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Rev. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Ph.D. Headshot

The Souls of Our Dogs: A Valentine's Day Tribute to Our Best Friends

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No treatise on the soul ever taught me as much as my dog, Winston. What a happy irony! I am a theologian being patiently tutored on friendship, loyalty, and love by a brown-brindle English bulldog. It seems only mete and good to pay tribute to the soulfulness of humanity's best companions on Saint Valentine's Day. For many of us, our dogs are the epitome of love incarnate.

Since our species, Homo sapiens, and our domestic dogs, Canis lupus familiaris, have shared a partnership through the good times and bad befalling the human race for better than 35,000 years, we have had ample time to learn many of the answers to life's deepest questions from them. "Who are my neighbors, and how am I to relate to them?"

Dogs have demonstrated unfailing help in time of need: herding our flocks, hunting alongside us, using their superior senses to warn us of dangers we could neither see nor hear, and watching over us while we slept. "Are we alone in the universe?" Dogs have shown us unstinting loyalty and companionship, offering us warmth to ward off the chill of the void, nuzzling us time and again out of our existential angst with their cool, damp noses--peering into our souls with their unfathomably rich brown, and blue, and hazel eyes. In the bargain, they have won a dependable source of food, shelter, and companionship from us. Little wonder, then, that the earliest elevation of dogs to the status of persons in prehistory took place by burying our faithful friends alongside us in human graves as early as 14,000 years ago.

My bulldog, Winston, knows nothing of these things intellectually. But I am convinced that he possesses all the best hallmarks of his race instinctually. He does not care about my ethnicity or race or gender or sexual orientation, whether I am rich or poor, whether I occupy the clifftop of my theological guild, or inhabit a more modest spot near the bottom of it. All that matters to him is that I am his human, and the joy with which he greets me at the door, flews all aflutter, and toenails skittering across the floor in his ritual dance of hello lets me know that I am home, and all is well. For to the world I may be only a single person. But to this bulldog, I am the world.

The ancient Romans believed that a great she-wolf (a lupus) suckled Romulus and Remus in her cave-den, the Lupercal, along with her own pups. True or not, her gentler great-grand-pups and we humans have been mutually caring for one another long enough for us to know that something of the best within us emerges in the company of the single species on earth who will be faithful to us to the last beat of their hearts.

Pagan Roman priests, the Luperci, and the Christian bishops who succeeded them argued theology to a fault, as the petty wrangling over the festival of the she-wolf, the Lupercalia, and the Feast of Saint Valentine demonstrates. Which was the correct god of the Lupercalia: Faunus or Inuus, Mars, Juno, or Bacchus? What rendition of the Holy Trinity proved orthodox enough to consecrate Valentine's martyrdom and make him a bona fide saint? But the dogs of then and now, Winston's kindred, fetched love away from abstraction and made acts of love obvious in each generation until this very Saint Valentine's Day. For us humans willing to learn from our dogs, it was never the finer points of dogma that counted a biscuit--the celebration of love and companionship is all that ever counts in life: canine, human, and divine.

So, do dogs have souls? When they die, do all dogs go to heaven, as the animated film of the same name suggests? I may remain agnostic about the obscure points of such a theology, but I am not undecided that, as St. Francis of Assisi prayed, all our pets manifest the beauty of creation and the holy joys of lives wholeheartedly lived. Prepare your best Saint Valentine's Day cards for them, then: our pets are our sisters and our brothers, and they call us to be better people and better stewards of creation than we are now.

Winston sighs as he nestles at my feet while I write. He looks up at me with his harlequin face, half white and half black, the yen and the yang in fur and wrinkles and underbite. Theologically, I wish I had something "profound" with which to conclude this post. All I can manage is a cliché I cannot better no matter how I try. In my life, I only wish I could be half as good a person as my dog believes that I am. Happy Saint Valentine's Day, Winston, you soulful dog, to you all your kin!

winston in the snow