The Rev. Dale Turner, who began writing a weekly column on religion for The Times in 1983, is retiring as a columnist in January. Turner began his column after his retirement in...

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We are a nation of animal lovers. Turnstiles tell us that animal-watching at our zoos attracts more people than any other spectator sport.

Each of us has a favorite animal. Harry Truman, who lived on Mount St. Helens before it erupted, owned 15 cats.

My favorite pet has always been a dog. Looking back across the years, I see how very important dogs have been in my life. I had been an ordained minister only a few weeks when I received a phone call from Larry Chisholm, an 8-year-old boy. His dog had just been killed by a car. “Mr. Turner,” he sobbed, “do you conduct funerals for dogs? I do not want to bury my dog without some kind of ceremony.”

Seminary had not prepared me for such an eventuality, and I was nonplused. Remembering the Scripture’s affirmation of God’s care when even a sparrow falls to the ground, I replied, “Why not?” I conducted a service, reading Scripture, reciting a poem and offering a prayer. As we walked from the burial plot, my young friend asked, “Mr. Turner, are there any dogs in heaven?”

I was not ready for that, either, and I am afraid my answer was less than satisfactory. At least, my innate love for dogs enabled me to console him to some degree.

Through the years, our family has had a succession of dogs, and each one was special. It was our most recent pet that I remember most vividly. Our dachshund Gretta had died, and we were eager to bring another dog to our home. We went to the pound to claim another dachshund pictured in the paper.

But by the time we arrived, the dog had been claimed. A Manchester terrier puppy, sensing our mission, thrust her nose through the wire fence. The plaintive look in her eyes seemed to say, “Pick me.” Our children did — and promptly named her “Pick.”

I had read that 40 percent of Americans owned dogs and vice versa, and I began to understand what that meant. Pick thought she was one of us.

Each evening, Pick waited for my arrival home. She’d wag her tail as if to say, “Welcome.” “Pick,” I’d say, “you’ve got it made. Other animals work for their keep. A canary sings, cows give milk, and chickens lay eggs, but you don’t have to do anything.”

Undaunted, she seemed to reply, “That’s not true. I give love, and that’s something. Besides, when you roll on the floor with me and make a fool of yourself, I make a fool of myself, too, and pretend to enjoy it. Furthermore, I don’t tell anyone beyond the walls of this home what we do.” She had a point.

After 14 years, Pick had a series of convulsions. Our veterinarian counseled that it would be merciful to have her put to sleep. It was an agonizing decision, but one that had to be made. When the hour arrived, Pick and I drove off in our car as we had done countless times before, but this was to be our last ride together. I left her and drove directly to my study, and there, alone, I cried for fully an hour.

A parishioner sent me a consoling poem titled: “Message From a Little Ghost.”

I’ve explained to St. Peter I’d rather stay here

Outside the Pearly Gate.

I won’t be a nuisance, I won’t even bark.

I’ll be very patient — and wait.

I’ll be here and chew a celestial bone,

No matter how long you may be.

I’d miss you so much — if I went in alone,

It wouldn’t be heaven for me.

I was mourning for nearly a week, but then, amazingly, I had a dream. I saw Pick with many other dogs at heaven’s gate. They were rollicking together in friendly play, each awaiting the arrival of its master.

When I awoke from that dream, my mourning had ended. I wished I could see Larry again to give him a better answer than I had given 40 years before.

The Rev. Dale Turner’s column appears Saturdays in The Seattle Times.