The Dogs Who Made Me
When my Basenji/Beagle mix Dewey died, it felt as though I would die right along with him. My constant companion during some of the most difficult times in my life, Dewey had to be euthanized just two months after my partner of ten years died suddenly. Dewey lived to be twelve.
Some months before his death, my partner and I began noticing his cognitive decline. We’d attributed it to his age and weren’t overly concerned because it wasn’t particularly impactful on his quality of life. He’d spook at the occasional leaf, startle at the sound of a bag of potato chips opening. Strange but infrequent occurrences. After my partner’s death, the rare happenings became daily occurrences and he went from being a quirky dog with separation anxiety to being terrified of life itself. Normal outside sounds would startle him to the point of him having seizures. He could no longer go to the vet for examinations because the process of getting there would also result in seizures. I told Dewey when I had adopted him in 2007 that I would adopt him and make sure he was never hurt again if he promised to live forever.
Our bargain came to a premature end on May 3, 2019 when I whispered over his limp body, “Thank you for being my dog. You were the best one,” and I returned to an empty home, his collar and leash in hand.
I adopted Dewey the very same day my Golden Retriever, Coty, died from lymphoma. Though I’d had family dogs my entire life, Coty was my first dog. My responsibility, my expense, mine to raise and train. I was 17-years-old when I bought Coty from a local breeder. I’d started a job working on a horse farm and I wanted a friend to keep me company during my early morning weekend hours. Coty became many things, but a farm dog he was not.
I used to hold a lot of guilt about Coty’s life. He spent a lot of time alone because I was a teenager with things to do. He was cared for, of course, but mostly by my parents. When I left for college, he stayed behind and I rarely visited. When I dropped out of college and stayed with girlfriends instead of going home, again, he stayed behind. The guilt began when Coty was diagnosed with lymphoma and I realized that I’d barely spent time with him in his seven years on earth. The guilt I held I felt deeply as I got older because I realized that I’d seen Coty as a thing to be dealt with, not a life for me to care for and not for the gift to human life that dogs are. It wasn’t until recently that I was able to let go of my guilt upon realizing that I’ve had the dogs I needed at every point in my life and that each of them has made me me.
I didn’t make the same mistake of absence with Dewey. Quite the opposite. Dewey was never alone, never without someone to love and dote on him, and in ensuring that, I am certain that I fed what may have been a manageable case of separation anxiety and made it an all-consuming thing that my life grew to revolve around. Where I went, Dewey went, and people came to know me not as Courtney but as “Dewey’s mom.” My identity became intertwined with him but that became a saving grace for growing social anxiety I was feeling as I got older.
Dewey was such an expressive and charismatic dog — two things I am not. His unique looks were conversation starters, his cuteness and fondness for people led to friendships for me. And his peculiar needs taught me how to be a responsible adult, how to put the needs of others above my own (something I was not taught growing up). As Dewey grew, so, too, did his separation anxiety. Throughout his life, I’d tried everything to mitigate and manage it. Trainers, medication, and finally doggy daycare which he didn’t particularly enjoy, as he didn’t particularly enjoy other dogs. Eventually my schedule just revolved around him. He knew precisely when I was supposed to be home and away from home for my job as a dog walker and if I deviated from that, I returned home to something having been destroyed. Many things having been destroyed. But I was fine with Dewey dictating my schedule, as the older I got, the more I struggled with the idea of a social life. I liked being home, doing my own thing. I would have liked friends over from time to time but that was another difficulty for me. But Dewey made that feel less like a personal failing or a problem with my personality and more like it was okay because I needed to be with him anyway. Two beings who felt better, more confident, when away from our own species.
The problem with allowing your identity to become tied to your dog is that dogs don’t live that long. Losing my partner and my very best friend Dewey within two months of each other left me feeling like I’d lost all of myself too. I wanted another dog because I wanted something to mask the profound loss I was wanting to not deal with. Luckily for me (and likely that unknown dog) I didn’t have money to afford a dog immediately after Dewey died and with time, I healed. The grief that at first made me fear I was having a heart attack it hurt my chest so much, and made me resentful of everyone I saw out and about whose dog and significant other weren’t dead lessened. I grew quite fond of taking walks alone and smiled at strangers’ dogs as I passed them.
Finally, in September of 2019, I felt ready, emotionally and financially, for another dog, so off to the shelter I went. I returned home with a Corgi/Pit mix named Sam. He had the head and torso of a Pit and the legs of a Corgi. He was perfect. Until his third day at home when he lunged at me while I was bending down to give him his breakfast and before I knew it, his mouth was around my throat. Quite rattled but determined to work with him and a trainer, I tried my best to not fear my own dog. My resolve vanished the next day when, again out of seemingly nowhere, he latched onto my arm, later resulting in compression syndrome. Again riddled with guilt and grief, I took Sam back to the shelter, feeling that I’d failed him. I simply didn’t have the experience I thought I did with aggressive dogs to keep myself safe. I accepted that but the knowledge did nothing to negate the feeling that I’d probably returned Sam to his end.
After failing with Sam, I carried on with dogless life for two more months, checking my local shelters on PetFinder daily to see if the magic dog had appeared that spoke to me through the interwebs. Day after day, none did. I was getting to a good place emotionally, I was financially comfortable for the first time in my life, and I was ready to give my love to a dog who needed it knowing full well it would end in crushing grief as it always does with dogs.
On November 1, 2019, the day before my 38th birthday, I again checked PetFinder and there was Tali. She looked frightened in her “adopt me” picture but there was something about her that felt right. After a half hour spent with her at the shelter, I knew she was my girl. I was cautioned again and again by the shelter staff that she was a lot of work, maybe I should get an easier dog. She was, after all, brought to the shelter by her family for being “too much.” Little did the shelter know that I, too, had been cast aside by exes, friends, for being too much (read: autistic) and I knew precisely how to heal that pain.
While the loss of Dewey and my partner had stopped stinging so painfully, it was still there. I still had a lot of healing to do. Upon bringing Tali home, it quickly became clear that she did as well, for it was terribly obvious that she had not been treated kindly on account of her too-much-ness. As I did with Dewey, I struck a bargain with Tali, though this time, instead of me asking her for impossible immortality, I only told her that if she would be my dog, I would never, ever hurt her and I would keep her safe and happy.
Almost two years later, Tali remains too much and “Tali…Tali…TALI…Tali, stop it!” is a frequent utterance. But together, we have healed. I love her just as fiercely as I did Dewey, though I promised myself I never would feel that deeply again, and she trusts me enough to know that she can be told no, she can accidentally hurt me when we’re playing without having to fear being hurt back. Where Dewey taught me responsibility to a painful degree and dictated every aspect of my life, Tali is teaching me to be less uptight, more flexible, and immensely more patient.
Last month, Tali, her too-much-ness, and I decided that we had enough love and patience to bring a second dog into our life together. Having learned that I am actually a good dog owner and Tali desperately needing a buddy to be mischievous with at home, we went again to the local shelter where we met Tater. As Tali and I did just a short time ago, Tater also needed to heal. While she hadn’t been physically abused as Tali had, she had been chained outside and left to starve. When she was finally found and taken to animal control, she was skin and bones and suffering from giardia on top of that.
Tater is giving me lessons in pacing myself, something I fail to do despite having a chronic illness that requires it. In addition to being emaciated upon adopting her, the day after her adoption, I learned that she had a serious heart condition and her exercise would need to be careful and in moderation — a challenge for a dog whose muscle has wasted and needs to be rebuilt. Despite this, Tater is unbridled joy and love. You need only look at her and her tail will start wagging so forcefully that her entire body wags with it. Perhaps the most important lesson I will gain from her is what it is to love, be badly hurt, and love again without reservation.
One month into Tater being home with us, Tali is no longer too much, Tater is no longer starving, and I have taken every gift of my dogs past and put them into practice. I understand now that love, while often painful, is infinite and not something one can logically ration in order to protect oneself. My heart is wholly unprotected and I love these two girls with all of it but seeing them both happy and healthy makes the risk of heartbreak well worth it, for there is no feeling quite like earning the love and trust of a dog once hurt.
Coty taught me, Dewey made me grow, Tali allowed me to heal, and Tater is a living embodiment of the love I’ve gotten from all three. For those gifts, I am grateful and I return their love, without reservation.