The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, a Black Lab, and a Father's Search for the Canine Soul

The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, a Black Lab, and a Father's Search for the Canine Soul

by Andrew Root


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In the bestselling tradition of Inside of a Dog and Marley & Me, a smart, illuminating, and entertaining read on why the dog-human relationship is unique--and possibly even "spiritual."
Dr. Andrew Root's search for the canine soul began the day his eight-year-old son led the family in a moving Christian ritual at the burial service for Kirby, their beloved black lab. In the coming weeks, Root found himself wondering: What was this thing we'd experienced with this animal? Why did the loss hurt so poignantly? Why did his son's act seem so right in its sacramental feel?
In The Grace of Dogs, Root draws on biology, history, theology, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds), and paleontology to trace how in our mutual evolution, humans and dogs have so often helped each other to become more fully ourselves. Root explores questions like: Do dogs have souls? Is it accurate to say that dogs "love" us? What do psychology and physiology say about why we react to dogs in the way that we do? The Grace of Dogs paints a vivid picture of how, beyond sentimentality, the dog-human connection can legitimately be described as "spiritual"--as existing not for the sake of gain, but for the unselfish desire to be with and for the other, and to remind us that we are persons worthy of love and able to share love. In this book for any parent whose kids have asked if they'll see Fido in Heaven, or who has looked their beloved dog in the face and wondered what's going on in there, Dr. Root delivers an illuminating and heartfelt read that will change how we understand man's best friend.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451497611
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 334,541
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Andrew Root, PhD, is a professor at Luther Seminary whose research explores our most common lived experiences for their theological and even transcendent depth.  A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Root is often mentioned as one of the leading scholars in youth ministry and practical theology in the world. His 2011 book, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, was awarded Book of Merit by Christianity Today in 2012. Known for an engaging presentation style that laces together stories, theological depth, and humor, Root is a sought after speaker at conferences, colleges, and churches around the country.  His latest endeavor includes being the principal leader for 1.2 million dollar John Templeton Foundation grant called "Science for Youth Ministry."

Read an Excerpt


Kirby Leaves

One afternoon in late July 2013, just weeks after his eleventh birthday, our black Lab, Kirby, wouldn’t move. All afternoon, he lay at the foot of the stairs with a pained, heavy look in his eye. That night, for the first time in family memory, he failed to make it to my son, Owen’s, room to sleep beside him. Instead, Kirby stayed on the cool bathroom floor, a place he rarely went, let alone slept.

Kirby’s intermittent bad days had started nearly a year earlier, when he struggled to make it up the stairs or couldn’t summon the energy to chase tennis balls. Yet, every time before, after a day or two of exhaustion, he’d always rally enough to resume playing in the yard with our kids, then eight-year-old Owen and five-year-old Maisy. So, on this day in July, confident that Kirby’s illness was temporary, my wife, Kara, decided to take him to the vet for his next exam.

Something was wrong, though. Kara labored mightily to get our slow, reluctant Lab into and out of the car. Kirby, never the kind of dog to voice displeasure, growled, groaned, and pulled on the leash before finally consenting.

At the vet’s office, Kara heard the words we had dreaded ever since we first fell in love with Kirby’s floppy black ears. The vet had found a large mass in Kirby’s stomach; our dog was in terrible pain, and the end was here. The vet said he shouldn’t even be moved again. Kara’s anguish bled into her voice when she called to tell me. She was coming to pick up me and the kids so we could all be with Kirby one last time.

When the four of us arrived back at the vet’s office, Kirby was lying inert on the sterile linoleum floor, his chest moving in ragged bursts. Each shallow breath was work. Owen and Maisy threw themselves onto him, wailing. Kirby mustered just enough energy to raise his chin and gently lick Maisy’s nose. Owen hugged Kirby’s neck, screaming his grief like a mother who had just lost her son--“No! No! No!”

The vet entered and knelt next to Kirby, holding a syringe loaded with a medicine that would take away his pain but also his life. Owen stayed put at Kirby’s side; he refused to allow his friend to depart alone. As the vet gently inserted the needle into a spot she had shaved on Kirby’s back leg, Owen announced to the room, and perhaps to the universe, “My face will be the last thing Kirby sees.”

Owen rested his nose against Kirby’s, locking eyes, and I watched my son as the light in his dog’s eyes went dim. All the while, Owen kept his arms around his pal’s head, his tears wetting the muzzle of the dead dog. I couldn’t take it. I took Maisy by the hand and left the room. I had known sadness would come, but I was surprised to feel a rush of anger at the thought that Kirby would never return. I headed outdoors with my daughter to feel the grass under my feet. 

I’ll never forget Kirby’s death, but what I remember most about that day is what happened afterward, in that same room, between the boy and his departed dog. When Maisy and I came back inside, Kara was sitting with Owen while he petted and embraced Kirby and continued to cry. Owen knew that his best friend was gone, but he wasn’t ready to say good-bye. I watched as he quieted, stood, wiped his cheeks, and said to his mom, “I will be right back.”

Owen walked out to the lobby and returned with a dog treat and a paper cup he’d filled with water. Silently and purposefully, he knelt before Kirby’s body, placed the tiny dog bone on Kirby’s back, and, dipping his finger in the water, reverently made the sign of the cross on Kirby’s forehead. Then he lifted his hands to heaven like a priest at the altar, looked up, and whispered, “I love you, Kirby. Good-bye.”

That’s the image I can’t shake.



The Origins of Kirby

Kirby is, to date, the most outrageous impulse buy of my life. I’m not tempted by shiny new gadgets or even those candy bars that line the checkout counter at the grocery store. But this was different.

It was the summer of 2002, and Kara and I had recently moved from Los Angeles to Princeton, New Jersey. We’d left behind the jammed freeways and entertainment industry vibe of LA for Princeton’s Colonial buildings and dense air of academic importance. I had survived my introduction to Princeton Seminary’s PhD program, slogging through a grueling summer session of German.

Both Kara and I grew up in suburbs of the Twin Cities, thirty minutes away from each other, but we met in grad school in Southern California. It was the late nineties. I wore mainly windpants and backward baseball caps and spent my spare time watching college hockey. Kara, with her long, dark, curly hair and combat boots, was sometimes mistaken for Alanis Morissette, and she preferred run-down coffee shops to ESPN. After months of being “safe” friends with nothing in common, a summer of Intensive Biblical Greek and awkward study sessions (that is, make-out sessions) led to us dating. A few months later, we were engaged.

Both of us had grown up with hunting dogs. Kara’s was a black Lab named Mitzie who actually hunted, while mine, a Brittany spaniel named Katie, lay on the bed all day and would run away when anyone opened the front door. As our marriage began, in student housing and tiny Pasadena apartments, having a pet was not on our minds. Our life was transitional, and we never knew what would come next.

As the nineties gave way to a new century, clarity began to emerge in the form of acceptance and rejection letters, and soon we were packing a U-Haul for the East Coast. In retrospect, we’d always kind of known we would get a dog; we just didn’t know when.

Or that it would arrive with ice cream.

One Friday evening, just before the start of fall term, we found ourselves in need of milk. So we headed off to Halo Farm, just outside Trenton, which we’d discovered had cheap, fresh milk and the bonus of amazing homemade ice cream. In the short time we’d lived in Princeton, the weekly trip to Halo Farm had become part of our routine. And on every trip, we’d noticed the sign by the side of the road: PetWorld.

The last thing we needed during this season of our lives was a furry animal taking up room in our one-bedroom apartment. For some reason, though, this time around the pull was too strong. On the way home, with the floor of the car filled with cartons of milk and double chocolate ice cream, we pulled in.

“Let’s just pop in for a look,” we said, “just to see the puppies.” Maybe we’d pet one or two. Maybe we’d ask the attendant about Labradors--we’d always wanted a Labrador--but only to get some information for the future. After all, we weren’t the kind of people who’d buy a dog at a pet store. We would do our homework and support a local breeder, and only when the time was right.

At the back of the store was a cage holding a small black puppy. We peered inside at the naked pink belly of a sleeping little Lab who was panting like a fat man on a long run. I’ve seen dogs “hunt” in their sleep before--the quivering legs, the whimpering, the occasional sleep bark--but from the looks of it, this tiny guy was working an entire field filled with tennis balls or squirrels or whatever prey he had in his seven-week-old imagination. He looked exhausted, and he hadn’t even woken up!

As we stood watching his tiny chest rise and fall with the rhythm of a bouncing basketball, the clerk asked if we wanted to hold him. The correct answer would have been “No, thank you. We have milk and double chocolate ice cream in the car, and we need to get home.” Yet somewhere between my brain and mouth, those words turned into “That’d be great!”

Fifteen minutes later, the back of our little Honda Civic was packed with bags of dog food, a kennel, and toys. An eight-pound puppy curled up nervously on Kara’s lap. As if we needed any more proof that this was a major impulse buy, the ice cream sitting on the floor of the car hadn’t even begun to melt.

We debated long and hard what to name him, this overwhelming, excitable black Lab who had burrowed so suddenly into our home and hearts. The other theology nerds at Princeton had dogs named after theologians. There was a Scottie named Schleiermacher, a spaniel mix named Augustine, and a handful of “Calvins” of all shapes and sizes. So I decided to buck the trend and return to my youth for a name: Kirby Puckett, the Minnesota Twins centerfielder who won six Gold Gloves and two World Championships. For me, as a Minnesota boy who grew up in the eighties and early nineties, there was no name more revered than Kirby. It was perfect.

From the beginning, Kirby the dog was a ball-catching sensation, just like his namesake. He became one of the fastest fetchers in the neighborhood, known for being able to catch a tennis ball in his mouth, no matter how hard it was thrown, without flinching. In the winter, little kids would line up to throw snowballs at his face, knowing he’d snatch every one of them. Kirby spent most of his life carrying around a yellow tennis ball, shifting it from one jowl to the other, leaving his big pink tongue hanging in the fresh air.

After only a few short months, it was hard to imagine there had ever been a Kara and me without a Kirby. He had become part of us, and our lives took on a whole new shape with the added joy of his participation. It’s strange to say this now as a parent of two kids, but in a very real sense, it was Kirby who first turned us into a family.


A Mind of His Own

When Kirby was eight months old, I decided it was time to start taking him with me on runs. I had always wanted a dog I could jog with, and Kirby was now big and strong enough to be my partner in exercise. Since he could never get enough of playing outside, I figured he would enjoy working out his puppy energy by galloping for miles alongside his owner.

So one morning I laced up my running shoes, grabbed the leash, and said, “Kirby, you want to go for a run?” Naturally the answer was yes. We took off in our usual direction for walks, toward the field where we always played fetch. Kirby ran happily beside me. It was just as I’d always imagined: me jogging with my loyal dog at my heel, his quiet presence and companionship fueling me as the blocks turned into miles.

It didn’t last long. Within yards of passing the field where we normally stopped to play, Kirby threw on the brakes. The leash jerked in my hands, and I turned to see him sitting down, looking over his shoulder at the field. I could see what he was thinking, “What is this? I don’t run for running’s sake. Are you crazy? I run only if there’s a ball involved!”

I pleaded with Kirby to continue, but he would have none of it. He plopped down flat on the sidewalk, the better to anchor himself, again looking over his shoulder at the field and then back at me. In the end, he won. My only recourse was to go back home.

The next morning, I had a new plan. I convinced Kara to run with me, figuring that if she ran just a few feet ahead of us, Kirby would see our jogging as a game of chase and go the couple miles I wanted him to. But again, he was having none of it. A block or two in, he lay down just like before.

The next morning, we tried again, this time with treats! No luck.

The following morning, we did it with Kara holding a tennis ball. Nope.

No matter what we tried, he’d get as far as the field, lie down, and refuse to budge. We even tried carrying him past the field, thinking once he’d passed it he’d forget about play and join the super fun jog! Kirby wasn’t fooled for a second.

It was absurd, but Kirby didn’t care. He had his own opinions and his own intentions. Just because I wanted my dog to jog didn’t mean my dog was going to jog. Kirby wasn’t being lazy. He was telling me that if I wanted to be a pet owner, I’d have to accept that he was his own man.


A Kid’s Best Friend

Kirby was two years old when Owen was born. Hours after our son pushed his way into the world, filling our hearts to overflowing with love, I returned to our apartment. I felt this odd need to tell Kirby what had happened, to pull him into this moment of wonder. He was our family, after all.

Kara and I had read in some baby book that before bringing the baby home from the hospital, dog owners should introduce their dog to an article of the new baby’s clothing; the dog will sniff the scent of the newborn and prepare for its entrance into his space. As an obedient new father, I took home the little hat Owen wore in the first hours of his life and held it next to Kirby’s nose. Yet there was no epiphany. He stopped and sniffed for a good twenty seconds, then raced off to find a tennis ball for me to throw. There was no sense that he understood the amazing event that had just happened to us, and I knew no other way to communicate it to him.

Even when Owen came home, Kirby seemed to pay him no mind. There were a few moments when he got a little insistent that we put down this smelly, noisy thing that was taking up our attention and throw him the darn tennis ball already. For the most part, though, Kirby seemed to treat Owen like another piece of furniture.

All that changed when we gave squirming Owen a bath after dinner. All of a sudden, Kirby was transfixed. He sat next to the tub, tennis ball in mouth of course, observing Owen and trying to make sense of why this little piece of furniture was now wiggling. Then there was the water. Kirby liked to drop his tennis ball in the tub, bob it with his paw, then snatch it out like a freshly caught fish, ignoring the baby who shared this particular pond.

Table of Contents

1 Kirby Leaves 9

2 The Origins of Kirby 12

3 Bound by Spiritual Ties 24

4 Mindless, Furry Machines 30

5 It Happens Only Face-to-Face 39

6 Window to the Soul 52

7 The Surprising Power of Canine Compassion 58

8 Bonding Fever 77

9 Doggy Play as Soul Talk 89

10 A Healing Presence 100

11 Could It Be Love They're Feeling? 108

12 Bobby and the "Righteous" Dogs of Egypt 117

13 A Story from the Cave of Dreams 123

14 The Grace of Dogs 136

15 Khaleesi Arrives 141

Acknowledgments 147

Appendix: "Do Dogs Co to Heaven?" and Other Questions 150

Notes 157

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The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, a Black Lab, and a Father's Search for the Canine Soul 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Reancont More than 1 year ago
Content centered on the heart, sincere and genuine search! I have thoroughly enjoyed this book, I have read it with much interest because of the strong bond I have had with my dogs throughout my life. The book deals with the subject in a very interesting way, on the one hand looking for rational or scientific arguments, and on the other honoring the possibility of a spiritual connection between dogs and humans. The author weaves the dilemma in a very interesting and illuminating way, with his scientific, philosophical and theological research. In my opinion the most interesting turning point is that the author shares the family pain of losing his dog and seeks a transcendent explanation since many humans are experiencing something special in the link with our dogs. For centuries culture has favored the objective way of thinking and devalued our intuitive perception and emotional wisdom, but fortunately we are entering into a more holistic and integral paradigm. Emotions help us to give meaning to our experience of life, make reality come to life in our inner reality. I read somewhere: "The most self-aware people are deep feelers". My gratitude to the Publisher and NetGalley for allowing me to review the book