natures of all living creatures being compatible. But humankind's relationship goes back further into prehistoric era. Archaeology finds canines were one of the first animals which cohabited with humans so I really don't know if we domesticated them or if they humanized us first.

Our politicians should learn this from dogs when they try to slip something on us. Dogs have no place for politicians. Dogs look at politicians as how good a person are they, they don't care much about their ideology, but about their character. It would be better if they would allow the dog the vote, certainly Washington would be a more stable place. This means no lying, criticism, condemning, gossip, or harsh language. Dogs don't hide their feelings very well and so it is impossible for them to lie. If for example a dog has decided to remove a defrosting roast from the kitchen counter (which happened to me) which I may have so foolishly left there because they were in need an afternoon snack, they will not try to conceal this fact from me. Their demeanor will indicate that they have done this heinous crime by putting their ears back and placing their tails between their legs. They don't criticize you for your error of judgment in leaving the roast in such a vulnerable location, but they leave that up to you for self-evaluation.

Dogs are perennially happy. They live in the present, and they force their owners to live in the present which is more healthy. When we come home or into their presence, they are truly happy to see us. This is essence of their nature, there are no false dog smiles, their tails tell no lies or untrue tales if you will. There are no false expressions of affection in the nature of dogs what you see is what you get. Certainly as we look around the sanctuary we find our pets especially dogs are among the most attentive. My dogs for example are never bored when I speak to them as opposed to many of you who have listened to my sermons.

The more cynical among you might say that is because I primarily feed them and take them for a walk at more or less regular intervals, but I prefer to think it is their nature. Winnie is the mother of the black six year old who is still a little wild. His father was the big black lab that just died and I rescued but he still has some bad habits from his former life. Now I have had a Labrador as a member of my family since 1970. Each one of my dogs taught some lessons that have proved to be universal. When I lived in Buffalo, the youngest of my dogs ran away. I had taken them to a beach on Lake Erie because it was recommended as a great place to take dogs and it was. The dogs loved chasing sticks into the water. They never brought any of the sticks back, but they loved going into the water to get to them. As I was taking them back into the car, the big black lab, Marcus, decided that the woods were more exciting with its deer than was the back of the car so he ran off. His son thinks the best lessons he can learn are to follow his father. All children seem to want to learn those lessons of following what we do rather than following what we say. So anyway his daddy came back but he didn't and I couldn't find a black dog in dark forest, so I had to leave a dog short. Now Othello has always been a city dog, so the woods were probably very frightening, and he probably ran all night. So when I returned after church Sunday, he was only too happy to get into the car. When we returned home the others rallied round Othello and welcomed him home.

Another universal lesson that my labs exhibit is when one is missing like that Saturday. Winnie initially refused to get into the car and leave until the lost one was found. She has done this before when Marcus would decide to go on a walk-about chasing groundhogs. She would sit in the park and wait until Marcus would return. She tells us we need to take care of each other. It has just been the past six years that I have more than one dog and the dynamics change when they are together and operate as a pack.

Feeding time can lead to additional insights. I feed them in three different locations, primarily because dog food must always taste better in another dog's bowl. They will always try to eat each other's food even if theirs is being eaten by one of the other dogs. This is between the two male dogs. Both of them leave Winnie's food alone until she walks away when apparently it is OK to eat what she leaves.

As many of you know dogs mark their territory with their urine and by barking at other dogs. Sometimes the walks are too long that they don't have any urine left but they still will raise their legs. It is especially interesting watching them on a fence where there are dogs on the other side. They will pee the entire length of one fence while the two little dogs are barking excessively on the other side of the fence. They are sort of saying "take that since you can't get to us and we can." It has commonality with us humans.

After the Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969, the border was well-patrolled by both the Chinese and Russian military. Once in 1973, a large Chinese Army stopped at the border and en masse "watered" the Russian side of the line. The Russians were not amused.

As I walk my dogs in the Norris Reservation, Othello will occasionally see a dog he wants to impress and try to act as ferocious as possible. It is easy to be ferocious when you separated with a lead. Once one the German Shepard got so excited he jumped over his fence. He then turned into a wimp when my two males happened to walk up to him. It is like watching a group of adolescent males congregating at a corner, all voice and little action. Dog parks present interesting dynamics. While they are on the other side of the fence they are very aggressive, but when they get on the same side they change and bark much more appropriately. My two males like to act like pack when confronting another dog that they think they can dominate. If the lone dog defends itself well, my two would leave it alone. But not unlike children they will not hurt each other. I think they are trying to pretend they are wolves again.

My first lab was English style, which have a slightly different build than American labs. They are shorter and more muscular than their American cousins. I lived on a cul-de-sac that had lots of young children who loved to play with my dog. One three year old, after looking at the dogs mouth, once asked if I had any green felt covers for his teeth. The children were always anxious to try to walk this lab. I allow them occasionally walk the dog up and down the cul-de-sac. Jacob was well-accustomed to all the aspects of the area. He knew every one of the concrete posts that surrounded the circle: he probably knew each of the other dogs who had been to the post before him. One day a nice, young five year old in his soccer shorts asked to walk him around the circle. So I gave him the lead and he proudly walked the dog in is circle. He didn't look at Jacob but appeared very proud of doing this very adult act of dog walking. Now Jacob was enjoying his smelling and his walk, when this young boy did that gigantic error that can happen to any of us in our life's journey. He allowed the dog to get to his left as he walked with the concrete posts to his right. As Jacob stopped at a post, I saw the young boy's face turn from a broad smile until tears ran down his face as quickly as his bare leg dampened. He got between the dog and the post, may it be a lesson to us all.

In an ever-evolving and never-ending world. Amen.