As we approach Thanksgiving, I am reminded of the old gospel song that says, “Every day is a day of thanksgiving!”, so today I want to give thanks to God for what I have learned from my dog Niko. I can’t believe that I’m actually writing this—the dean of Duke University Chapel is reflecting on not some theological or religious treatise but instead his dog!
My seven-year-old, nine-pound Shih Tzu, Niko, came into my family’s life seven years ago. My son really wanted a dog, and maybe deep down I did too. I grew up with cats, so a dog was a new creature for me to have in my home, but through having Niko I’ve learned a lot—or at least been reminded of some important lessons.
First, I walk Niko every morning. And of course, I have a little bag with me. I use it to clean up after him. When I bend down, I’m reminded that life is full of experiences of cleaning up messes. I also am reminded—as I bend down as the “clean-up crew” and touch the ground—that I’m from the ground, the earth, as a human being. It reminds me to stay humble and not celebrate hubris. Thank you, Niko, for reminding me of the path of humility.
Second, it seems as if Niko always wants to play. Often, when I arrive home, he runs feverishly to grab a toy and brings it to me in order to play. He doesn’t care what kind of day I’ve had or what emails I need to send. Niko just wants to have fun! His behavior tells me not to be so serious all the time. He reveals that there is always a time to delight in life and in one another. There is a time to mourn, but Niko surely teaches that there is also a time to celebrate, dance, jump, and laugh. Thank you, Niko, for reminding me of the importance of play.
Third, little Niko shows me unconditional love. He gives the best and wildest joyous greetings when I arrive home every day. He puts his paws on my leg as I bend over to pet him, and sometimes, he just wants to lick me lovingly. There are also moments when I’m sitting at my home office desk and he comes right up to my chair to sit beside me; recently, I’ve seen him lying there even if I’m not sitting there. Even when I broke my leg and was using a walker, there was Niko following my every move as if he were protecting me from falling. He’s a faithful companion, and I am reminded through him that we all want to be loved and love. Thank you, Niko, for reminding me about unconditional love.
Many of my moments with Niko have been sweet or playful, but I have also witnessed how dogs can be practical, even essential for people.
I once taught a seminary student named Laura who came to class with a seeing-eye dog named Jira. Laura was not born blind but due to a degenerative condition, she gradually lost her eyesight. When she reached the point where she couldn’t really see on her own, her family decided it was time to get a guide dog. When they went to pick up the new dog, Laura kneeled down to meet Jira. When Jira reached her, this dog began to lick Laura’s eyes as if to say, “I’m going to be your eyes.” Jira knew exactly what Laura needed. Thank God for Jira.
Creatures like Jira and Niko teach us unknowingly if we are observant students. Like Sojourner Truth who purportedly said that she didn’t read such small things like letters but rather read nations, we can read more than books. We can read people and situations and the environment and animals. What can creatures teach you about life?
For me, when I walk outside with Niko I am reminded of our call to care for the whole creation, but I’m also realizing how the created order (including dogs) is a part of divine care for me.
The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.