What My Dog is Teaching Me About Grace

These first two months with our rescue dog, Eddie, have taught me more about grace, about unconditional love and acceptance of others as they are, than even twelve years of being a mother to three children.

Eddie's many fears include all beeping mechanical things, including cameras. This photo, taken by his foster mom before he was ours, is the best photo I have of him.

I’m a little embarrassed to write that, and surprised that it is true. I’ve always struggled a bit with how pets fit into the spiritual life. When the Feast of St. Francis rolls around every year, I think it is sweet, this idea of bringing our pets to church for a blessing. But nothing more than sweet. Aren’t pets, after all, a first-world luxury? Isn’t there something a little misguided about spending our money feeding and grooming and outfitting these non-working animals, when families the world over dream of having a scraggly goat or a few skinny chickens in their dirt yards to provide milk and eggs worth a few cents from their neighbors?

Eddie, our white pointer/lab mix who is right now snoring away on his red monogrammed dog bed next to me, is certainly a first-world luxury. But he is something more too.

We know only bits and pieces of Eddie’s story. He was born in Mississippi and meant to be a hunting dog. Apparently, he wasn’t a very good one. He is timid, and especially scared of loud noises. So I imagine gunshots made him skittish. Or maybe his fears aren’t innate. Maybe he was abused by those original owners, and came to associate loud noises with pain. We have some evidence of neglect at least—a poorly healed foot fracture, a missing canine tooth, which my vet says is almost always the result of trauma.

Once his Mississippi owners gave him up, Eddie traveled up north, and was adopted by a family with teenagers and an extended network of relatives. Constant comings and goings kept Eddie, who thrives on routine and is shy around new people, on edge. His new family didn’t have a yard in which he could freely roam. They handed him over to a relative who owns several dogs and regularly fosters rescue dogs. She took Eddie to adoption fairs, knowing that white dogs like him often get lots of attention. But he was so shy, so timid, that adoptive families overlooked him.

I thought he was the perfect dog for us. We wanted a larger dog, but with a fundamentally calm temperament, rather than a ball of boundless energy. I thought adopting an older dog (Eddie is four) would be much less disrupting to family life than getting a puppy.

I was wrong.

Those first few weeks with Eddie are a bit of a blur. About two weeks after we got him, most of the state shut down after a freak October snowstorm that left 96 percent of my town’s residents out of power. For ten days (six of which my husband was in sunny Charleston, S.C. for a conference, I might add) I was stuck at home with a dog, a cat, and three children (school was cancelled for days) in a dark, cold house. Several times a day, Eddie and I would take a walk, plucking out a safe path through downed wires and tree limbs, because the electric fence in our yard that Eddie had just learned to use was, of course, not working. One day, I clearly did not walk him enough, because we awoke the next morning to find he had done his business—all of it—on the living room rug.

Those weeks were also a blur because it was not unlike having a newborn baby at home. We were trying to go about our usual routines while also accommodating a new family member whose wants and needs were not always easy to decipher. In fact, the first few weeks with Eddie were much harder for me than the first few weeks of having a new baby. My babies were all pretty easy little things. They nursed and slept and pooped. They didn’t screech for hours or have trouble gaining weight. While of course I was sore and sleep-deprived, it wasn’t really hard. I could usually tell what they needed, and provide it.

But with Eddie? I didn’t know what he needed, and often felt like I was failing to provide it. For example, I knew from taking Eddie to my parents’ fenced yard to frolic with their golden retriever that, when freed from any kind of tie-out, Eddie becomes a different dog. When he can run free, his tail leaves its usual tense between-the-legs position to become upright as he runs, the muscles of his chest rippling under his white coat. But when we installed the electric fence to give him that freedom in our own yard, he was terrified of the “beep” it gave out when he got too close. For several days, he would only go outside if Daniel put him in the car, drove him to the top of our driveway, and then took him for a walk.

Plus our cat, Stormy, kind of hated him. Eddie paid her very little mind, but she avoided him at all costs, and wouldn’t come in from outside if Eddie was anywhere near our kitchen door.

For the first time, I understood what other moms mean when they talk about being at home with a new baby and feeling like you have no idea what to do with this little creature, because you can’t figure out what it wants and when you try to do something you know it needs, like feed it, all it does is scream and flail.  And your other kids are confused and jealous. And you feel powerless to make any of them happy.

While the newborn period wasn’t especially hard for me, there have, of course, been plenty of hard times as a mom to three beautiful, exasperating, complicated children. Caring for Leah through eleven broken bones caused by the genetic bone disorder we share. Negotiating Meg’s volatile emotions.  Encouraging Ben to be himself, while also protecting him from those who would tease him about his preferences for things like the color pink and dolls and dress-up clothes. Being present to three chatty, extroverted children when my soul often craves silence and solitude.

But through even the hardest moments—when Leah is in physical and emotional agony after yet another broken bone, when Meg tells me I have broken her heart by punishing her for some angry outburst, when I overhear two moms in the pool locker room talking about how I shouldn’t let Ben wear “girl” (as in, pink) swim goggles—even then, there is no question that these children are mine forever. While I might occasionally retreat from them, to my bedroom or a book, I will never, ever give them up.

That’s the difference with Eddie. At any time, in those first few weeks and even now, I could choose to give him up. The foster mom said that she would gladly take him back if we decided it wasn’t working out, and find him another home. We could find another dog, one more easygoing, less timid, less damaged by a past that we will never really understand.

There were times in those first weeks that I was so baffled by this animal and so certain I could not ever understand what he needs, much less provide it, that the foster mom’s offer was tempting.

But we are not giving Eddie up. Not even after he snapped, teeth bared, at Ben last week when Ben startled him by coming too close as Eddie slept in his bed. Instead, we told the kids that Eddie needs a safe place, and that when he’s in his bed, they are to imagine him in a protective bubble that we are not allowed to penetrate. I figure that, whatever Eddie has been through, he deserves a safe place, along with a family that will not give him up, despite his quirks and fears and even his ability to lash out at us when we unknowingly remind him of how it feels to be unsafe.

It is loving Eddie—not only Leah or Meg or Ben—that has helped me to see how radical is God’s acceptance of us as we are, with all our quirks and fears and ability to lash out at others with teeth bared when they cross into our hurt places, even unintentionally. It is loving Eddie that has made me stop seeing pets as merely a first-world luxury, and instead as family members capable of both breaking and mending our hearts, just as our spouses and children and parents do. It is loving Eddie—no, keeping Eddie— that has reminded me that God dwells in that place where vulnerability and woundedness meet acceptance and love, where we promise never to give up on each other, no matter how scary or confusing or messy things get.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • KSP

    Tears …

    Thank you for sharing these intensely important insights with us.

    And thank you for not giving up on Eddie.

  • Jen Schaefer

    You know I have a special place in my heart for the adopted animals. Our Roxie had a similar start in life and in our home. The skittish dog that would pee whenever anyone approached her is long gone.

    What I find most interesting is the dog that is here now is one who is friendly (though not much fond of other dogs- she’s still too timid and anxious), sweet and playful. Being in our home and surrounded by love and attention has healed this dog. Seeing the change in her has done wonders for my own spirit.

    Welcome to the neighborhood, Eddie!

  • Laura

    Beautiful story. We are on our third rescue and relate so well to the things that you share and how much we have also learned from our rescues. People have occasionally asked why we kept them when they are so much work but usually after a year or so they are a complete part of the family and have learned to trust us as we have loved them. God keeps loving us no matter what we are going through and we eventually learn to trust Him as well. Eddie appreciates what you are doing for him, continue to love and you will be loved in return.

  • Patricia Giannella Mom/Pat/Nana

    Ellen, Thank God for your being and thank you for being a kind and generous person. Tears are STREAMING down my cheeks, racing to reach my chin before my drippy nose.
    We are graced by having had rescued cats and dogs and now our little Isaac.. We are also graced by having Erin Roth as a doughter-in-law. Her spirit is as beautiful as yours.
    You are blessed.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thank you Pat! Erin is one of my favorite people, a lovely soul as you say. It’s been years since we’ve seen each other, but I still feel connected with her. Thanks for reading this piece and for being an adoptive family to rescued pets!

  • Joyce Ballard

    I thank My husband Mike every day for. Allowing me to always have a dog or two or three, as he is not of the same mind or need.Our first dog ate much of our furniture and wet all our rugs and the bindings off all his treasured books were chewed. He. Pretended not to love little Tudi,yet we sat together and cried our hearts out when a truck hit her. dusty ate his best shoes and the cat always left hair balls on his side of the bed and other presents on his desk.Mike and I are still together and we have never been without animals in our house for 40 years. we are thinking of adopting again,your story inspires us to get moving.Thanks for not giving up.I’ve written so many ads for the paper…free dog to good home,jumps on kids,barks at friends and strangers alike, chews tin cans and pulls you all over town on leash .Never mailed them,but we laughed so much writing them. Wishing you yearS of funny ,happy moments.

  • http://NotOneSparrow.com Ben DeVries

    Ellen, thank you for this beautiful post, which a friend and fellow animal lover pointed me to. And thank you for the unconditional love and safe haven you are providing for Eddie. Every now and then, I feel the same way about our adopted feral cat, who even after 8 years with us still spooks at some of the slightest movements and rarely lets us get close. best wishes, Ben (admin. at Not One Sparrow, a Christian voice for animals)

  • Jolynn

    This line is amazing, Ellen. I could, and probably will, ponder it all day. Wow …

    “It is loving Eddie—not only Leah or Meg or Ben—that has helped me to see how radical is God’s acceptance of us as we are, with all our quirks and fears and ability to lash out at others with teeth bared when they cross into our hurt places, even unintentionally.”