Not even Jonathan Wittenberg could know how just how much his four-legged companion could impact his life – or indeed his outlook on it.
Since he first became a dog owner aged 30, the senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK has revelled in observing their unconditional love and undeniable place as Man’s Best Friend.
In his latest book, Things My Dog has Taught Me, Rabbi Wittenberg takes a wry and insightful look at how we could all learn so much by adopting a dog’s attitude to life, from joy and companionship to listening and forgiveness, rejection and cruelty, healing and trust.
In this extract, the rabbi of New North London Synagogue reflects on what dogs can teach us about love:
‘I love you,’ I hear myself say to the dog, often with a frequency with which I feel embarrassed, so that I catch myself looking behind me to check that no-one else has heard.
Sometimes I even answer myself, pretending to be the dog, telling myself in would-be canine tones, ‘I love you, too.’
If this is a sign of madness, then there are a lot of insane people, since I’ve noticed many other dog fans doing the same, or at least the first, less-crazy, part. I recently overheard my wife replying to one of the children who justly moaned that I was overdoing it: ‘At least at four every morning you don’t have to hear, “I love you so much”, and I think he’s talking to me; but no, he’s speaking to the dog who’s just jumped on the bed and woken me up.’
‘I love her so much; the weeks without her have felt endless,’ a man confesses in the waiting room at the vet’s, apologising for being so sentimental. ‘I’m longing to see him again. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if he doesn’t get better,’ a lady tells the veterinary nurse at reception, taking out a handkerchief to wipe away her tears.
It’s always important to tell those for whom we care just how much they mean to us. Never taking our loved ones for granted is advice few of us take sufficiently to heart.
‘I loved her so much. I only wish I’d told her more often, but now it’s too late’ are devastating words to hear at a funeral.
But, somehow, it feels easier to tell our love to the dog, unfair to our human family as that is.
Why do so many people love their dogs so simply and so much?…
‘It’s those big brown eyes,’ says Nicky, watching the dog take advantage of my better judgement once again.
It’s with that unblinking, directly-at-you, straight-to-the-soul stare that dogs tell you, not so much that they love you, but, more importantly, that you simply have to love them, that you haven’t got a choice, that it would be unthinkable, unimaginable, beyond all possible justification if you failed to fall for their charms. I admit that I’m gullible.
But, then, there are many worse characteristics to possess. If it came to a choice, I’d rather be credulous than cruel.
Perhaps it’s the dependency and trust, the lack of guile of domesticated animals in contrast to the calculated manipulations of humankind.
Aharon Appelfeld, the Holocaust survivor and novelist, wrote of how through all the nights of terror when he hid in barns and hayricks to evade the SS, and their many local allies who in those lean and terrifying years would gladly have earned their meagre reward from the Nazis for handing over a Jew, the only time he ever felt safe was among the cows and sheep, the horses, cats and dogs, close to whom he secretly crept, then slept the deep and easy sleep of a child, confident that these creatures would never betray him. They knew no duplicity or deceit.
It’s not that the connection with a favourite animal is deeper than the bond between people. But it’s a different, easier kind of love.
It may lack much of the subtlety, tenacity, self-sacrifice, sensitivity, exaltation, bliss, and extent in years and range of shared activity that a faithful and sustained relationship with a fellow human being may attain.
But it doesn’t have the tension and ambiguous complexity of human relationships either…
Maybe it’s the fact that dogs don’t respond with their own ego, don’t compete with us by interrupting our flow with a story of their own: ‘Oh, the same thing happened once to me, only in my case it was incomparably worse.’
Maybe it’s the steadfastness of the companionship. ‘Where you go, I go,’ says Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi in the book of the Bible which bears her name. Even when Naomi repeatedly entreats her to return to her homeland and the family of her birth, she refuses to be parted from her side. ‘No,’ says Ruth. ‘Where you lie, I lie.’ Dogs are faithful followers in her footsteps.
It’s the day-by-day here-I-am constancy of the affection of a dog. With what other living being does a person spend so much time, share so many hours, as with the dog who’s always by one’s side? It’s the unwavering loyalty. It’s the absolute trust. It’s the reliable affection. It’s the tail-waving, body-wagging, eyes-staring-up-at-you total and joyful greeting when you come home. It’s the readiness to get up and follow, wherever you are going.
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…
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.
Things My Dog Has Taught Me by Jonathan Wittenberg is published by Hodder, priced £16.99 and is available now.