I suppose you know that dog is god spelled backward.
I always thought that was a weird little phonemic fact which was purported by people who had a little too much love for their dogs and didn’t know much about God.
But God taught me otherwise.
“I waste nothing. I can even use your bad decisions for good,” said a still small voice.
Those were words of comfort the Spirit spoke to my heart as I was taking our 4-month-old puppy out for a walk in the middle of a cold December night. The poor pup was not completely housebroken and I was averting an accident in the crate by toileting her at 4 a.m. The air was very cold and the ice crunched beneath my slippered feet.
But I didn’t mind the cold or the quiet of that dark December night. The crisp air was a welcome change from the stifling heat and the constant din of beeping monitors in the pediatric ICU. Just one month prior, my infant daughter had been diagnosed with a large tumor in her brain and already had three brain surgeries by the time she was four months old.
Walking a puppy in the freezing cold in the wee hours before dawn was a welcome distraction from the trauma of the past month. The little black puppy now huddled on the edge of my slipper, whimpered quietly to remind me that she didn’t like the cold as much as I did. I looked down at those deep brown eyes and felt warm.
Getting a puppy after having a baby was one of the most ridiculous decisions I have ever made in my life and yet God used if for my good. I guess I could chalk it up to postpartum hormones and mental exhaustion. I definitely didn’t pray about it and I barely asked my husband if he’d agree.
When I and my four young children walked into a local shelter, our hearts melted at the sight of the litter of 8-week old black lab mixed puppies. It had to be Divine Providence that my baby and the puppy we were adopting were the same age, right?
Wrong. It was insanity.
In retrospect, I realized that I was running away from a persistent, nagging intuition, which even spoke to me in nightmares, warning me that something wasn’t quite right with the baby in my arms.
I ignored intuition and told myself that adopting a puppy the same age as my newborn daughter would be kind of like having twins — only one of them sleeps in a cage. I imagined a cool homeschooling project for my nine, six and three-year-old children, as if having a newborn sibling wasn’t project enough.
We were properly vetted at the animal shelter and my friends and neighbors gave excellent references. Only a few weeks later, my youngest daughter, Johanna, was diagnosed and it was a whirlwind of brain scans, doctors, somber faces, and conversations filled medical terms I thought I would never learn.
However, one funny moment stands out in that dark and terrible day. A couple from our church came to the hospital to support us and asked me what they could do to help. They assumed we might need childcare and meals. My kids were well-cared for by their godparents and close friends.
I responded, “Could you take our puppy?”
It took a few minutes to explain to my confused church friends why we had a puppy and a newborn at the same time. But being dog-lovers themselves, this generous family agreed. They took the puppy into their home a lot in that first year, as we adjusted to the new norm of frequent hospitalizations and early intervention therapies running out of our home.
This was our new life and the puppy had to adjust right along with the rest of us. As I write this 20 years later and wiser, I shudder at some of the decisions we made in those early years. The kids turned out pretty well, despite the difficulties. The puppy should have been re-homed into a less chaotic environment.
But like in every other area of my life, that still small voice of God rang true in my mind and soul as I learned the meaning of this verse: “God uses all things for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purposes for them” (Romans 8:28).
Even dogs. Although the little puppy grew into a 60-pound dog that struggled with separation anxiety, she also became a warm companion to each member of our family.
When we moved to the North Fork of Long Island two years later, the smells of farm fields, horses, cows, and chickens was great for the kids, but frightening to our timid dog. The dog ran away the first night and got hit by a car and we spent our first Thanksgiving (doesn’t everyone move the day before a major holiday?) crying over the loss of that crazy pup.
Two years later we adopted two sibling cats and a kitten with special needs (of course). They fixed our misconceptions about aloof cats as they set to work on purring into our hearts, adding a quiet comfort to each of our lives.
Occasionally the kids asked for another dog and I promptly reminded them that we were happy cat people now and our lives were too crazy for a dog. Then, my nine-year-old, next oldest daughter to our youngest, started researching service dogs. She remembered enough of the postpartum puppy to know that if we were to get another dog, it had to serve a specific purpose and we all needed to be well-trained.
This daughter was a persistent child (who became a persistent teen and young adult). After careful consideration and prayer, we applied for a service dog from Canine Companions for Independence.
Despite our history with untrained dogs, we were accepted onto the waiting list and my youngest received her first service dog 18 months later. CCI assured us we would all be trained for the task and their well-trained dog would make my life easier. Johanna’s older sister was almost eleven by that time and more than willing to help. The three of us went for a two-week intensive training and came home with a highly skilled dog ready to assist Johanna with daily tasks and provide her with a social bridge to her expanding world as a child with disabilities.
The CCI dog, Taffy, was very intuitive and a welcome addition to our home. She assisted my daughter with retrieving items, pulling out chairs and opening doors. Taffy woke me in the middle of the night when my daughter needed me. She was another pair of ears and eyes, often alerting me to subtle signs like changes in breathing patterns that signaled trouble in my daughter’s brain.
Doctors quickly recognized that Taffy was part of my daughter’s care plan and one doctor asked for her assistance in bringing my daughter out of a psychotic episode resulting from high doses of steroids. Even after the intervention, the episode continued until my husband brought Taffy to my daughter’s bedside in the PICU. Only then did she respond to us after welcoming her dog with a delighted smile and open arms.
Many miracles happened in that first year with Taffy, so when my older daughter asked if she could raise a puppy for CCI, I was open to the idea. She was still homeschooled and could handle the day-to-day duties with a little support from us. Besides the exceptional support we received from the organization, we were surrounded by puppy raisers and graduates who were passionate about the mission and very willing to help.
In those first years of puppy raising, I watched my older daughter mature in social skills that happened because of her service to our community. She not only learned the discipline and skills she needed to train a puppy in basic obedience, she excelled in her communication skills with others.
I remember the first time my daughter presented to a room filled with 60 adults, all parents of children with special needs. She demonstrated the tasks her younger sister’s service dog could perform and show how the foundations for those tasks began in basic obedience training of a puppy raised to become a service dog.
My husband and I knew then that we had to let her keep raising these puppies. There was something innate in her talents that could serve not only her own life but others as well.
Thus began our journey into raising service dogs for CCI, while benefitting from the profound example of a service graduate dog in our home. Thirteen years, six puppies and two service dogs later, our lives are still full but a lot more settled.
My older daughter went on to pursue a professional career with CCI, my youngest daughter’s life is greatly enhanced by her new service dog, Rae. My husband and I joined forces to train a CCI puppy (this one sired by our last puppy that had gone on to become a breeder in the program).
This past week, our joy turned quickly to sadness as our very first CCI puppy died of internal bleeding. He was an older dog who, though he didn’t make the cut to be a service dog, enhanced all our lives for the past 12 years. He spent his last year traveling the country and working side by side with my older daughter in California as she began her career working for CCI.
Over the years we’ve grieved the passing of more than a few furry friends, especially these two CCI dogs. But in all these experiences, I have discovered that God works through creation to reveal a little more of His nature. In the calming effects of a cat’s gentle purring and the unconditional love of a dog, I am reminded that God uses these creatures and every circumstance of our lives for good.
And I am certain that the English spelling of “dog” and “God” are indeed, a sign from heaven.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of https://www.breathingunderwater.info”>Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.