Still Man’s Best Friend
In answer to God’s call to subdue creation: Get a dog.
John Steinbeck’s success writing Dust Bowl fiction and California novels eventually drew the author out east. While living in New York, he continued writing his famous stories about life out west—the settler spirit and the culmination of manifest destiny that was California. Before he knew it, twenty-five years had gone by.
“I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers,” Steinbeck wrote. “In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal.”
So, Steinbeck set off “to try to rediscover this monster land,” in a large, modified truck with a cabin on the back. He brought one companion with him: his dog, a French poodle named Charley. The product of their grand adventure, a 10,000 mile road trip through thirty-eight states, became Steinbeck’s 1962 work, Travels with Charley.
We had to put our family dog down this week. He was a giant Siberian Husky with a stunning red coat and piercing ice blue eyes named Kona. He was the most beautiful dog I’d ever seen.
Kona came to us as a rescue. For the first two years of Kona’s life, his previous owners kept him in a small cement dog run and fed him through a metal slat built into the side of his cage on account of the fact that they believed he was part wolf. We never fully confirmed this was the case, but with Kona’s size, especially his massive head—his muzzle length, the shape of his ears—as well as his giant paws, nearly as big as the palms of my hands, we couldn’t rule it out.
If he had wolf blood coursing through his veins, his temperment never showed it. When my mom and I went to meet Kona for the first time to consider adopting him, I took him for a short walk. He didn’t pull, he stayed right on my heels, looking up at me the entire time with a giant, goofy grin plastered across his giant face as tongue hung out of the side of his mouth. Afterwards, we sat down in the grass. As I petted him, he slowly inched closer to me, eventually putting his massive head in my lap. He was my dog from that moment on.
The next ten years were spent doing exactly what we did on the first day we met. They went by too fast, I’m afraid. Between heading to college and starting off on my own on the opposite coast, I wasn’t there as much as I would have liked. Over the years, nothing made me more homesick than the thought of enjoying family dinners with Kona curled up at my feet.
We love our dogs, and rightfully so. But with the rise of the “dog mom,” conservatives have taken up saying that, sometimes, we love our dogs in the wrong way.
A recent Pew Research study found that of the 62 percent of Americans surveyed that do own a pet, a majority (51 percent) consider their pets equal to human members of their family. Another recent study conducted by Rover, an application-based dog walking and dog sitting network service, found that 22 percent of millennials and 23 percent of Gen Z pet owners have substituted pets for children for the time being or permanently. The pet food brand, I and Love and You, commissioned a similar study in 2021 and found that 42 percent of pet owners surveyed said they bought their pet as a “starter child.” They treat them accordingly: 29 percent throw their pets birthday parties, 24 percent dress themselves and their pets in matching outfits, and 41 percent have celebrated Mother’s or Father’s Day as pet owners.
“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Fido in the baby carriage,” TAC Contributing Editor Matthew Schmitz wrote in First Things back in 2017, justifiably mocking this phenomenon.
Even Pope Francis has weighed in on this curiosity on multiple occasions, most recently in early 2022. “We see that people do not want to have children, or just one and no more. And many, many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one—but they have two dogs, two cats…. Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children,” the pope declared. “And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity. And in this way civilization becomes aged and without humanity, because it loses the richness of fatherhood and motherhood. And our homeland suffers, as it does not have children.”
I don’t think Schmitz, Pope Francis, or anyone else writing against the dog mom cult are saying you shouldn’t get a dog. And you absolutely should. For adults and children alike, owning a dog provides a deeper understanding of God’s first commandment of man: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Justly subdue your dog. Engage in the process that is subduing nature and become its master. Mastering your dog is also an exercise in self-mastery. Training your dog takes patience and repetition. It teaches self-discipline and develops sound judgment in the discipline of others, animal or human. Punish them too harshly, and the dog will shy away from all instruction. Punish them too leniently, or reward bad behavior, and you breed chaos.
I was an underclassman in high school when we got Kona. We had previously owned one other dog, also a Siberian Husky, but I was mostly too young to participate in training her. Training Kona was the first time I engaged in this process with a dog that was truly mine. With the help of a trainer, my Mom and I slowly, over many months, domesticated a dog that had previously known only mealtime and the rules he made for himself in his small domain surrounded by a chain-link fence. We taught him the necessary behaviors: we housebroke him; kennel trained him; taught him to not crash doors that remained open, to sit, to lay down, to stay. And we taught him some unnecessary ones: shake, jump, howl, spin, and dance. All virtue is habituated in man, but also his best friend.
If you have a good dog, it will reveal to you something else. Your mastery over its nature is never complete. Your dog would cease to be a dog if it didn’t occasionally mistake your rug for its bathroom, eat something it shouldn’t, break out of the house, or chew something up.
Siberian Huskies are working dogs. They require long walks or plenty of other kinds of physical activity. They are also more pack oriented than other dog species. Anyone who has seen mushing knows Huskies like to work in teams. Kona was no different. My mom is an avid walker and was his main source of exercise—with or without Kona, she will keep getting her 10,000 steps a day. And though it started out awkwardly given his previously solitary lifestyle, Kona loved going to this local doggy daycare that allowed him to socialize with other dogs.
If we failed to give Kona the exercise and socialization he required, he wasn’t shy about letting us know. One time, after failing to walk Kona for two days or so, Kona snuck into my room and partially chewed up my favorite Angels’ ball cap and a few tchotchkes within his reach. (I still wear that hat, by the way—he chewed the left part of the brim as if he was purposefully making it appear worn). He’d express his occasional displeasure in other ways, too. One of his favorite ways to say, “take me for a walk,” was walking into the room where either my mom or I was, looking us dead in the eye, and just peeing on the floor—tile, carpet, rug, it didn’t matter to him.
We can subdue nature, but never fully overcome it. That is true whether we’re talking about flora and fauna, the climate and natural disasters, or our own human nature. Our mastery over nature will always be incomplete. Complete mastery of nature is reserved for its creator and abiding source: God.
Properly loving our pets makes us more fully human. The development of animal cruelty laws in the West, primarily in the British common law through the late 18th and early 19th centuries, often suggested crimes against animals were crimes against humanity, not because animals are human, but because it diminished one’s own humanity.
Owning a dog doesn’t teach us about being more fully human because, as the dog moms might say, they are like us, are “starter children,” or are equal to human members of our family. Instead, they teach us the distinction between man and beast. That man justly has authority over beasts, but when man claims authority over other men, a heightened, more attuned sense of justice is required than repetition and force—justice based on reason, and a shared sense of reason for that matter.
Our pets also teach us about death, though theirs are different from ours. We can’t keep what we master forever, our beasts or ourselves—no act of will can change nature’s final act. It is a fallen reality, but reality nonetheless, one with grieving and then accepting.
Get a dog (maybe two). Get a dog before your kids start begging for one. Treat it well, love it properly, and, yes, let it become part of your family life. Become its master and let mastering it help you master yourself. Grieve when your dog dies, but know that when your death comes, it can be the door to life eternal.