Dave Burchett, dog-loving sports director for the Texas Rangers, found a host of lessons waiting to be learned through his dogs. One was to be present with others in suffering, without feeling the need to theologize. When his wife Joni discovered she had cancer and everything looked threatening, his dog Hannah came near and stayed.
“Her intuitive evaluation of my emotions was uncanny. Hannah would come to me and nudge me as if to say, ‘I’m here.’ As she shifted her big brown eyes toward mine, her gaze communicated, “I don’t know how to help, but I wish I could.
“There was incredible comfort in her presence.
“She was right. That was all I needed—presence. When Joni was sick with cancer, all we needed from friends and fellow followers of Jesus was caring presence.
“The theology of why bad things happen could wait.”
Researchers at Goldsmiths College in London discovered that dogs may respond more to our emotions than any other species, including our own. Eighteen dogs were evaluated while their owner or an unfamiliar person pretended to cry, hummed, or carried on an ordinary conversation. The dogs did things that are consistent with what we would call empathy. They looked at, approached, and touched the people more when they were crying than when they hummed. None of the dogs came near when the people were talking normally. They approached the person crying even if that person was not their owner. One of the researchers concluded, “They were responding to the person’s emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathetic-like comfort-offering behavior.”
Burchett likens this empathy to that of the Holy Spirit, who “rushes toward the crying of my soul.” He cites Paul’s words in Romans 8, “The Holy Spirit prays for us with groaning too deep for words” (v. 26). So dogs are a reminder to Burchett—perhaps a God-given type?–of what the Holy Spirit does for us when we are hurting. They might even be instruments of the Spirit to comfort us when we are suffering.