Every one of us whose life would be incomplete if it weren’t shared with a dog will feel young Owen Root’s grief.
Inconsolable after Kirby, his family’s black Lab, was euthanized, the boy stood, wiped his cheek, and left the vet’s office. Returning a moment later with a dog treat and a cup of water, he knelt beside the dog and placed the treat on his back. Then, dipping his finger in the water, Owen made the sign of the cross on his best friend’s forehead.
“I love you, Kirby. Good-bye,” he whispered, lifting his hands to heaven.
Witnessing his son’s sacramental act, one that felt “so appropriate,” theologian Andrew Root began asking himself whether there was something unique—something intentional and holy—about the role that dogs play in humans’ lives and, if so, whether that connection could endure even into eternity.
The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, a Black Lab, and a Father’s Search for the Canine Soul is his answer. Moving, funny, and life-affirming, it’s a quick read that says as much about dogs as it does about us.
Root—who teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota—spent three years researching his questions.
He talked with a dismissive colleague, who clapped him on the shoulder and said, “To believe a dog is spiritual is like trying to argue that cats are NASCAR fans.” He studied the claims of René Descartes, who argued that the soul is shaped by the conscious ability to reason and therefore assumed that animals are soulless. Root also recognized the flaws in the theory of behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who argued that behavior is determined by its consequences, whether they’re reinforcements or punishments.
Instead, Root started to find the answers he sought in writings by social theorist Robert Neelly Bellah—who proposed that empathy, bonding, and play are the foundations for spiritual encounters. Root notes that all three connect humans and dogs. An essay by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer further clarified the connection.
One day, a boy about Owen’s age came to see Bonhoeffer. He was in tears because his beloved German shepherd had died, and he wanted to know if he’d see Mr. Wolf in heaven. Humbled by the boy’s love for his dog, Bonhoeffer told him, “Well, we know you loved Mr. Wolf, and we know that God loves you. And we know that God loves all the animals.”
So yes, Bonhoeffer said, he believed that the boy would see Mr. Wolf in heaven, because “God loses nothing that God loves.”
Owen had asked his father the same thing, and if a reader were to ask, too, Root writes, this is what he would say: “‘No one knows for sure,’ I’d tell you. ‘But I’ve studied this, and I think so. … The grace of God is echoed by the grace of dogs. And grace is eternal.'”