When a Dog is More Manly

By Paul Coughlin
Oregon author of No More Christian Nice Guy

We begin here with excerpts from Paul Coughlin’s new book, Unleashing Courageous Faith: The Hidden Power of a Man’s Soul (Bethany House, March 2009).

When I joke during men’s conferences that my cairn terrier, Haggis McStitch, has taught me more about what it means to be a man than most men’s gatherings, I’m not really joking.

Haggis is the most popular being in our home.  He’s the same breed as Toto in The Wizard of Oz, though I shudder to point this out because Toto didn’t represent the breed well.  Like most terriers, Haggis is a mountain of a dog inside a compact body.

When we went to pick him up in Redding, California, the first dog we saw looked robust, winsome, and cuddly.

“Is this Haggis?!” my daughter screamed with delight.  “He’s so cuuuuuuute!”

“No,” said Richard, the breeder.  “That’s his brother, Barley.  This,” he said, pointing, “Is Haggis.”

I looked at Haggis and decided Richard had pointed at the most expensive rat in all of history.  Haggis was ugly.  His coarse hair was pressed down, revealing his scrawny frame.  He didn’t have his brother’s round healthiness, or becoming face, or attractive coloring.  I wanted to leave right then and there.

Rip-off, I thought.  But thankfully we would find that there’s far more to Haggis than meets the eye.

“He’s the feistiest dog I’ve ever bred,” Richard added.  Nearly four years later, I can only say amen.

A cairn is what the Scottish call a pile of stones.  Cairn terriers have been bred to kill whatever is lurking between or underneath those stones: rats, mice, weasels, ferrets.  It takes a lot of guts—that’s a blue-collar word for “courage”—to go into lightless holes and instantly fight whatever you ambush.

Once, after our family returned from a trip, we found small poop droppings on our living room windowsill.  Then we noticed that Haggis would not leave a certain broken TV outlet alone.  Then he didn’t sleep for days, which etched haggard exhaustion onto his face.  (This happens when a dog—or a man—is kept from what he was designed to be and do.)  We finally put two and two together and lowered him into the nearby crawl space.

He immediately kicked into action, his brindled coat bristling.  Within seconds he found the intruder: a foot-long rat hiding behind the paper backing of fiberglass insulation.  He shook it, breaking its neck, and brought it to me.

A family has never been prouder of a four-legged beast.  Haggis had rid our home of a troubling invader.  We paraded him around the house on our shoulders like Alexander the Great after the Battle of the Hydaspes.  Haggis ate what we ate that night.  We toasted him with wine, milk, and tap water.  I considered having the rat stuffed and mounted for posterity’s sake.

We were preparing for a 700 Club interview in our home one morning sometime after that event when Haggis somehow slipped out the front door unnoticed.  We couldn’t find him, and immediately it was hard to keep my mind on anything else.  All I could really think about was Haggis, out there by himself.  What if he gets hit by a car?  What if he’s attacked by bigger dogs?…

That evening, my son Elliot and I sat on our front porch, weeping.

Elliot:  “He’s such a friendly dog.  What if someone takes advantage of him?”

Me: “I hope he’s not hurt.”

Elliot, with heat in his eyes:  “If someone hurts him, I’ll kill ‘em!”

My evangelical Protestant upbringing has had me well trained in what it thinks an ideal Christian, especially a man, should be.  I’m still a regular Pavlov’s dog sometimes, and I hate it.  Right there, instinctively, like an old biddy with perfectly coiffed blue-gray hair, with shame-dripping lips ready to pounce on any infraction, I almost launched into a tsk, tsk tsk lecture of disapproval against my son.  I would have corrected his strong language, admonished him that “anger will get you nowhere,” and dropped any number of blah-blah-blah warnings a Christian man is supposed to pass on to his sons.

Sometimes we evangelical men are good in the worst sense, when our virtues become so excessive that they become vices.  We may not sleep around like the younger brother in Jesus’ preposterous story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11), a revealing of God’s grace that is so extravagant and illogical by human standards that God the Father comes off as a seemingly crazy old fool with white and tangled mad-scientist hair that flails in the wind as he runs half-robed down the dirt lane to embrace a son whose decision to return contains not one edifying quality.  He’s the heartbreaker, the broke and selfish druggy in the family whose God is his appetite and who turns to God, not because He is good and worthy of honor, but because all other options of filling his churlish belly are gone.  Prayer, wrote Twain, is the last bastion of a scoundrel, and we need to look no further than the prodigal son for proof.  And if we’re honest, ourselves.

Unlike the prodigal, we evangelical men are often too dutiful and rule-bound to be so spirited and uninhibited.  We’re too governed—but by what?  Does our goodness come from a love of truth, or from the fear of living, of exposure?  Do we refuse to chase after skirts, not because we love our wives and fear our Lord, but because we don’t have enough guts to walk on the wild side?  Some of us avoid adultery, not because we’re gallant and committed, but because we’re afraid to.

Do we come home after work, not because we long to fervently know our wife and kids, but because home is where the comfort is, where our bread is buttered?  If so, then men who have never darkened the doorstep of a church do that as well.

I fear our “goodness” has a lot more to do with Pavlov’s slavish behavior modification than soulful transformation.  We’re the dutiful older brother, who isn’t enslaved by a host of deadly sins, but by a collection of virtues gone deadly.  We’re the ones who refuse to take part in the party even when God pleads for us to [Luke 15:32].  Instead of gluttony, we killjoys have our “principles” and our practice of self-denial that leaves us and others stone cold.

We’re the charitable ones who don’t take, not because we fear being a burden, but because we fear being a burden, but because we don’t want to be obligated.  To receive is to be inferior, so we hide behind a charitable spirit instead.  Instead of pride, we’re falsely modest, pretending to possess a level of humility that is a churchy rouse.  Instead of rage, we’re indifferent, which gives the appearance of gentleness—the Gold Star of Sunday school behavior today.  And instead of being slothful, we’re hyper-concerned with other people’s business, not because we care much about them, but because we fear what they’re behavior might do to us.

The older brother, my fellow evangelicals, is too often the image looking back at us: joyless, trivial, bored, angry, and trapped by religiosity.  God implores both brothers, the law-less and the hyper-lawful, to change.

So I fought the knee-jerk reaction to correct my son the way the older brother might and instead affirmed my son’s inner heat.

If someone did mistreat or abuse Haggis, I hope Elliot would be angry—I hope he’d be indignant (which means “much to grieve”).  If I can’t feel grief, I’m either spiritually ill or spiritually emasculated.  Grief is essential to a courageous, muscular faith and to a loving orientation toward others.  You’d never know it from how we treat it today, but indignation actually is an indicator of a balanced and loving soul.

So instead I said, “He’s probably okay, pal.  Someone will take him in.  They’ll see our posters and call us.”

That night, around three o’clock, which is maybe the hardest hour to keep one’s courage screwed on, I stepped out onto the same porch and called for Haggis through the slight and dry summer wind.  He didn’t stir through the bushes or come running from down the street, haggard yet unharmed.  No prayers were answered that night.

I was just a middle-aged man with a betraying hairline, standing half-naked on his front step with his heart town open, unable to rest.  My brindle-coated friend, brimming with tenacity and courage and eagerness and fervency and devotion, suddenly was gone.  The void was so large that whole facets of me seemed to vanish within it.

After what felt like weeks, we got the “I have your dog” call the next afternoon.  We jumped into our Suburban like Marines on a special op.  Haggis was home within a half hour and received more hugs and kisses than he ever could have wanted.

Next time:  Masculinity Unwanted.

Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.

Visit Paul’s websites at: https://www.theprotectors.org, and https://www.paulcoughlin.net

Visit Sandy’s website for reluctant entertainers at: https://www.reluctantentertainer.com

Disclaimer: Articles featured on Oregon Report are the creation, responsibility and opinion of the authoring individual or organization which is featured at the top of every article.