A friend loves at all times.—Proverbs 17:17
It was Labor Day weekend 2006, a month and a half after the death of our 12-year-old Springer spaniel Duncan, as we traveled from a friend’s wedding in Jacksonville, Fla., to a Wendy’s parking lot in South Carolina to meet our rescue puppy.
Called Floyd at the time, he had been rescued the night before he was to be put down at a high-kill shelter. He was on his fourth foster home at 9 months old. “Does he answer to Floyd?” we asked the last foster mom over the phone. “Nope,” she replied. “Try Churchill,” I suggested. “Well, what do you know? He answered!” she said with astonishment.
When we met at Wendy’s, Churchill jumped out of her car and greeted us. We put a leash on him and led him away. He jumped into our van and never looked back. I sat in the front next to my husband as Churchill rode in the back between my then-teenage sons, who had taken Duncan’s passing hard. I assumed Churchill would bond strongest with them. But no. In typical Border collie style, he needed a job, and his job became me—being my constant companion, my herder and my protector.
When we arrived home after our six-hour trip, Churchill immediately scoped out his new parklike backyard. His first response was to run laps around the clump of trees in the middle of our yard, running faster than I had ever seen a dog run. Then he came inside and instantly took his place with our family as if he had been with us his whole life. There was no transition. He was one of us.
I’ve read that Border collies have the intelligence of 7-year-olds, and I don’t doubt it. I would tell Churchill things like, “Saturday at 5, lots of people are coming to see the puppy,” when we were preparing for a big event at our house. By 4:45 that day, he would be sitting at the window watching for guests without any additional prompting. He would announce their arrival, and then he would herd them where they needed to go by gently nipping at their hands.
When strangers such as contractors would come to our house, he would stand between me and them. No one would dare to threaten me. He was beautiful and loving but also large and imposing. If he didn’t like someone, I learned to be wary. And I had every confidence he would protect me if needed.
Most days he would accompany me on long power walks, and he became an ambassador of sorts for Jesus. People would wouldn’t ordinarily strike up a conversation with a walker would stop and talk with me because of my beautiful dog. I would be able to share Christ with them and pray for them because Churchill had opened the door to a relationship.
I would also take him to visit my mother-in-law and my elderly aunt and uncle. When my uncle went to a nursing home, I took Churchill there to visit him, not prepared for my dog’s popularity among other residents. That spurred a few years of nursing home visits locally—including as my mother-in-law later declined—for the sake of sharing the gospel with people in their last season of life.
Dr. A, a surly retired psychiatrist, was one such patient. He liked almost no one, from what I had been told, but he fell in love with my dog. The love of my dog opened up his heart to the love of God. Other people would cry when they saw Churchill because they missed their own dogs. All looked forward to his visits. But he worked on his own schedule: He had no patience for casual talk with the staffers; he would lead me immediately on his designated route, and he let me know when he was ready to move on. Somehow it became part of his charm.
About three years ago, Churchill began struggling to keep up on our walks. I began to walk without him, and I remember the look of heartbreak in his eyes those first few weeks as I would walk out the door. Then this past July, his legs began to splay on the tile floor. Dog boots gave him traction. But he was too proud and stubborn to wear them on all four paws. We discussed it, and he agreed to keep them on his two back paws if I would keep his front paws trimmed. He kept our agreement for the most part.
Toward the end, as doggie dementia took hold, my presence became his source of stability and comfort. He had to know where I was at all times. If he forgot, he would have to go looking for me. He did that the last morning of his life before he could no longer bear weight on his back legs by lunchtime.
Then that afternoon, I lay on the floor with him as we waited for the mobile vet to come. I would stay by the side of the dog who had so faithfully stayed by my side for more than 13 years. The doctor gave him a sedative, which she said would cause him to begin dreaming. His tail began wagging moments later. I could only hope he was dreaming of walks with Mommy or chasing squirrels in the yard. Soon after he quietly passed, leaving a void I’m not sure can be filled.
Churchill was not a perfect dog, but he was a perfect friend to me. He taught me what it means to be a steadfast friend and to love unconditionally. I can only hope I love so well.