My Dog Has a Spirit, Has a Name

SPOILER ALERT: This post is about the book, A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron. If you would like to read this book and don’t want the ending spoiled, do not read any further.

About a year ago, I noticed that iTunes had a list of movies that were audio described for the blind. I don’t watch a lot of movies because there are very few movies I hear about that seem worth giving up two hours of life. But out of curiosity, I decided to check out the list. A lot of popular movies were on it, most of which I didn’t want to waste two hours of my life on, but one title sounded intriguing: A Dog’s Purpose. Just going by the title, I could tell it would be a sweet, uplifting movie, but I couldn’t download it because unless I paid for a Showtime subscription, the movie was not available for rent. I would have to buy it. I read in the movie synopsis that it was based on a book with the same title, but for some reason, I wasn’t compelled to download the book right away. I don’t know if I thought it would read more like a children’s book, or if the concept of a re-incarnated dog just seemed corny at the time.

But several months later in June, this book came back to my mind. Some people at work had discovered my book on Amazon. I mentioned it casually to a co-worker who became a good friend shortly after I was hired three years earlier, but had otherwise kept it pretty quiet, not wanting to come off sounding like a pretentious braggart. But the subject of Gilbert came up in the applications department where this friend now works, and the manager of that department ordered several copies of my book to pass around the office. I will admit it was exciting to talk about my book again, and in the course of conversation, someone asked me if there would be a sequel. I told them I would like to write another book someday, and I had already been thinking about taking some essays I had written from Gilbert’s point of view, developing them more and compiling them into a book. The day after this conversation, a Saturday, it occurred to me that I should read A Dog’s Purpose, as it was written entirely from a dog’s point of view, and had made it to the bestsellers list. Reading a commercially successful book written from a dog’s point of view would give me inspiration for how I could write my book. It turned out this book didn’t give me inspiration for my book: on the contrary, it put my writing to shame, so much so that I still haven’t revisited the idea of writing this kind of book. But what I did get was a beautiful read that I could not put down. I had a couple interesting thoughts after reading this book, but didn’t know how to put these thoughts into words. Then two weeks ago, my parents wanted to watch a show that was only available through Showtime, so they signed up for a seven day free trial through Amazon Prime. As long as they had the free trial, I asked them if they would like to watch A Dog’s Purpose with me, and they agreed. I didn’t know how to access the audio described version through Amazon Prime, but that was alright. I watch most movies without audio description anyway, and since I had read the book first, I got the gist of it. Mom loved the movie, but I think Dad thought the concept of a re-incarnated dog was too weird. I think the alien movies he likes are a lot weirder than that, but to each his own. I enjoyed the movie but thought the book was much better. But even though the movie changed a few details and couldn’t go as deep as the book, seeing this movie brought my thoughts about the book back to mind again, and this time I feel ready to try and write about them.

The night before we watched the movie, I found a podcast in which W. Bruce Cameron was interviewed about this book. When the host asked what inspired him to write this book, he said he was driving up the coast with his girlfriend who would eventually become his wife, and she was saying she would never have another dog because she had recently lost her dog and didn’t think she could bare that kind of heartbreak again. He responded that he wanted to tell her a story, and just like that, he saw the whole story come together in his head, about a dog that is re-incarnated and remembers its past lives. He spent the next hour and a half telling her this story, ending with the moral that dogs need us, and we need them. The girlfriend was so moved by the story that she asked hin to record it again, and then encouraged him to turn it into a book. I could definitely see this theme woven throughout the book.

In the dog’s first life when he was born in the wild, he survives, although we would learn that if he had stayed in the wild, he would not have fared well because dogs were bred to depend on us for long-term survival. When he was taken in by Senora and lived with a whole pack of other dogs in The Yard, he thought he was happy, but his life really had no purpose, and he would later realize that the love Senora displayed was just a general love for all the dogs. In his next life when he escaped the puppy mill and was rescued from the drunk man’s hot car to live with Ethan, he thrives because now his life has a purpose. He forges a special bond with this little boy. He delights in being at Ethan’s side as he grows up. His instinct and love for this boy prompts him to “rescue” the boy when he dives underwater to untangle the fishing line, and he never leaves the boy’s side when they are lost in the woods for several days, growing ever more hungry, cold and dehydrated. He would even apprehend the sociopath in Ethan’s class that tried to kill Ethan and his family by setting their house on fire, a fire that left Ethan with a permanent leg injury that ended his prospects for a full scholarship to play football in college. He is devastated when Ethan must leave for a different college. In his third life, he misses Ethan, especially because his (the dog is actually female in this life) new owner is cold and distant, but recognizes that this life has a higher purpose. His life with Ethan prepared him to be a search and rescue dog, and he/she saves many lives. In his final life, he is born in a well-kept kennel but is the last puppy to find a home as he is low-energy and prefers to be left alone. He is finally purchased by a boyfriend who shows no interest In him. The dog is a present for his girlfriend. The girlfriend loves him, but we learn she is immature and does not train him or supervise him properly, and she wasn’t even allowed to have a dog in her apartment. When the landlord evicts her because of the dog, she takes him to her mom’s house. But her mom has a mean, alcoholic boyfriend named Victor who does not want a dog, so the dog lives in squalor, spending his days chained to a post in the backyard barking until Victor gets home, and cowering in fear and doing his best to avoid him when he does. When a neighbor who cannot stand watching the neglect of this dog any longer calls the police, and the police fine the couple $50 and order them to clean up the yard and provide a longer chain, Victor is furious, and asks why they don’t just shoot the dog. The following day, Victor forces the dog to get into his trunk. With a sick feeling in our stomachs, we think Victor is going to drive to a remote location and shoot the dog, especially when the dog smells that there is a gun in the trunk, something he remembered from his previous life. But Victor changes his mind and decides to just abandon the dog. He remembers the survival instincts he learned from the feral mother in his first life and fends for himself, but soon realizes Victor dropped him off near the very river where he and Ethan spent many summers, which was near Grandma and Grandpa’s farm. So much has changed about the town that he couldn’t remember exactly where the farm was, but he first meets the daughter of Ethan’s high school sweetheart Hannah, whom he broke up with out of sadness and anger when he came home from college and saw her playing track and interested in another guy. The dog eventually stumbles across the veterinary clinic, where he recognizes the unmistakable scent of Jasper, a donkey Grandpa had acquired. He follows Jasper’s scent and finds the farm, and his boy Ethan! Ethan is old now, and of course does not recognize that this dog is a re-incarnation of his beloved dog Bailey. He even calls the police who take the dog to the humane society where he is almost adopted by another family. But at the last minute, Ethan changes his mind and takes the dog home and names him Buddy. Buddy could tell that his boy was sad and lonely, so he facilitates the re-acquaintance of Hannah and Ethan by running to Hannah’s house. Hannah and Ethan get married, and thus Ethan’s final years of life are filled with family, laughter and contentment. When Ethan passes away, Buddy recognizes that his purpose is now to be with Hannah through her grief. Yes, it is one of those heart-warming, life coming full-circle stories you cannot read without crying, and a unique way of thinking about the special bond between people and dogs.

This book is completely a work of fiction of course, but the idea of re-incarnation is compelling. In 2014, I heard about a book on a television show written by a mother who believed her children have lived before. Intrigued and in need of a diversion from the painfully boring Paralegal textbooks I was supposed to be reading at the time, I couldn’t resist downloading the book. The mother first started having these suspicions when her son, who was four years old at the time, was inconsolable over the noise of Fourth of July fireworks. I forget the details of how everything transpired, but ultimately, the parents took the child to a hypnotist who caused the boy to recall a past life in which he was a soldier shot and killed in battle. As he recalled and came to terms with this past life, his fear of fireworks instantly resolved. His sister had a similar situation. She had an inexplicable fear of perishing in a fire, and the hypnotist revealed that in a past life, she had in fact perished in a fire. Her fear too immediately resolved once she recalled this past life. These experiences with her children compelled this mother to delve deeper into the possibility of re-incarnation. I never thought about going to a hypnotist, as that seems creepy, but I will admit I was so intrigued by this idea that I would lie in bed straining my brain to see if I could get it to recall past lives, to no avail. I should have known better, but I guess I was a little spiritually immature and wondered if recalling a past life would answer some questions I had about my life at the time. For the record, I have completely abandoned the idea of human re-incarnation. For one thing, I have since researched the biblical stance on re-incarnation, and Hebrews 9:27 clearly says that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” There are also numerous instances in the Bible from Levitacus all the way through the New testament warning us not to seek out mediums or spiritists as they are a product of the Devil, so I am so glad I never considered consulting a hypnotist, but I am sorry I even dabbled in such nonsense. I don’t believe in animal re-incarnation either, as the pets I have had never gave any indications of remembering commands or people from past lives. But this idea of re-incarnation is a creative way to tell a story, and I think it symbolizes the incredible instincts of dogs, the many ways these instincts have impacted the lives of humans, and the idea that both humans and dogs find more purpose and fulfillment in life when they live life together.

But the most interesting thought that came to mind while reading this book was the words of a favorite song, Colors of the Wind, from Pocahontus. “You think you own whatever land you land on. The earth is just a dead thing you can claim. But I know every rock and tree and creature, has a life, has a spirit, has a name.” I found myself humming this song as I read the book. I think I will be writing more about this song in the future as it is another song that reminds me of the Restoration. But I think this song came to mind as I was reading A Dog’s Purpose because the whole message of the song is how we miss out on so much beauty and wonder in this world when we exploit trees or creatures, think of them as property, or view them more in terms of what they are worth, losing sight of the fact that while they may not be capable of the complex thinking and reasoning that God gave humans, trees should be appreciated simply for their beauty and splendor, and creatures should be regarded with reverence as living beings with thoughts and emotions. Even though the author was probably not humming this song and may not have been thinking about its message, I saw the message woven beautifully through this book as well. In the dog’s first life, an overwhelmed shelter worker took one look at Toby’s injured leg, deemed him unadoptable and subsequently euthanized him. I couldn’t help thinking about how this is the fate of so many real dogs in shelters all over the country. I will give the indifferent shelter worker in the book the benefit of the doubt, as I know even from personal experience with my own job that compassion fatigue is a real thing. When I started my job, I would get emotional about all the medical and financial hardships clients would talk about, but after awhile, it is hard not to become numb to these stories. Perhaps the shelter worker suffered from compassion fatigue too, overwhelmed by the sight of so many suffering animals every day. Although this dog would have thrived in a loving home because he was so sweet, the sad reality is people are apprehensive about taking on dogs with special needs, and when shelter space is limited, difficult and heartbreaking decisions have to be made. The euthanization of this sweet dog, and so many real dogs is the fault of puppy mills and irresponsible backyard breeders that breed dogs just to make a profit, seeing them as material goods, not as beings that each have a life, a spirit and a name. In the dog’s second life and his fourth life when he is regarded as property, things work out beautifully, as he finds his boy Ethan in his second life, and is ultimately reunited with him in his fourth life, but for some reason, I couldn’t help thinking about all the special love and affection these unscrupulous people missed out on because they were so wrapped up in their greed or had irresponsible attitudes about dog ownership.

One day in a lecture about wills and Probate law back in 2014 when I was pursuing my Paralegal certificate, the professor was talking about how you can outline in your will whom you would like to become the legal gardians for your children if God forbid, you are survived by minor children. Knowing this professor is pretty laid back and wouldn’t mind putting up with my silly sidefor a minute—she is the same professor I had for Family Law and wrote about in this post by the way—I raised my hand and asked if this was the section where I could specify a gardian for Gilbert as well. Her response was interesting. She also loves dogs, but said that legally speaking, Gilbert is considered property. I could specify whom I wanted to have Gilbert, just as I could specify whom I wanted to bequeath my house or money to, but theoretically, if I died with a lot of debt that required the sale of property to settle, Gilbert might have to be sold! A collective chuckle and expressions like “Aw!” came from the whole class. Of course, if that had happened, Gilbert is so beloved by everyone he meets that I am sure a friend or relative would have come through to buy Gilbert and give him a loving home, but boy, learning that has been a great motivator for me to live within my means! In another class, a Technical Writing class I took in my last semester at Carroll University, we were asked to write a user manual. I decided to write my manual on how to care for and train a guide dog. But one piece of feedback I didn’t expect was when the professor said that the dog needed to be referred to using the pronoun “it” rather than him/her. I followed this instruction and changed all of the pronouns, but it bothered me. This assignment came back to mind a couple years later when I was researching our city’s laws on backyard chickens—more on that in a future post—and noticed that sure enough, ordinances regarding animals used the pronoun “it” as well. I think it would be interesting to conduct an experiment where at least for a specified period of time, a municipality changed all the pronouns of its animal ordinances to him/her. Nothing would be changed regarding the laws themselves, just the pronouns. It would be interesting to track if humane societies saw less traffic from people surrendering animals, or if cops receive fewer reports of animal abandonment or cruelty. While I believe most people are good, and everyone I come into contact with seems to love animals, I wonder if for at least a few people, this simple change in pronouns would awaken the realization in them that animals are living beings, not property on the same level as their cars.

I am not saying dogs or other pets should be treated as if they are humans. There is a reason Planet of the Apes is just a movie. God blessed us with more complex minds, and the capacity for a higher sense of morality and reasoning than any other animal. In fact, in Genesis 1:26 and 1:28, it is explicitly stated that God created humans to rule over animals. I don’t even agree with PETA’s position that we should not eat meat because in Genesis 9:3 after the flood, God tells Noah and his sons, “Everything that moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” Furthermore, even Jesus ate meat. But Proverbs 12:10 states, “a righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” This verse is a clear indication that while God created us to rule over animals, this does not give us license to be cruel to them or exploit them. I am not a bible expert, but to me these passages indicate that it is fine to eat a small serving of meat each day for vitamin B12, which is not found in plants, but it is wrong to kill animals just for sport, or gorge yourself with more meat than you need at an eating competition or holiday feast. There is nothing wrong with training an animal using positive re-enforcement techniques that awaken their natural desire, implanted by God, to please us. But it must make God angry to see people use fear-based training techniques. Sure, a dog or other animal may still obey out of loyalty, but I recently read an article written by a dog trainer who switched from using a choke collar, to using positive re-enforcement, and it didn’t surprise me when she said that with positive re-enforcement, both the dogs and owners were happier and more relaxed, making me wonder if what some call a new training concept is the kind of training God had always intended.

I have never regarded Gilbert, or any of the pets I grew up with as merely property, but reading an entire book written from a dog’s point of view brought the reality that dogs are beings with real emotions into sharper focus. It was an opportunity for meditation when I couldn’t help asking myself if I am the best owner I can be. As I think I have mentioned in the past, I cannot sleep with Gilbert because he snores, not as obnoxiously as a certain family member in a hotel room, but nevertheless, loud enough that I prefer not to sleep with him. Gilbert and said snoring family member actually sleep together, which works out perfectly! Anyway, Gilbert and the snoring family member usually wake up before I do each morning, and Gilbert is always waiting to greet me when I open my bedroom door. This is such an adorable display of love and loyalty, and yet some mornings when I wake up with a headache or just woke up on the wrong side of the bed, I have been guilty of pushing past him, or snipping at him for being in the way. But reading about similar displays of love Bailey showed Ethan made me feel guilty for all the times I snipped at Gilbert, so now every morning, even if I am not feeling great, I make sure to speak a happy greeting to Gilbert and give him a few pets on the head because it is not his fault I am not feeling well. In fact, he may know I am not feeling well and he is not intentionally blocking my path to the kitchen for headache medicine to feel better. He is just trying to say he is there for me. One day last week while I was in my bedroom writing, Mom knocked on my door saying Gilbert was sitting outside my door wanting to come in and be with me. I don’t let him in my room often during the daytime either just in case dog hair is a contributor to allergies that cause me to wake up with severe headaches sometimes. Gilbert doesn’t mind. Once he has greeted me in the morning, he usually prefers to sleep the day away on a soft dog bed in the living room where he can look out the window. So this unusual desire to be in my room with me at that time of day tugged at my heart, and I relented and let him in. He laid right beside my desk chair where I could reach down and pet him while writing, making me smile. Maybe he is trying to tell me my blogs would be better if he could “help” me write them.

Gilbert is at that point in his life where he is getting arthritic and slowing down, and this causes us both sadness in our own ways. Mom says Gilbert seems sad sometimes when we decide his arthritis or his stomach are acting up and I shouldn’t take him to work, and I feel sad about leaving him behind too. I also feel guilty in the summer when I want to go for a long walk that I know he cannot handle anymore, and so I leave him home and take him for a shorter walk later. But he still greets me with a wagging tail every morning, and when I pet him, he will often still flip onto his back for a belly rub. He loves going to work when he can, and every Monday when the young adult bible study group comes to my house, he takes his job as door greeter seriously. Every now and then, he will even prove he still has that naughty puppy spirit by chewing open a bag of dog food, or unraveling a role of toilet paper. I haven’t always been the owner a dog as sweet as Gilbert deserved, but the wonderful thing about dogs is they understand the concept of unconditional love even better than humans sometimes, and every day is a new day in which he forgets the past and gives me another chance to appreciate his life, his spirit and his name. Just because the minds of dogs and other animals are not as complex as the human mind doesn’t mean God didn’t give them to us to teach us simple truths to enrich our own lives. When we regard them as merely property, we miss out on opportunities to experience these truths. Gilbert will always hold a special place in my heart as my first guide dog, and the perfect companion for college and the trials of my first job. I hope that if there is re-incarnation for dogs, Gilbert will remember his life with me as his best, and that maybe he will come back to me someday in a dog by a different name. If he does, I hope I will recognize him.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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