What She Taught Me: An Ode to My Dog
I was asked what I’d wish I’d known before my black lab entered my life. She arrived only three months old in August 2007. I was fifteen and now I’m twenty-five. Easy math: she’ll be turning ten this spring.
The number one thing I wish I’d known: how fast ten years can pass.
This question is surprisingly emotional.
Of course there are technical things I wish my family had known: the danger of ocean waves; her allure to anything edible, including dog-treat-like painkillers (she survived an entire bottle–it’s a mystery how she got into the high cabinet); how she won’t simply chew a bone but eat it down to its marrow, making herself sick.
But what has been most surprising, most important, is my black lab’s impact on my life.
The timing of this question–what I wish I’d known–is spot on. Once again, I’m separated from my beloved. She’s in California and I’m in Washington state. My biggest want is to spend her final years with her, which is implausible and selfish. We also have a relaxed Bichon Schitzu mut in our home, one year her elder. They’re pals, sort of, despite their different temperaments. What would I be doing to these dogs if I separated them, if I took Bella from the house–a house that is large, open, with a yard that looks out to valleys, mountains, a national forest? The home she knows.
I’m convinced she won’t mind after too long: she loves me, I take her on hikes, I give her constant love. But this isn’t the topic of this post–my desperation for more time with her–so I’ll save that tangent for another time.
Excuse me as I will absolutely get sentimental.
///what I didn’t know when Bella(trix), my black lab, arrived.
Hide the macadamia nuts. When Bella snags a newly opened bottle from the cupboard and devours it, she’ll lose control of her back legs. Your parents will think she’s paralyzed, dying, and will carry her down the stairs using a towel. She’s unable to stand, to sit, to move, to respond. Your parents won’t call you until they find the destroyed macadamia nut container and turn to Google, when the vet deems her okay. You will cry regardless.
In her early days, she will help you recover from anorexia. When she is still being kenneled at night, you will hear her crying as you cry and bring her to your bed. She will nuzzle you to sleep. She will calm you, give you the love you don’t think you deserve. In her early and mid and later days, she will be the force that pulls you out of the dark. A reason to keep trying, move forward.
She will maybe save your life in so many damn subtle and large ways.
One day, when you’re on a walk–she’s one, maybe two–two dogs on extending leashes will bound to her. She’s on your leash and you’ve trained her well on walks. She stays by your side. But the other dogs, fully grown, fast and thrilled, they will jump onto Bella before you can pull her away. She’s already shy. The dogs will hump her, try to play. Bella will whine, whimper, let out a howl, and try to escape, claw to you. You will sob as you try to end it. The owners of the other dogs will laugh it off, apologize, ignore your eyes. You calm Bella down, nuzzle her face, and let the moment pass. Continue the walk. Shake it off.
From that walk on, the only other dog Bella will trust is Leonardo–the shitzu mix she shares a home with. At dog parks and beaches, she keeps her distance. She will always prefer humans. When other dogs enter the house, she’s not aggressive (she will never be aggressive) but dubious, timid, sad–keeping a distance, only stepping in when she feels small Leo is at risk.
This one is hard for you to admit: technically Bella was a birthday gift to your brother and is not technically your dog but his or at the very least the family’s dog. (Shhhhh.) Even at age twenty-five, you will generally refuse to accept this as fact.
Because when you’re home, you and Bella spend every moment together–her following you like a shadow–she will pick up pieces of your personality. Or maybe you will pick up pieces of hers. Your family and friend are dubious about what came from who. You both share an affinity for hanging out on the floor (okay, she often chooses the couch but still), bouts of hyperness followed by exhaustion, you don’t like being left alone but rather be near the chaos to observe from afar, your shy around crowds of new people, both empathetic to a fault and cry too easily, introverts who crave attention and give too much love. You both press your face against the faces of those you love. And, fine, are both a wee bit bratty and entitled when it comes to best-sitting spot in the house.
When your younger brother and dad innocently, playfully, toss her into the pool as a puppy, they ruin her the possibility of her every willingly swimming in it again. You will spend years trying to lure her out with treats and patience. She won’t go past the second step.
But days where the temperature peaks past 95 degrees, you’ll look out a window and see her–your pool-fearing dog–relaxing on the top step of the pool. And occasionally, randomly, she’ll prance inside with her belly and legs soaked wet.
Because of your tendency to press your face into her face, she will attempt to do this with every other family member and frequent house visitor. And if someone is sitting on the floor, or really sitting anywhere, she will try to cuddle real close. You will be blamed and you will not care.
As soon as you pull out a suitcase, her mood will plummet. She will nestle in a corner, on a bed or your folded pile of to-be-packed clothes, and stare at you with the saddest eyes. She knows what it means.
She will do anything and everything to obtain food. She will steal an apple from the fruit bowl and raw steak out of the sink. She will find the boxes of expensive holiday toffee in the closet and eat every last piece. Chocolate does not make her sick. It’s a mystery–how she snags food your family now ensures to hide, put up, put away.
Your dad admittedly offers her his breakfast plate for her to lick clean. This will drive you crazy. But after her weeklong stay at the animal clinic after a surgery, when the vet happily proclaims he gave her a McDonald’s egg sandwich every morning, you will be annoyed and amused and you father will be vindicated.
Her guilt is palpable. Especially after food stealing. She will hide, duck her face, hurry outside. She’ll watch your face from afar, your energy, waiting for the punishment to end.
When you return home–because after your first year and a half together, you develop an addiction to sporadic moving–she will tackle you and love-nip your face and cry whimper joy. You will live for these moments.
After you have a surgery, or when your simply very sick, she will know. She will be tentative around you, removed from her normal eagerness. She won’t hop onto you bed but wait for your beckoning. She will lick your face so carefully, nudge her head against your chest. She knows. And when you’re having an episode, when you’re in absolute distress, sobbing, unable to breathe, she can be in another part of the house, outside even, and know this too. She’ll find you. Sit with you. Wait it out. Let you sob into her belly.
After you free her from her kennel mid-night when she is still a puppy, she won’t go near that kennel again. When it’s brought into the house, she will stay several feet away, watch it carefully. She will only go inside when you crawl in too and with a treat.
When you are away–in Colorado Springs or Berkeley or Humboldt County or Alaska, at college, an extended vacation, a random move–your heart will break every day because of how much you miss her. You will become a crazy dog lady. Have you ever missed anyone like this? You will pester your mom for photos and videos and you will sob. Knowing you’ll see Bella again will be your calm.
The ocean is not Bella’s friend. When she is brought to the dog beach a fourth time, she will be infatuated with the waves. She will walk out too deep. She is seven years old and her hips and knees are already weakened, damaged even, from a puppyhood of “dog dancing” (we were young and dumb–me and my siblings) and her jumping near back flips for food and simply being alive–and, at that beach, a series of strong waves will slam her, drag her backside to the sand. You will see a video of the exact moment and your stomach will sink. Her legs under her, her hip yanked to the side. After, she doesn’t care that she’s in pain. That she’s injured. She continues her ocean dance and beach frolicking. She will come home with a limp and bounce around the house, still gleeful. You will try to tell yourself it’s okay.
Three months later, you will demand a vet visit despite the cost. Her limp is worse and she’s developed a tremor. The vet first thinks it might be cancer and your heart shatters. But, ultimately, you learn she has torn ligaments, a faulty joint, other horrifying terms. She needs an intensive surgery. Metal in her knees, her hips. She might not survive. Your heart breaks again. You’re told she’ll probably need a second one on her other back leg in a few years. This expensive surgery. This pain.
She has the surgery. She heals. Her nights spent away from the house, at the hospital, are too quiet. As soon as she is brought home, she fights the concept of not walking on her own, not running. Using a sling, you will help her outside to use the bathroom. She will whine like there’s nothing worse in the world when she’s confined to a small room so she doesn’t hurt herself. She will heal. Two months later, you’re walking with her, running with her through the hills and valleys that make your home. Two years later, you’ll notice an occasional small limp and wonder. You and your family are mindful, watching closely.
But you’ll always resent the ocean.
One day, you will write a blog post dedicated to her, and you will cry as you type and gather photos. You are as dramatic as her.
She will become a spoiled queen. Your family can’t resist. Since your first dog, pups have been allowed on beds and couches. And Bella is the worst–believing she’s entitled to sofa space and pillows, and perhaps you enable this by your preference for the floor below her.
When you realize she is nine years old and has outlived your childhood dog, you will start reconciling her limited time. You will consider the span of her life. Of what she has given, taught. You will make plans for her time ahead. You will cry and then get up and remember there is still time.
At some point, you will consider her a part of you. She has developed you, taught you how to grow from a broken teenager to who you are now. This black lab that you initially avoided. Every day away from her hurts. She is your baby. Your patronus, a bone, your best friend–the only one who understands you so completely. She has seen you at your very worst. She has watched you self-destruct. She has watched you love. She has taught you how to love.
You never expected her to teach you how to love yourself.
Bella reminds me why I stay proactive with my mental health to this day, and she will continue to in memory when her time ends. I’ll say it again and again: I never thought a dog would teach me how to love myself, but that is exactly what Bella did. If I’d known sooner, I would have treasured her early puppy days, would have let her in right away.