My father always said he wanted to come back to life as a dog in a Jewish home. No one, he said, gets treated better. He wasn’t kidding.
Growing up my siblings and I constantly begged for a pet dog. My mother was allergic – or at least that was the excuse for years. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t. I’m not sure what prompted the change, but lo and behold one day we had a puppy, a beautiful grey miniature schnauzer who immediately became my mother’s constant companion. The dog would follow her around all day, curling up against her in bed at night. My mother didn’t seem to mind.
In fact, it wasn’t long before we had a second miniature schnauzer in our house.
My father was thrilled. He grew up with a pet dog and was happy to have one (or two!) again. But gone were the days of keeping the dog outside, or even off the couch (or out of the bed). My father watched my mother treat those dogs like little princesses.
Now, I’m not just talking dog beds and chew toys. I distinctly remember my mother venturing out into a virtual blizzard to barbecue beef ribs for the dogs. My brother came home from school looking for a snack and was severely admonished for trying to take a bite out of one of the dog’s ribs. We got broiled hamburgers instead.
My father knew what he was talking about.
Jews and dogs have a complicated relationship. While the Torah does not expressly prohibit the keeping of dogs as pets, biblical and rabbinic sources do include numerous references that associate dogs with violence and uncleanliness and frown on the practice of keeping them in one’s home. But really, it could be argued that caring for a dog is, in fact, a very Jewish thing to do. Dogs require daily feeding, exercise and grooming. Taking on that responsibility is compassionate – a pretty ‘mensch-y’ thing to do. After all, that dog is never going to feed you or clean up after you. But if you need to vent about something or someone, a dog will never judge you.
My father knew all this, and maybe that’s why he felt like he wanted to come back as a dog in a Jewish house. And maybe that’s also why, since his passing some 26 years ago, I have always had a dog in my house.
My husband and I got our first dog right after we got back from our honeymoon. Roxy was a gorgeous golden retriever with a wonderful temperament and uncanny ability to hold her head underwater for seemingly impossible lengths of time.
When we had kids, rather than feeling threatened by them, Roxy felt protective of them. From day one she would guard our babies like her own, always placing herself between the kids and any strangers. She was gentle with them, letting them pull her hair, bop her in the nose or tug at her tail with only a sideways glance thrown at me or my husband, as if to say, “You see how much I love them?”
One day my son was swimming in the lake and got a cramp. He looked a little distressed. Before my husband and I could even react, Roxy was in the water, offering her tail and towing him back to shore.
When Roxy’s time finally came it was tough. The kids were upset and crying, as were we, but we all learned how to cope during the bereavement process (another very Jewish thing, by the way). We made a donation, buried her in her favourite place (the cottage) and even recited a special prayer our rabbi gave us for the occasion.
Not long after we got another dog. Isabel (Izzy) is an adorable chocolate labradoodle who filled the void in our home quite easily. Izzy is a people dog – while she loves to play with other dogs, she needs to make every human she meets fall in love with her too. Often I would find my daughter curled up next to Izzy when she needed some emotional comforting. Or I would give my son the time he needed to de-stress by making him take the dog for a walk around the block.
Now I am not saying that my father keeps coming back to me in the form of a dog. However, every time I am on the receiving end of my dogs’ unconditional love, or am comforted by letting my dog sleep on the bed, I think about my father and his wish. Maybe I am honouring him by spoiling the four-legged “children” I bring into my home, or maybe I choose a dog to remind me of all the wonderful feelings a good parent should evoke in their child. Either way, it makes me happy to remember my father’s love in this way.
And I’m not alone. All of my siblings have dogs too.