Love Thy Neighbor: How One Dog Taught Me The Value Of Compassion

by Clayton Fletcher

When I was 5 years old, I decided to help my mom out by taking out the trash.

Evidently, our neighbor’s dog, Duke, had little sympathy for helpful children because he tried to kill me that day. This dog, who all the neighborhood kids loved, had zero history of aggressive behavior.

Never leashed or chained, Duke was a fixture in my Baltimore community, universally accepted as everyone’s friendly Doberman.

No one knows why he bit me in 17 places that day, resulting in a trip to the hospital for me and a far more decisive fate for him.

In honor of #NationalDogDay, I want to share a story about prejudice. You see, after that inexplicable attack (Was there something in that trash bag?), I absolutely hated dogs. All dogs.

For over 20 years, I avoided any domicile that housed a dog. I was absolutely terrified of canines, and fantasized about a world without them. I was sure that I’d never want to be around a dog again for the rest of my life, and that I wasn’t missing a thing!

Then, I met Dally. She was a Dalmatian and former firefighter who lived in a house in Oregon owned by The Columbia Gorge Repertory Theatre.

When I signed my contract to play Jesus of Nazareth (obviously) in CGRT’s production of Godspell, no one told me company housing was not only for actors and staff, but also for Dally.

I was livid.

“I flew all the way across the country to do this musical, and you didn’t have the decency to tell me there’d be a dog here! Where in my contract does it say I have to share a house with an animal?”

Looking back, I was quite obnoxious to the company manager. But deep down, it was all about fear.

Fear and prejudice are very closely related character flaws. No one had thought to tell me there’d be a dog in the house.

This is Oregon; of course there’s a dog in the house!

For the first five days of rehearsal, I demanded Dally be kept as far away from me as possible, or they could find themselves another Jesus! Student performers, interns, production assistants, stage managers, chorus boys, musical directors and even chefs all did everything possible to ensure that dog and I were never within 30 feet of each other.

Then, the choreographer scheduled a dance day, where the company would rehearse the movements they’d all be doing in the final scene, while I hung on the cross.

My presence was not required, so on dance day, I found myself alone in the cast house. Bored, I decided to go practice free throws on the garage door basketball hoop.

I was three for five when she came out.

Dally stared at me, and I stared back. She was maybe 30 yards away, but I knew she had me in her sights. Five-year old me screamed inside as I struggled to choose between fight or flight.

My heart raced and my palms start to sweat. I wanted to cry.

She stepped a foot closer, then stopped. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I felt my lips start to tremble.

Dally stepped a little closer, extremely slowly this time; more slowly than you probably think a dog can move.

Then, she made the least threatening sound I’ve ever heard a dog make: a whimper. It became clear that no vicious attack was impending, and that this dog just wanted to be my friend.

I decided not to fight nor fly. I just stood and allowed the spotted creature to approach me.

She moved slowly and softly, whimpering sweetly all the while. Eventually, she stood just before me, close enough for me to touch her. But I didn’t dare.

For a few seconds, we just stared at each other. I held my breath and tried to calm my nerves.

Dally gingerly raised her front right paw and set it very gently on my left knee. I summoned all my courage and placed my hand upon her soft white head.

I proceeded to pet a dog for the first time in 23 years.

This dog knew I was afraid! And she wanted to cure me! She was teaching me a life lesson: Not every dog in the world is evil, and judging all because of the actions of a few is simply no way to go through life.

She wanted to tell me that if I was going to play Jesus, I would need to forgive Duke, turn the other cheek and love my neighbor the way I loved myself.

For the rest of the summer, I formed a strong bond with that beautiful Dalmatian (to the delight of everyone in the company, who no longer had to worry about our proximity to one another).

Today, I’m more open to dogs of all shapes and sizes than I’ve ever been, and my compassion for all animals is way higher than my free throw percentage will ever be.

Thank you, Dally, for teaching me a great lesson about dogs and even more, about life itself.