Do Dogs Go to Heaven?
Jack-the-Dog had a knack for being everywhere you didn’t want him to be: Stretched out on the bath mat as you stepped out of the shower. Under the table at mealtime waiting for a baby to get careless with her food—or an adult (usually me) to sneak him a handout. Standing sentry at the front door and sounding the alarm with a bark like a rifle shot.
That bark was an issue. The mailman would set it off, as would any visitor. It would rattle your nervous system. We tried everything: threats, bribes, “timeouts” in his crate. This dog was uneducable. Sometimes a neighbor walking down the street was enough. Or he’d wait until you were on an important phone call, say a telephone interview. Radio listeners across this country have heard that dog.
He even barked at family members, at least until we were inside the house. Then he’d lick your face, jump up and down like a pogo stick, race around the living room. I miss that reaction. I even miss the bark. I walk around the house listening for it. But since Wednesday it’s been quiet here, too quiet.
In 2008, when Jack-the-Dog was young, I was at Saddleback Church when Barack Obama replied to Rick Warren’s query about when human life begins by saying that answering with specificity was “above my pay grade.” Pastor Rick was disappointed in that answer, but these issues are difficult. So are end-of-life questions. That summer, while Rick and I had lunch on a patio outside his office, we discussed who went to heaven, and why. I even asked Rick about dogs. He laughed the laugh of a dog lover. There was no verse in Scripture saying they don’t, he told me, and that was good enough for him.
Jake Tapper, then with ABC, asked Rick the same question a couple of years ago, and got a priceless reply. “I’ve been asked that 100 times,” he said. “Absolutely, yes. I can't imagine God not allowing my dog into heaven.”
How about cats? Jake asked. “Sure,” Rick replied. “Why not?”
Atheists thought the TV newsman made the evangelical preacher look ridiculous. I thought Rick dodged a dialectical bullet. And because Jack-the-Dog owed his adoption into our family to a Manx cat, I was glad to hear the second part of his answer. That cat’s name was Maxito, and he and Jack became buddies. Cats and dogs; Republicans and Democrats. As Rick Warren would say, “Why not?”
While we’re being ecumenical, I’d point out that the question of pets in heaven does not divide Protestant and Catholic theologians. Notwithstanding the recently invented news stories about Pope Francis comforting a little boy by telling him his dog would go to heaven, a previous pope, John Paul II, did say 25 years ago that “animals too have a breath or vital spirit received from God.”
It’s a nice thought, and in the case of Jack, it was easy for me to credit because an angel helped us get that dog. I’ll explain, but first, a word about his name. We called him Jack-the-Dog because I have a brother named Jack, whose permission we needed when this animal came into our lives. Abandoned as a puppy in Spotsylvania County, Va., he was named “Jack” by the volunteers at Lost Dog & Cat Foundation, presumably because he was half-Jack Russell terrier. My daughter Grace, then 10, the puppy’s official owner, telephoned her uncle and left a voice mail sweetly asking permission to keep the name. My brother called back, identifying himself as “Jack-the-Person,” which is all we needed to hear.
I had been resistant to Grace getting a dog because her already out-of-college older brother was temporarily stowing a cat—along with himself—in our basement. One day I realized this was a dumb reason to deny a 10-year-old a dog, but by the time we arrived at the Lost Dog adoption event, the dog she had picked out with her mother was gone. Jack was there, though, doing cute puppy things. We were hooked. My future son-in-law spoke for us all the first time he laid eyes on Jack. “I love you already,” he said.
Adopting a dog these days entails more than good intention. You have to pay for their vaccinations, fill out forms, and answer written and oral questions. We were led through the first part of this process by a woman who materialized out of nowhere. She had dark hair, worn in a bun, kind eyes, and a flowing summer dress. I didn’t catch her name.
She asked us, will this dog be alone during the day? No, I lied, I work at home. Will you walk him every day? Do you have a cat at home? I’d have fibbed at this one, too, but Grace gave us away, necessitating a stroll through the PetSmart cat section. Apparently they don’t want the dogs they’re adopting out mauling cats. Anyway, I held Jack tightly, warning him not to growl, bark, or even look sideways at the felines. As best I recall, it was the only time in the 10 years of our association that he did what I told him.
After we wrote checks and filled out the paperwork, we went to thank the nice lady, but couldn’t find her. We asked the Lost Dog people. There’s no one like that here, they said. We described her vividly. Our description was met with blank stares. We looked around, but she’d disappeared. Driving with Jack in Gracie’s lap, it hit all three of us at once. The kind lady who had vanished into thin air was an angel. She made sure that dog went home with us.
He wouldn’t fetch or come when you called him, didn’t really like to be petted all that much, and thought dogs who routinely chased tennis balls were chumps. But he was an athletic fellow who’d let you chase him with a toy in his mouth—good luck catching him—play tug-of-war, or lead you on as long a walk as you cared to take. I brought him with me fly-fishing a couple of times, but he didn’t get the part about staying quiet.
I also took him surfing once, and though he was steady enough on the board, when he drank seawater he blamed me for its terrible taste and wouldn’t go back in the waves. For a time, he was my writing buddy, too. Three years after I told the angel that I worked at home, my magazine closed my bureau and I did work at home—for the next four years. I liked having that dog stretched out in my study while I wrote and edited. But I wouldn’t fib to an angel again.
Jack didn’t get the concept of a working dog, but he did have a job, which was keeping a pre-teen child company for a couple of hours each weekday afternoon—a child who came home on the school bus to an otherwise empty house. Jack-the-Dog was great at that. He didn’t like being alone, either.
“I was an only child, Skip was an only dog,” the great Willie Morris wrote in his book about his childhood pet. When we watched the movie based on that book, that line made Grace smile. She wasn’t an only child, but with her older siblings grown and gone, it sometimes felt that way. I don’t know if dogs go to heaven, but they can achieve a measure of immortality if their owner is a writer. I met Willie Morris once, and told him how much we liked “My Dog Skip.” He replied that he’d written a book about his cats, too.
The most famous American writer to pen a book about his dog is John Steinbeck. But “Travels With Charley” is not really about dogs, it’s about America. It’s a fine book, with many good lines. “A dog,” Steinbeck wrote, “is a bond between strangers. In establishing contact with strange people, Charley is an ambassador.”
My favorite dog-people book was written by an elegant sportswriter who’s been dead these last 35 years. He was also named Jack—Jack Murphy—and was so esteemed in San Diego, where he practiced his craft, that when he died they named the local stadium after him. It’s been changed to some corporate brand, but Jack Murphy’s statue is still there somewhere. He’s accompanied in that sculpture by his Labrador retriever, Abe of Spoon River.
Jack Murphy took that dog everywhere but the newsroom: hunting, fishing, even drinking. I worked with him for three years at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Jack was so courtly and kind that when he passed away in 1980, the young reporters were as stricken as those who’d known him for decades. His old pals tended to be less reverential about Abe of Spoon River, however.
“That dog couldn’t find a skunk in a phone booth,” a former colleague of ours revealed. Abe of Spoon River died after being hit by a car at 13. In his eulogy, Murphy wrote, “Abe is everywhere in the house, but I can’t find him.”
Jack-the-Dog was once hit by a car, too, when I was walking him off-leash. The collision made a frightening thud, and the impact knocked him out of his collar. Stunned, he got up and ran home. Nine hundred dollars later, after an MRI (his) and a near-heart attack (mine), the vet couldn’t find a scratch on him. “He’s a tough little soldier,” she said after warning me about the leash. Jack smiled at that description—and rewarded us by living another nine years. He smiled a lot, actually, which is why his nickname was “Happy Jack.”
The car accident happened at Halloween time. Jack never saw the car coming. When it hit him he was looking at scary decorations in a neighbor’s yard that included “Nightmare on Elm Street” figures. He never did learn to be afraid of cars, but for years, men wearing hats unnerved him. In the end, what got our little guy was cancer, not a car. He went downhill fast. His last few days were tough ones. Jack-the-Dog is everywhere in this house. I just can’t find him.