Compassion, or Unconditional Love

Posted on February 17, 2021


This column started out in the bathing area of a local pet shop. For ten bucks (plus tax) you get access to a huge tub, shampoo, warm water, a waterproof apron, and as much time as you need with your dog to give him a great bath. There’s a warm air dryer with a long enough hose to get around even big dogs, like our Standard Poodles, and a few weeks ago an old Greyhound in the stall next to mine.

The couple bathing their rescue Greyhound were not your typical SPCA do-gooders from the upper middle class, kind of a cross between a Junior Leaguer with a preppy husband by her side.

The two gently bathing the Greyhound they had just rescued that day in Birmingham looked more like a Harley biker and his wide wife, both complete with tats and body rings.

The Greyhound was a study in contrast, thin and I suspect if not abused at the track, probably exploited for all the poor old dog was worth. Now he was under the hose, suds upped as his loving new master and mistress washed or pulled off ticks, fleas and the grime of probably having been in a kennel and generally ignored for day or weeks.

Why was I amazed at their gentleness as I peeked over their way occasionally while I grappled with Miller my reluctant Poodle who resisted water and soap in his face. But he was a good soldier, submitting to the discipline and cleanliness imposed on him by his masters. My wife Louise was waiting her turn with Dudley, our other Poodle.

But the rough looking couple bathing their rescue Greyhound with love and compassion got me to thinking.

Why are animals, especially dogs, so comforting? And, just as important, why can’t we have the same feelings towards other people?

Let me see if I can explain.

I heard a story awhile back.

“Well, Sally, what do you want in a husband?” her friend Molly asked, thinking Sally was being just far too unrealistic.

“I want someone who is loyal, stands by me all the time, faithful in all ways, loves me unconditionally, and….”

“Wait, wait,” Molly interrupted. “You want a dog not a husband.”

I chuckled when I heard it, but it was a chuckle born from hearing a nugget of truth in the imagined exchange.

The follow up was something like this.

“Want to know who really loves you? Put your wife and your dog in the trunk of the car for an hour and see how each greets you when you open the trunk.”

Again, perhaps a bit silly, but there’s some truth to the matter. No doubt the wife would have some reason to be upset, but the dog will wag her tail and maybe lick your face when she sees you.

So, why are animals—and we are writing of dogs here, not all animals—so comforting? Why can’t we expect the same from people- love, and unconditional love–no matter what you do to them? Is there some comparable situation in the natural or spiritual world which these mirror?

Who gives you—through his Grace—unconditional love that is given without anything you have done to earn it? Why can’t we trust people with the same confidence that we trust in God’s love that covers all sin?

I know Christians will be clucking their tongues right now. What about repentance, forgiveness, man’s depraved nature, and a host of other theological issues and principles at stake.

But the nature of dogs to give freely of their love and affection and trust is remarkable. However, right now, some of you are thinking, “well, I know of some bad dogs, you just can’t trust them, etc.”

Or, Clayton’s lost it this time while others may be smirking. He’s probably already preparing a teaching on God is a good dog.

But hang in with me. We are dealing in generalities, not specifics.

Let’s return to the Harley biker, his partner and their newly acquired Greyhound. Those tough people were transformed by their love for the dog, and I am suspecting it was reciprocated once the dog put his trust in them.

Why do we use dogs as service animals and bring them into hospitals and old folks’ homes and jails and prisons, and virtually everybody has a side of compassion that rises up from deep within them? They pet the dogs. The dogs warm to them. And some bond is formed, sometimes just temporarily, but, with more visits, sometimes it goes deeper and has a transforming influence on people.

When the world has failed them, or circumstances have hurt them, and they are lost, or mad, or just tired from age (as someone now collecting social security for about ten years I qualify in that category), they put their hands on the dogs and the dogs trust them and through their eyes, and tails, and licks let the people know that they too are loved.

Something inside of all of us responds to unconditional love. It is a reflex that I think God has gifted all of us with and it is wonderful to see and experience.

Published as “Dogs offer life lessons in giving unconditional love,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Feb. 14, 2021