Supportive Dogs - Both Comfort and Challenge

One fall day when I was a sophomore at Vassar College, my boyfriend Tim and my friend Pam and I went to a nearby dog pound “just to look.” I think Tim wanted me to get a dog and might have influenced me. My memory is a little fuzzy about that detail. I do know for sure that when the scrawny three-tone dog came towards me, “just to look” went out the door. We got the dog and drove back to the dorm. And I quickly fell in love with the husky-collie-shepherd mix with a distinctive V-shaped brown “widow’s peak” on his forehead.

Loving and losing

Everybody loved Simon. Nobody at the school questioned my bringing a dog up in the dorm. Nobody questioned me about bringing him to class or letting him run around on campus. He was my sidekick, my first canine love (other than our little family dog Sam). Some twelve years later, he actually got sick as a dog. I took him to a vet who said he probably wouldn’t make it through the weekend. He took his last breath in the back of the car on the way back home.

“I think we lost him,” my then-husband, Jim, said. I cried my eyes out.

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Dog companions complete my life

After that, I didn’t feel complete without a dog. I don’t remember how long I lasted until the next one. It wasn’t very long and was probably not long enough. I loved Winnie, our first black lab, but I wasn’t in love with her in the way I loved Simon. She was a good family dog and a good friend to the three children we had during her tenure. Then came Charlie and Misty, both Golden Retrievers, followed by my beloved chocolate lab, Maddie.

Part of my cancer support system

The timing wasn’t great. Shortly after I got her, my acute myeloid leukemia (AML) came back. I would have to be in and out of the hospital for my blood cancer treatments. By then I was divorced. My ex-husband had stayed with the kids for the first round. How would he feel about a puppy underfoot this time? He said it was OK. She turned into a great dog. As I wrote, she was my blood pressure medicine. She lived to be 15½, incredibly old for a big dog. I didn’t think I could cry as much as I did for Simon, but I did that and more.

I am lucky to have a lot of strong female friends, but when I need to make a decision, it can feel like I am in the middle of a cacophony of opinions. The opinions ranged from “don’t get a dog” (ever) to “wait a while before you get a dog” to “the only cure for pet loss grief is to get another dog.”

Challenges of caring for a dog with treatment side effects

I NEEDED a dog. I felt it in my bones. I thought I would go smaller though, and maybe get a 3-year-old to save myself the trouble of raising a puppy on my own. I lasted three months. And I did the opposite of what I set out to do. I’m no spring chicken. I have neuropathy in my feet (from the chemo), my balance isn’t perfect, and getting another big dog, a puppy no less, made no sense. But that’s what I felt could fill the gap.

Gracie makes me laugh. She can carry two tennis balls in her mouth. She drops one to play catch. She’s sweet and gentle and has a velvety coat. I can feel my blood pressure go down when she comes over and leans against my legs. At night, when it is time for bed, she walks into her crate and curls up in a ball. Yet she “counter surfs” in the kitchen, or when I try to walk her but she wants to walk ME, I can’t help but have some buyer’s remorse.

Discovering what works

After some trial and error, I decided that a head collar called a gentle leader would cut down on pulling the most. If I say “heel” over and over, she gets the idea. But a couple of months ago, she went back to pulling. A friend said the collar had gotten too small. I hadn’t noticed. But I realized she was right.

I had saved Maddie’s larger gentle leader. I took it out and showed it to Gracie. “Treat it with respect,” I said. And just like that –– what a relief –– she hardly pulled. You could say that’s because it fits better, but you could also say that it’s because Maddie is with us. She is helping me now, just as she helped me recover from leukemia.

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