DO YOU ever wonder what your dog is thinking? Would you be shocked to discover that it might have half an eye on your overthrow? Our captive and domesticated companions still hear the whispers of their wolf ancestors: the expectation that, one day, they will breed and, with their mate, share the charge of their own pack. In the true wild, wolves generally live in family units run by mum and dad. When their pups mature, they leave to form new packs.
In captivity, confined together with unrelated wolves, they develop a more distinct notion of hierarchy, characterised by domineering alphas and non-breeding subordinates. There are many myths surrounding these structures, leading to some wild theories about human alpha males, but these all derive from restricted wolves, and not from their free cousins.
So, what of our beloved pets? They are lifelong captives in human-made packs, and very far from the wild. As such, when they feel those ancient lupine urges, they might embark on some domineering behaviour and challenge their alphas. Even if they do not, their minds have not been constructed to accommodate human notions of equality. If we offer them these, they will misinterpret our meaning.
© 2023 Henry Martin© 2023 Henry Martin
I often wish it was otherwise, but I concede to the saying, “Treat your dog as a human and it’ll treat you as a dog.” If we allow them up on to the sofa “just the once”, they will soon consider this privilege as their right, and a valuable step up the ladder. It is for humans to choose where the lines are drawn. Some allow the sofa, some even the bed.
Whatever we decide, we should not allow our captive descendant of wolves any delusions about who is in charge. A friend admitted that her dog never responded well to her authority. Then she reflected on her behaviour — in particular, the amount of playtime that she spent in rolling around on the floor, letting the dog stand over her. To her, this was a fun game. To her dog, it was a signal of her lower rank within the captive pack.
I saw a TV documentary about a dog who had become incredibly aggressive, especially at mealtimes. It emerged that his owner used to stage mock standoffs with him. The human would put the food bowl on the floor and then crouch over it, pretending to growl. The dog growled back, and so the two of them carried on, until the human got bored and let the dog eat. To the human, this was a fun game. To the dog, this was a rival backing down. The human was teaching a disastrous lesson: in this pack, you fight for your food and whoever wins is the alpha.
Food is important. One of our best ways of reinforcing our status as leaders is to create rituals over feeding, such as requiring a dog sit near to its full bowl and wait for our spoken permission before eating. Such exercises can feel petty. We might ask ourselves, “Am I really so inadequate that I need to bolster my flagging self-esteem by lording it over my dog in this way?” That, however, is to misunderstand the hierarchical mind-set of your captive wolf descendant.
It is never our job to be unkind, and it is an unkindness to allow a dog to imagine that the alpha slot is attainable. When treated with fair and consistent rules, dogs will settle happily into their correct, lower place within our household packs. Given all this, we humans might expect our infinitely superior God to be equally firm with us, barking orders to keep us in line. Instead, we find ourselves treated us with exceptional grace.
© 2023 Henry Martin© 2023 Henry Martin
This might at times be confusing to us, owing to the way in which our minds are constructed: we are also pack animals, ever watchful of our shifting status within our human hierarchies, and often with more than half an eye on our own advancement. Instead of being pushed down, we find ourselves invited to sit at God’s table and encouraged to speak without fear. But we can allow ourselves no delusions that we have earned this seat or, worse still, have somehow won it by conquest. Our elevation comes to us by grace alone.
Christians believe that, in Christ, God came to us in great humility, but we cross a serious line if we ever view the Servant King as our personal dogsbody. The Bible contains some dizzying passages (surely grist to an egotistical mill) promising us golden crowns and the power to judge angels. I cannot begin to envisage what the latter might look like in practice. And I shy away from too much speculation, lest I become so dazzled that I forget that all my good things are ultimately gifts from God. In our relationship with God, we are privileged beyond our wildest imaginings, but we will never reach the status of equals, and any fantasies in which we act as “The Alpha” are simply dangerous.
SOME of us become very dependent on our dogs, and not just for daily companionship. Certain highly trained dogs are, to us, a living key, opening doors to a wider world. Jarvis was a natural seeing dog. He accompanied Dave on countless expeditions, making the outside world so much more accessible for him. From their very first walk, Dave knew that Jarvis was special. Jarvis’s trainer was with them, wanting to see how Jarvis performed. He did very well. He guided Dave expertly through the town centre, following each of Dave’s instructions and responding well to Dave’s voice. Jarvis did not allow himself to be distracted at all.
Then came the moment when Dave wanted to cross a road. Jarvis took him to a pedestrian crossing, where they waited. Now, one of Dave’s things is that, when standing still at a kerbside, he sometimes rocks backwards and forwards, unsure of his balance. Jarvis noticed this and, without any command, placed his whole body directly in front of Dave’s knees, giving him some reassuring stability.
© 2023 Henry Martin© 2023 Henry Martin
Dave had not come across anything like this before, and he asked the trainer whether this was a new feature in guide dogs’ training. “No, not at all,” came the reply. It seems that Jarvis had seen a need and understood how he could meet it. Dave knew from this moment that he could rely on Jarvis, and the two of them enjoyed a long and happy relationship, as owner and guide.
If we rely on our dogs, does God rely on us? We have certain tasks that have been entrusted to us. We are to act as stewards within God’s creation. We are to love one another, especially keeping in mind those at the margins. God cares for all of us, but it falls to us to deliver a great deal of that caring ourselves. We are not supposed to sit praying for miraculous interventions for problems we can solve ourselves.
God gave Jarvis the intelligence to take the initiative. God has given us humans even more: we have ways of sharing knowledge and companions so that we can work collectively, and we have a hotline to God, when we need guidance.
The following poem, usually attributed to St Teresa of Ávila, seeks to capture our delegated responsibilities:
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands
Yours are the feet
Yours are the eyes
You are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
To me, it makes far better sense if we understand the much repeated “yours” as plural, not singular; otherwise, it becomes unduly burdensome: I have grown suspicious of how wannabe lone superheroes fit into God’s plans. Two, but preferably more, working together are usually far more fruitful than one going it alone. And our dogs show us that we can rely on others from beyond our own species.
These are edited extracts from The Dog Walker’s Guide to God: 52 musings on companionship, divine and canine, by Henry Martin, published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-915412-02-7.