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Opinion Why I will never live without a dog again

Michael Gerson with his dog, Latte. She died in 2021. (Michael Gerson)

Everyone must take a summer break from the relentless negativity of the news, which unfortunately reflects the relentless negativity of reality. So let me introduce you to Jack.

Jack is a puppy I picked up last week, eight months after the death of my much-loved Havanese, Latte. As soon as I brought Jack home — a powder puff of black and white, curvetting in the grass, all fluff and playful fury — I was reminded of the quandary and question that greets dog owners: Why do we take new dogs into our lives, knowing we will be decimated by their deaths?

I grieved hard for my Latte, who was the dog equivalent of St. Francis of Assisi — a little hairy mammal (Latte, not Francis) who radiated universal benevolence. She was a consoling, healing presence during the worst of my struggles against depression and cancer. In a very real sense, Latte was a better person than I am — a daily practitioner of the hardest parts of the Sermon on the Mount. She was meek, merciful (except to those godless squirrels), peaceable and pure of heart. At her departure, I was the one who mourned.

I can still feel the ache at night. Not long ago, my wife told me I had been crying in my sleep. I don’t usually recall my dreams. But in this case I remembered dreaming about the last time I saw Latte, after she was taken out of my arms to be euthanized at the veterinary hospital. She lifted her head and looked back me with her large, sad eyes. And then one of the most steadfast, lavish, uncomplicated sources of affection in my life was gone. (Even now I can hardly write the words.) She died, aptly, of an enlarged heart.

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The 18th-century evangelist John Wesley gave a sermon, “The General Deliverance,” on the survival of animals in the afterlife — a very English line of theological argument. (Many Brits regard the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show as a preview of heaven.) The Creator, said Wesley, “saw, with unspeakable pleasure, the order, the beauty, the harmony, of all the creatures.” Wesley believed that during the end-time renewal of the world (a basic Christian doctrine), the “whole brute creation will then, undoubtedly, be restored, not only to the vigour, strength and swiftness which they had at their creation, but to a far higher degree of each than they ever enjoyed.”

For most of my life, I lived in dogless ignorance and would have mocked such sentiments. (It is so typical of Homo sapiens to regard heaven as their own exclusive club.) I now hope that cross-species friendships of such intensity do not end in permanent partings. Everything truly good in life must leave some eternal imprint. Or pawprint. When I am not crying in my sleep, I now feel such gratitude for an animal willing to comfort another animal during some of the most trying days of his life. All without expectation of reward — except the occasional dried pig’s ear.

In human relationships, the transforming presence of love is worth the inevitability of grief. Can dogs really love? Science might deny that the species possesses such complex emotions. But I know dogs can act in a loving fashion and provide love’s consolations. Which is all we really know about what hairless apes can manage in the love department as well.

So I — who once saw dogs as dirty and dangerous — am resolved to never live without one again. This led to the gift from my kind wife of Jack, the Havanese fuzz ball. After my dreary brushes with mortality, I needed new life in my life. And Jack is the bouncy incarnation of innocent joy. Waking up on the day of his arrival was like Christmas when I was 9.

On brief acquaintance, Jack is the best dog in the universe. During his first night with us, he slept for eight hours in the crate in our bedroom. There were a few bleats of homesick protest, but they were quickly stilled by my voice, by his knowing I was near. Why would a puppy just torn from his home, his litter and his parents place immediate faith in us? This is one thing that makes the abuse of such animals so monstrous. It is not only the expression of the human capacity for sick cruelty; it is the violation of a trust so generously given.

There is an obstacle in training Havanese dogs. When you try to instill discipline, they employ a thermonuclear cuteness that melts all intentions of firmness. But what other object can you bring into your home that makes you smile every time you see it? Jack is a living, yipping, randomly peeing antidepressant. He improves the mental health of all who encounter him.

Why do we take in new dogs? Because their joy for living renews our own.

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