“The German Shepherd is running loose again. She came out of nowhere and charged me this morning while I was walking Little Napoleon!”
“The shepherd is on the loose tearing up my rose garden. That d*** dog!”
“I almost ran over the shepherd coming home from work last night!”
“Whose dog is this? Do these people know about the leash law?”
“I think that dangerous dog belongs to the new people over on 4th Street. Do they speak English? Do they know about the leash law? Someone needs to do something about this!”
I only imbibe social media through Nextdoor, an app used by many of the 300 households in my North Carolina neighborhood. I intentionally focus on pictures of the kids or dogs or lunch that start and stay local—local enough to comfort with my own hand or taste with my own mouth. The above quoted messages represent a typical day in my neighborhood.
Our Nextdoor postings sometimes read like a bad epic drama: no plot, but a host of characters that pile on one after the other. Loose dogs, dogs that need walking, dogs that need new homes, dogs that need good manners, dogs that need friends. My first instinct when I see another “Loose Dog” notice on Nextdoor is to check to see if Sully, my goofball, three-legged Gordon Setter mix has—again—found his way to an afternoon of thrill-seeking and freedom resulting in the ignominy and disgrace of Nextdoor. More than once, this is how I’ve come to the realization that I have a d*** dog committing crimes against roses and leash laws.
Once Sully is accounted for, I know these postings on Nextdoor are all evangelistic bridges. Indeed, the phrase “that d*** dog” fills me with evangelistic expectation. If I were ever to write an evangelistic outreach program, I might just have to use this as my title. Why? Two reasons. First, crisis should bring out the best in Christians. Second, I love dogs. And I love the kids and old people and everyone in between who are looking for lost dogs. And so when dogs and kids are in the unforgiving spotlight of bad behavior, my Christian calling comes fully into focus. I feel at once a sense of connection with the unsuspecting criminal and a clear calling about what I can do to help.
Here’s how this goes down.
I start with prayer. Any of my children not currently taking an online high school course is summoned to pray with me for the dog and the people behind the dog. Yes, I pray for dogs. I don’t pray for their souls or eternal future, but I do pray for their wellbeing. Dogs have made my life infinitely kinder. As a toddler, one of my now-teenagers was housebroken with Sally, our deceased Golden Retriever. Another teenage child used to take naps with her. During the years we were fostering and adopting even older teenagers, we had dogs who slept and cuddled and loved these children. When Kent and I couldn’t touch them, couldn’t offer physical comfort, the dogs always could. So when a dog goes missing, my children feel as much empathy as I do. We pray for about five minutes, and then we lace up our shoes.
After prayer, I gather my own dog, stuff treats and leashes into my pockets, and bring along any available children to come with me to look for the lost dog. Always, and I mean always, I meet either the said dog or the people looking for her. If we find the dog, we leash her up, take her home, and post her picture on Nextdoor. The former prodigal looks up from her bowl of food with contrite eyes, and the neighborhood witnesses her redemption.
If, instead, we find the people and children looking for the dog, we find out how we can help. We exchange phone numbers and addresses. More than once, we have learned that the lost dog is owned by a new neighbor. We make plans to get together—with the dog and the kids and the family. This conversation takes time, but not usually more than about an hour. This hour allows us to get to know people—strangers—in a crisis. It allows us to walk with them—to accompany them in their fear. We learn how to pray for and help our neighbors. It also gives us a good walk, which we all need in the midst of a busy homeschooling day.
3. Use Your Gifts
Having our own dog who runs away with reckless abandon means that my kids know all of the good dog-gathering spots. There’s the creek behind our house. There’s the woods at the edge of the neighborhood where the deer reside. My children possess local wisdom that comes in handy. We also know all the best tricks for getting a skittish dog to come running. One child has a special whistle that no four-legged friend can resist. Another knows just how to rattle a treat bag for maximum effect. These particular skills may not be on Paul’s list of spiritual gifts, but they are often used by the Spirit just the same.
4. Practice Hospitality
Once the straying dog has been returned to his pillow by the fire, we follow up by inviting the new neighbor over for a doggie playdate and a family meal in our enclosed backyard. Keeping things informal and spontaneous and outside puts everyone at ease. Paper plates and leftovers are more likely to forge friendships with dogs and people than fine china ever could. Lower your expectations to increase your joy.
Getting to know the kids and dogs in the neighborhood has given me great joy. It has also provided gospel bridges of spiritual and earthly good. A doggie playdate in the backyard sparks friendships with people who think differently and who are positioned by a thoughtless social-media-infused world as cultural enemies. Dogs don’t have cultural enemies (cats don’t count).
A lost-then-found dog often results in getting to know an old and infirm neighbor who is shut in more than she likes. A lost-then-found dog often results in dog/kid backyard playdates. And sometimes these salt-of-the-earth situations morph into dinner followed by family devotions, prayer, doing life together, and, when the Lord allows, saving faith. Dogs in a crisis can be the bridge that God uses to transform strangers into family.