Never let loyalty and kindness leave you! Tie them around your neck as a reminder. Write them deep within your heart. – Proverbs 3:3, (NLT)
A few months after losing our beloved senior dog, a friend shared an advertisement from a rescue group looking to place a large male chocolate lab. They had plucked the homeless creature from the streets of a rural northern Quebec community. We drooled over the description and images of a large, happy dog, perked ears peeking out over the edges of the washtub as local pet store staff scrubbed him clean in preparation for adoption. Having been placed on a lengthy list with others interested to give this handsome guy a forever home, we were delighted to hear that a friend’s reference had bumped us up and that Spike was coming our way. There was no doubt in our minds that he would be as great as our previous dogs.
Spike barged through our back door, rescue personnel in tow at the end of his leash. I will never forget the wide-eyed look on my six-year-old daughter’s face as she took in this 100-pound brown bull-in-a-china-shop wriggling and lunging around the room, his blockhead jerking about as he reached and sniffed.
“You’ll notice he’s missing a couple of canine teeth from the time he spent on his own,” the woman from the rescue group delicately pointed out. Healed bite marks on one ear and faded scars on his face provided further evidence of a painful past whose tales Spike would never come to tell. She spoke to him in a soothing voice better suited to a kitten, which he seemed deaf to as he bounded about—that is, until she pulled out a treat, also more appropriately sized for a kitten, and he gave her his full attention for a split second. “He’s great! We’ll take him!” I exclaimed.
Over the next several weeks, we got to know the real Spike. Accustomed to finding his own way and negotiating his next meal, he assumed every item of food left on the counter or table had his name on it. The five-foot tall backyard fence was simply an entertaining obstacle for him. I would look out the back window to witness him run at the fence, front paws leaping to the top to haul up his back end, four limbs teetering, then springing down and away, into the woods behind the house. No amount of yelling or shaking his dog bowl would tempt him back. Spike was most resourceful. He quickly identified the gems kept in the neighbour’s organics and recyclables, swiftly tipping the bins over to pull out what looked good. I spent several evenings picking eggshells and coffee grounds off their deck, grumbling under my breath “SPIKE!”.
Soon afterward in our marriage two became one. Spike remained in our family home with my daughter and I. As I was figuring out how to manage a property on my own while working a busy job and caring for my daughter, Spike’s antics became tiresome. If we mistakenly left the back door open on a beautiful summer day, Spike was gone. My heart rate would shoot up into the red zone as I ran about the neighbourhood calling for him before he got into more trouble, always to no avail.
On one of these occasions, I decided not to bother with the search and left the back door propped open while I washed dishes. Without warning, Spike came sauntering through the house, proudly displaying the curved vertebra of a long-dead deer. I let out a profanity-laced blood-curdling scream, hurling my cleaning into the sink and sending soap bubbles flying. I grabbed Spike by the scruff of the neck and turfed him back out the front door, anatomical specimen and all landing in a heap on the deck. I swung a near-by shovel about wildly, threatening to knock his blockhead right off if he didn’t drop it. Glancing up, I noticed my elderly neighbours gaping from their sunny front porch, coffee cups raised midway as they stared at our antics.
I was becoming overwhelmed with my life. I fondly remembered the good old days when things were calm and orderly. As I began to work to simplify aspects of life to regain control, I soon identified one thing that was just too much: Spike. His misbehaviour caused me too much anxiety. When he swiped freshly prepared meals from the counter, I found myself having an out-of-body experience, hearing someone who sounded vaguely like me yelling fruitlessly at the dog, who was hellbent on keeping a lockjaw on his score. These events made me question whether I was losing my mental faculties. I explained to my daughter that Spike had to go; he needed a home where he could be himself and not be in trouble all the time. Head lowered, my daughter reluctantly nodded.
“When we get rid of Spike,” she asked the next day, “can we get a different pet? How about another cat?” “I don’t know—we’ll see,” I absent-mindedly replied. I contacted the rescue group and begged them to find a new home for Spike. I expected him to go quickly given how many applicants had expressed interest in him the first time, but he didn’t. As the search continued, I began doubting my decision to give him up. Was I sending my daughter the wrong message?
One night, Spike woke me with an urgent bark. I glanced at the time on my phone—4:15. Ugh. “What, Spike?!” His bark was insistent, disputing my urge to roll over and bury my head under the pillow. I got up and found him at the back sliding glass door. I looked out to see the neighbours’ garage, only a few strides from our fence, fully engulfed in blazing orange flames. As I stood there frozen for a moment, the fireball image imprinted itself on my wide eyeballs and locked-up brain. Feeling intense heat coming through the door, I lurched forward and yelled down to our basement tenant. “Come quick! Help! Fire!!!” We ran next door and banged wildly on doors and windows as one end of their bungalow ignited. After what felt like an eternity, the front door lock gave out and our screams jolted our two elderly neighbours awake. Out the door we all went. Fire trucks arrived en masse—and then the house was gone, a heap of smoking, charred lumber and debris. “Spike is a hero, you know,” my roommate offered. I nodded.
A few weeks later, my daughter, the eternal planner, repeated her question. “What kind of pet can we get after Spike goes?” “Spike is staying,” I replied.
Author and pastor Rick Warren describes life as a test and a trust 1. We will all be tested in life, in big and small ways—nothing in our lives is insignificant. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, adjusting to my newly single status and deciding whether or not to keep Spike were my tests. God reminds us that he never tests us beyond what we can bear, even if we question that in the moment.
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 (ESV)
Tests develop our character. God is there to listen and offer support when we feel like David, who said, “I pour out my complaints before Him and tell Him all my troubles, for I am overwhelmed”.
I cry out to the Lord; I plead for the Lord’s mercy. I pour out my complaints before him and tell him all my troubles. When I am overwhelmed, you alone know the way I should turn. – Psalm 142:2-3a (NLT)
Through Spike, God taught me that he trusts us to care for all that we have received—our abilities, relationships, possessions, and careers — even our Spikes.
Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. – 1 Corinthians 4:2 (NIV)
Two years after the fire, our fence was replaced by a long lead and a used living room set in the open garage door. Spike had become increasingly calm in his advancing age, monitoring his homestead and the neighbourhood business from that throne in the sun. When Spike silently crept into the kitchen and grabbed an apple from the counter, we pointed to the door and he took his prize out to the garage couch to enjoy it in peace.
Over the last few years of his life, Spike became continuously more attached and loyal to me. It was as if he believed I belonged to him exclusively. When someone else attempted to take him for a walk, he leaned back on the leash and barked for me to come. He loved nothing more than to curl up under my legs on the couch on movie night. He looked to me for help when his old hips had endured too much walking and he couldn’t bear to stand anymore.
Spike taught us that love is not easy or predictable. Nevertheless, God trusts us to love others. Love tests us, and in order to grow through the challenges it presents, we must remain rooted in Him. Ironically enough, love requires the loyalty of a Labrador Retriever.