In a our present milieu where dogs are our darling pets, fed on choice delicacies, shampooed and bathed in fancy dog tubs, housed in designer kennels, and taken around for joy rides sometimes in flamboyant doggy clothes, canine fans may be puzzled by the derision dogs receive in the pages of the New and Old Testament. The contempt that dogs receive is quite real but not unique to the Bible. It is part of ancient Semitic thinking. The same is also found in the Arabic world. (The Quran for instance does not encourage the keeping of dogs as pets.) In the Arab and Semitic world, at best, dogs were used as workers, protecting herds as these peoples eked out a living.
More often however, both the New and the Old Testament associate dogs with ruin or evil:
- “Therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn to pieces in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs” (Ex:22:31).
- “The dogs will eat the flesh of Jezebel on the plot of Jesreel” (2 Kings 9:38).
- “For dogs have surrounded me. A company of evildoers have enclosed me” (Ps.22:16).
- “The sword to kill and the dogs to drag away” (Jer.15:3).
From the New Testament:
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- “Don’t give that which is holy to the dogs” (Mt.7:6).
- “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mk.7:27).
- “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision” (Phil.3:2).
- “Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone that practices falsehood” (Rev.22:15).
While taboos concerning other animals had health related justifications or ritualistic considerations concerning ideas of purity, dogs seem to have been singled out. But with Christianity this changes. There is the assumption that all creation is permeated by the presence of God and is for man to use and enjoy. As the Faith spread to Europe, it matured and the despised quadruped soon became a noble companion. In Christian art and hagiography dogs are in fact redeemed.
The Book of Tobit gives us the single instance in the entire Bible of someone having a dog for a purpose. The dog appears in Tobit twice accompanying Tobias, Tobit’s son, in chapters 6 and 11. The references have an unstudied casualness about them: “So they went on ahead, and Tobias’ dog ran along with them” (Tobit 11:4). The remark is neutral and does not laud or disparage the creature. The dog in Tobit found its expression in Christian art. Painters like Rembrandt and Titian did not forget Tobias’ dog nor did Rafael in his sculptures. There are likewise many stained glass windows where the dog of Tobit shares pride of place with the Archangel.
Many saints are portrayed having dogs as their companions including St. Patrick whose association with a canine is found in his saintly lore as well as art related to him.
Patrick was captured by Irish marauders and taken to Ireland where he was assigned tending of the sheep. With the help of his sheep dogs, he did his work so well that his master trusted him with his entire herd. Patrick at this time lead a solitary life and lore is that he started preaching Christian doctrine to the dogs in Celtic to sharpen his skills in the local language for his future preaching of the word of God among the Irish.
There is another incident involving dogs that is crucial to the mission of Patrick’s Christianization of the Irish. In 433 Pope Celestine I sent Patrick to Ireland with nine priests. When he started his mission, the local warlord Dichu, a pagan to the core, wanted to do away with the newly arrived missionaries. For this he would use the huge Irish Wolfhound, massive in strength and able to best a warrior with its powerful jaws. However, when the terrible beast was let loose on Patrick, he tackled the hound and was able to subdue it using skills presumably learned as a shepherd. It was an amazing feat that proved instrumental in laying the foundation of Irish Christianity. Dichu welcomed Patrick, allowing his missionary activities to proceed.
Saint Roch, who lived in the fourteenth-century, is considered the Patron Saint of dogs and those who care for them. His feast is observed on the 16th of August. The legend has it while he was in the desert he was miraculously fed by a dog with a loaf of bread. It is easy to spot St. Roch and his dog in Christian in art.
Another saint who is associated with dogs is St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297) who is often pictured with a dog tugging her by her skirt. The saint had a somewhat profligate life with a lover in the early part of her life. It is the death of her lover that sets her on a course of deep remorse and eventual conversion to more sober ways and finally to a life of exemplary piety. She comes to know the death of her lover from the hound that returns home without its master. The same hound takes her to the spot where her lover was murdered. Eventually the dog brings her to Church. In these events the dog is significant in her finding the path to sainthood.
Finally, in the life of Don Bosco, a dog named Grigio plays a crucial role. Bosco mainly worked for the children in the slums of Turin. Throughout his life, whenever his life was in danger Grigio comes from nowhere and rescues him. This happened so frequently that many hagiographers have raised the question whether it was merely a dog protecting the saint from danger or instead a messenger of God.
Dogs have assumed a place of pride as the most chosen of pets. The journey of the dog from derided beast to noble companion is a worthy meditation for Christians.