Excerpt: Things My Dog Has Taught Me by Jonathan Wittenberg
Things My Dog Has Taught Me is a heartfelt and perceptive story of author Jonathan Wittenberg and his beloved canine companions, celebrating the unique bond between human and dog.
About the book
As on so many journeys, it’s the dogs who have been my guides. I knew when I began this book that I wanted to write about the gifts dogs bring to humanity, as guide dogs, assistance dogs, medical detection dogs and in numerous other ways which all have at heart their wonderful capacity for faithful and affectionate companionship.
I wanted to describe how Safi, our first dog, was found by a member of my community after being abandoned in the street, and how it was only after six months in our home that he regained sufficient confidence to bark. I wanted to tell of my adventures with Mitzpah, a mischievous Border Collie, as we walked together for 400 kilometers from the city my grandparents fled to escape the Nazis all the way to the North Sea coast and home to London.
I needed to set down my abhorrence of cruelty and the urgent importance of understanding that we have a God-given responsibility to care for animals and nature with respect and humility.
But it was only as I began to write that I came to realise the full depth of what dogs offer us. They may not understand every word we say, but they definitely intuit a great deal of what we don’t say. They feel our sorrows and comfort us in distress. They share their exuberant enthusiasm for life. With an urgent look of "take me for my walk right now" they give the grief-stricken a reason to get out of bed in the morning. With an affectionate lick, they encourage the anxious child just back from her new school to tell everything into their soft, attentive ears.
At the heart of it all is love.
"It’s the unconditional love – unconditional, that is, so long as you feed them, walk with them, and love them in return.
It’s precisely because that love is so absolute and trusting that it’s such a profound sin to betray it. A dog puts its life in the hands of its owner. To treat it with deliberate cruelty is therefore an act not only of brutality, but of betrayal. It’s a cruel sin to bring a child into the world and then to refuse it love and nurture. It’s also wrong to take a dog into one’s home, and then beat it, scream at it, and throw it out, helpless, onto the street.
"Mitzpah had a different way of demanding affection. If you stopped tickling his tummy he would simply prod you repeatedly with his paw until you recommenced"
Safi went through a prolonged phase during which he would sit down next to one of us and insist that we held his paw. ‘It’s a new thing with him,’ my mother observed. ‘He looks at you, lifts up his paw and waits until you take it.’ No doubt he needed this gesture of solidarity to heal the inner anguish left over from his abandonment when scarcely more than a puppy. That it lay within our capacity to resist occurred, of course, to neither my mother nor to me; to spurn his outstretched paw felt like a display of heartlessness. This is not to say that it wasn’t often a nuisance. Safi’s solicitations were especially inconvenient when he chose to sit himself down on the floor close to your pillow, his leg held up towards you like the hand of a frightened child, leaving you wondering how to support your bedtime book and turn the pages with one arm permanently immobilised in a prolonged gesture of canine reassurance.
Mitzpah had a different way of demanding affection. If you stopped tickling his tummy he would simply prod you repeatedly with his paw until you recommenced. Nicky was once so absorbed in her reading that she failed to comply with his wishes when he rolled over at her feet. He stood up, cross but in no way nonplussed, and, employing his long snout, whacked her book shut, before rolling over again in a second, more successful, attempt at blackmail.
Like humans, dogs need not only to be loved, but also to be shown that they are. ‘The first thing I do in the morning when I get out of bed is go over and kiss my dog,’ a friend recently confessed to me. ‘It brings me great comfort. People who don’t have dogs just don’t get it, do they?’ I can well imagine that they truly don’t. Dogs give grown men and women permission to be sentimental, to admit, unashamedly, though preferably without being overheard, how much we crave love. Maybe that’s an opportunity, an outlet, which all of us need – though which of us would want to admit it in public?
"It’s sad when someone goes to his grave with his capacity for love unfulfilled"
Or maybe it’s the way a dog can open the heart, the simplicity of feeling which a dog’s unequivocal trust and devoted companionship engenders, which brings us the gift, not just of being loved, but of feeling that we, too, are capable of being loving.
It’s sad when someone goes to his grave with his capacity for love unfulfilled. Imagining there really is a God who gives us a post-mortem interview, one of the questions would probably be: ‘How much did you love?’ It would be tragic if we had to reply, ‘Not a lot really. I only used about twenty per cent of my heart.’ Dogs certainly help us raise our grades.
Most of our love is rightly directed towards our fellow humans, our family first, our friends, neighbours and the strangers in our midst. But maybe every human heart also contains a specific place, just a corner, which is only fulfilled through the love of God’s creatures: animals, birds, trees and flowers – but most especially dogs."
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