Consider the canine: A spiritual guide?

by Len Lear
Posted 2/23/23

The expression “dog days of summer” refers to the hottest, most unpleasant days of summer, but for Andrew Behrendt, any days that have dogs in them are bound to be extremely pleasant.

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Consider the canine: A spiritual guide?


The expression “dog days of summer” refers to the hottest, most unpleasant days of summer, but for Andrew Behrendt, any days that have dogs in them are bound to be extremely pleasant.

Behrendt, who earned both his master's degree in psychology and his Ph.D in education at the University of Pennsylvania, and has taught there as well as at Chestnut Hill College, Rosemont, Drexel, Harcum, Temple and Jefferson Universities, will be tackling his next role as teacher not as an academic, but as an animal lover. His Mount Airy Learning Tree class, titled “Spiritual Guides: The Case for Dogs,” starts Monday, Feb. 27.

Behrendt, who has mostly had Scottish terriers but has recently “inherited” “the sweetest love bug” of a chihuahua, has had a lifelong love affair with dogs. And, naturally, that love has spilled over into his actual vocation - psychology. 

“Every Thursday I go to a lockdown facility for dementia patients for therapy dog visits,” he said. “Not only do the patients in care facilities like this one have their moods boosted but the stressed-out staff does too. They all love the visits. Some patients who cannot remember things do remember my dog's name. 'Louisa's here,' they'll say.”

Even if they can’t remember her name, however, they still instinctively want to play with her. 

“Dogs do what we tell people to do, which is to live in the moment,” he said. “In that moment, they bring out the humanity in us, and ward off loneliness. If you add up all of those moments, you wind up with a good life.”

According to numerous historians, there is archaeological evidence that dogs were the first animals domesticated by humans more than 30,000 years ago – more than 10,000 years before the domestication of horses. Behrendt said his class will explore human’s relationship with dogs, as well as the ways in which dogs function as “guides to our spiritual development.”

The bond between people and their dogs can be such that the four-legged creatures are sometimes the best support for people on the autism spectrum, or can provide the best treatment for people who are recovering from emotional trauma. And according to Behrendt, studies also show that people with dogs are more likely to survive a heart attack, experience lower rates of high blood pressure, and are less likely to complain about their health. 

In short, they’re good for you. 

“A man I know said the closest relationship he ever had was with a dog, even closer than with his mother,” Behrendt said. “Some people are embarrassed by that feeling; it is so deep. It is a feeling that some people might get from religion.”

For several years Behrendt has been working on a book, now 600 pages long, with the working title, “Dogs Leadeth Me.” It covers service dogs, guide dogs, therapy dogs and “spiritual guide dogs.” It has been informed by his own two dogs, who he said “have qualities many might consider a sense of spirituality.” 

In his classes and his psychotherapy practice, Behrendt is likely to tell a story he read in the literature about a stray dog that found its way into a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. The hunger and torture victims had become numbers, stripped of their names and their humanity; many did not even consider themselves human any more, he said – which of course was the Nazis' intention.

“But the dog jumped up and treated them as people,” said Behrendt. “It did not care that they were emaciated. They called him Bobby. Dogs do not care what you look like. That is why we have invited them into our homes and our beds. Even today people are longing for that feeling of connection to a friend who will not judge you.”

For more information about the class, call 215-843-6333 or visit Len Lear can be reached at