What My Rescue Dog Taught Me About God’s Love
I am relatively well-respected in my community. When you see me in public, even if you are acquainted with me, you might initially think that I have my life together. I generally appear to be a responsible, intelligent, competent adult who takes care of her family and works hard to be a good citizen of this world. I am an unapologetic Christian who tries hard to love people every day as Jesus loves them. Some days I get it right, and some days I fail at that. When I fail, I am disappointed in myself like everyone else, but I try again the next day. However, there is one thing you may not see unless you take the time to know me well and look a great deal deeper. I struggle with clinical Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Due to trauma I endured in my most formative years, I struggle with the symptoms of the sin that was committed against me. After many years of prayer, clinical care, and the love of God poured out through my pastoral counselor, my spiritual director, and my community in Christ, my symptoms are manageable, and I am working toward health every day of my life. I have faith in God’s healing work in my life, and I have seen his hand deliver me from many sorrows. As God heals me, he isn’t simply concerned only with the spiritual aspects of my existence. And, his healing comes in many forms. One of the aspects of my healing and care is a newly acquired service dog in training.
Because the condition he is training to alleviate is a result of abuse, I elected to obtain a rescue dog rather than a dog that was bred and trained specifically as a service dog. It was important to me that I give a wretched soul the second chance at joy that I want for myself. My dog was originally intended for use in dog fighting, but was discarded as his temperament is far too submissive to fight, but too stubborn to be a bait dog. As a result of his terrifying early years and his subsequent abandonment, he developed separation anxiety.
My dog’s separation anxiety manifests in specific ways, just as my PTSD does. When left alone, my dog often chews and destroys items that are unintentionally left out. It is never anything terribly important or expensive (except that time he got our Playstation 4 controllers). It is usually a piece of cardboard or a junk mail. We have to be diligent to keep anything important out of his reach and all tempting items out of his field of vision. Sometimes, though, destruction happens anyway. Generally, when he chews up something that isn’t his, I reprimand him and put him in our bathroom for a “time out.” He always responds apologetically when it happens. I know he doesn’t mean to be destructive. It is simply his anxiety that causes his compulsive behavior. Still, he must know that his behavior isn’t acceptable if he is to be encouraged toward growth and healing. Otherwise, the behavior will never stop. But, I also must work to instill in him the confidence that I will not abandon him. That is the root of his fear.
One day, he overturned my entire recycling bin and shredded the recycling from one end of the house to the other!
After the initial shock wore off and I began to think of how I was going to clean all the mess up, I realized something. You see, my dog has already demonstrated to me that he loves me and has an obedient heart. Outside of a stubborn streak now and then, he is well-behaved and eager to make me happy. I know his heart. I love him deeply and enjoy his presence in my life. He has become a cherished friend.
When I got home and discovered that mess, my dog was so aware that he had sinned against me and was so ashamed about it that he went and put himself in the bathroom with his little head hanging. To be honest, it broke my heart to see him feeling so low, because I knew his behavior was related to his wounded heart and the abuse, neglect, and abandonment he endured from his original owner. The pain and fear he carries is not of his own making, even if the behavior is his choice. Feeling a tap on my shoulder from the Holy Spirit, I realized that was a picture of how God felt about me when I hang my head in shame for the mistakes I have made when I was broken or wounded.
These days, when my dog misbehaves, I still make sure he understands that what he’s done isn’t acceptable behavior, but I don’t deal harshly with him. I clean up his messes, and I’m not even angry. I encourage him to do better next time and to live into who he is: a very good dog. I’m also learning to remember that lesson more readily for myself. As I work to help my dog with his anxious heart, I learn to better use the tools I have for my own anxious heart. I think the primary thing God desires to heal me from is not the irrational anxiety I have, but rather the voice in my heart that continues to tell me that my weaknesses and sometimes broken behavior somehow make me bad: a burden who is impossible to love.