A Catholic Dog-Lover's Guide to the Year of the Dog
Loving a dog might prompt us into a greater appreciation and belief in the Lord and Master of All.
“The average dog is a nicer person than the average person.” —Andrew A. Rooney
A convergence of canine sensibilities occurred recently. New York City’s Westminster Dog Show fawned and cooed over yet a new batch of pups. Concurrently, an enormous segment of humanity is now celebrating the Year of the Dog. This unique convergence of all things dog got me thinking about my own four-legged friends and the cushy life they lead due to the fact they are master manipulators of the master (and I love it).
There are only three physical examples of God's unconditional love for us here on Earth: the love from one's mother, the love from one's grandmother(s) and the love one receives from a very large dog.
Only a large dog will suffice to adequately feel unconditionally loved―the dog has to be of sufficient mass to be able to knock you down to the ground in gratitude and vigorously lick you against your will. (50 pounds minimum) The little ones are merely grateful you're not sitting on them. I want dogs big enough to put me in my place just in case I get out of line.
I recall a Twilight Zone episode in which a character named Hyder Simpson, played by Arthur Hunnicut, and his hound dog Rip, suddenly find themselves dead and walking down a long road. A man behind a gate pretending to be St. Peter, played by Robert Foulk, is trying to convince Simpson to abandon his dog and enter into his heavenly reward. Rip, however, understands the man to be Satan and refuses to let his master enter blindly into hell. Simpson, on his part, refuses to abandon Rip and decides to forgo eternal life because heaven wouldn't be heaven without Rip. As Simpson describes:
A dog's got a right to have a man around just the same as a man's got a right to have a dog around. If'’en he wants to be anyways happy.
Due to the love they have for us, our Best Friends are frequently depicted in Christian iconography. They too have their place in salvation history. Here are a few examples:
- St. Rocco, also known as St. Roch, was born to a wealthy family in 1340 in Montpellier, France. When he grew up, St. Rocco renounced his wealth and distributed his possessions to the poor. When caring for those afflicted by the Black Plague, Rocco himself become ill and was banished from the city. He took refuge in a nearby cave and as he lay dying, a dog faithfully brought him bread every day and licked his wounds, healing them. The dog belonged to a nearby nobleman, Count Gothard Palastrelli, who was curious to know why his dog stole a loaf of bread and carried it off to the woods on a daily basis. The Count followed it and found Rocco. He took pity on the stricken saint and brought him to his castle to tend to his illness. Thus, we may all rest assured of St. Rocco's sanctity―he must have been a very good man indeed for a dog to have approved of him. He is the Patron of Dogs and Dog Owners.
- St. Anthony of Egypt is the Patron of Farm Animals…yes…if a dog lives on a farm, it's considered a farm animal.
- St. Bernard of Menthon’s monks kept and trained enormous dogs to care for lost and imperiled pilgrims trying to get to Rome. The dogs were trained to flop down on top of the stranded pilgrim to keep them warm with their body heat. The monks even attached little kegs of brandy to the dogs' collars in the mistaken belief that liquor would warm the frozen victims. (actually, the opposite happens.) The dogs came to be called “Saint Bernards.” The saint is always depicted with one of these magnificent, vigilant beasts next to him. Though he didn’t coin the phrase, “Love me, love my dog,” he used it once in a homily―and probably pretty often after that―and the phrase got stuck on him.
- St. Dominic de Guzmán is frequently depicted with a dog. This image is taken from Dominic's mother who, while pregnant with her son, dreamt that a dog leapt from her womb carrying a torch in its mouth intent on setting the earth on fire. It's humorous to point out that the Latin name for the Order of Preachers is Dominicanus which can be interpreted as a delightful pun meaning Domini canis―the Lord's hounds. Indeed, who let the Dominicans out? Who? Who? Who?
- St. Francis of Assisi is frequently depicted with a tamed wolf at his side, but what is our Best Friend but a wolf that has been redeemed? In 1996, in the cleverest canine scheme―and I use that word lovingly―ever perpetrated, the San Francesco ASPCA repackaged Pit Bulls as “St. Francis Terriers” named for the city’s Patron Saint. That is a stroke of marketing genius which I'm sure St. Francis of Assisi and the angels are still laughing about. I don’t doubt that Blessed Virgin Mary also likes puppies.
- St. Blaise is also depicted with the wolf with which he parleyed ,convincing it to give up a pig it stole from an old woman―her only source of sustenance. That’s why St. Blaise is the Patron of Veterinarians as well as of Sore Throats.
- St. Martin de Porres was so loving and kind to all of God’s creatures, he fed every stray dog and cat he came across. St. Martin de Porres is the Patron of Strays and Those Who Care for Them.
- St. Quiteria was a fifth-century virgin-martyr who once staved off the attack of two rabid dogs with nothing but her fervent prayers spoken with a sweet, calming voice. She is the Patron of Dogs With Behavioral Issues.
- St. Hubert of Liège was an eighth century nobleman from Maastricht. He was never one for church and insisted on hunting even on Good Friday―which was strictly forbidden. He set out with his faithful bloodhounds, subsequently known as “St. Hubert Hounds,” and intentionally missed Mass. As they pursued their quarry, the dogs suddenly stopped at a wondrous sight. There, before them was an enormous stag with a crucifix caught in its antlers. (Those who enjoy a little schnapps every now and again will recognize this image from the last bottle of Jägermeister they uncorked.) Suddenly, Christ’s voice boomed from heaven saying, "Hubert, unless you turn to the Lord, and lead a holy life, you shall quickly fall into the abyss of hell!" St. Hubert of Liège is the Patron of Hunters, hunting dogs and Bloodhounds in particular.
- St. Margaret of Cortona ran away from home when she was 17 and shacked up with a man named Arsenio, the son of Gugliemo di Pecora, lord of Valiano. They lived together for ten years, and she ultimately gave him a son. Though he promised to marry her, Arsenio was a cad who had no intention of doing so. One day, his dog came home without his master. Margaret became worried and searched the forest for him with the help of his dog. It led her straight to her lover’s murdered body. The discovery shocked Margaret to her core. She gave up all of her material goods, returned to the Church and dedicated herself to prayer and penance. To prove her humility, she even begged in the streets for her food. Yet another example of a dog being God’s mighty messenger.
- St. Don Bosco and his faithful guardian angel, Grigio―the “Gray One.” In his dairies, the saint describes four separate accounts in which he was set upon by unscrupulous men intent on killing him. Grigio, an enormous dog otherwise unknown to him, came out of the mists and vanquished many of Don Bosco’s attackers―the others turned tail and wisely ran off. Don Bosco was never quite sure what type of creature Grigio was―either a dog or an angel in disguise. I’m similarly confused about my little darlings.
- St. Anastasius the Persian was a Zoroastrian soldier in Khosrau II’s Sasanian army in the seventh century which had stormed Jerusalem and absconded with the True Cross. Upon witnessing the faith of the Christian defenders, he and 70 of his companions converted to the Church and were martyred on Jan. 22, 628. They were strangled to death and decapitated. His body was thrown to the dogs which formed a circle around him and refused to devour him. Thus, he is the Patron of Watch Dogs.
- St. Tobias, of the Book of Tobit, is depicted as traveling with a dog as he goes about God’s business. (Tobit 11:4). This clever little companion has been included by Titian, Rafael and Rembrandt in their depictions of St. Tobias. Angels are great but sometimes you need the assurance of a good dog at your side.
- St. Patrick, legend tells us, was kidnapped by Irish slavers and was forced to tend some pagan’s sheep. It’s said that he practiced his homilies on the sheepdogs that assisted him at his job. Say what you will, but I think the dogs did him a service considering how well the saint did subsequently among the Irish. An additional canine-centered legend is circulated among historians. When Pope Celestine I sent Patrick back to Ireland as a missionary, pagan warlord Dichu set a massive Irish Wolfhound―a gigantic, magnificent beast that moves gracefully like an Irish zephyr―on Patrick and his companions. The saint, not one to be outdone by a dog, tackled the beast to the ground and released it only after getting its assurance it wouldn’t harm him or the other Christians. Dichu and his clan converted on the spot. Sometimes you need to send a dog to do man’s job.
- St. Walburga is the Patron of Those Who Are Afraid of Dogs. I have no credible historical source explaining why she is thusly named but let’s just chalk this one up to the many joys and mysteries of the Catholic Church. The same goes for St. Guy of Anderlecht.
- St. Sithney is the Patron of Sick Dogs due to a legend commonly told in Breton. The unlikely story tells us that God asked Sithney to be the patron saint of girls seeking husbands. Sithney responded that he would rather be the patron saint of mad dogs and get some rest.
- St. Vitus, Patron of Dancers, is also invoked as Patron of Dogs due to the fact that they can also come down with chorea―also known as hemichorea, dyskinesias or St. Vitus’ Dance―a neurological disorder characterized by jerky, involuntary twitches of the face, hips and shoulders.
A dog will love you whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female, educated or not. Dogs are humanity’s Best Friends because of the faithful, unconditional love they offer sinful creatures like ourselves. Dogs are like that―never forgetting, never relenting, always loving, always appreciative, always forgiving of our excesses, narcissism, foolishnesses and diableries. It can even be argued that loving a dog might prompt us into a greater appreciation and belief in the Lord and Master of All.
All I know is that I’m grateful to God for the occasional strongly presented, cold and wet snout that prompts me to continue my scratching and petting. All Christian pet owners are stewards of the tiniest, most helpless, fiercely loyal and most loving members of God's creation with which we share our homes.