Last October, Lucy died.
To the world, Lucy was just a dog. To me, Lucy was my world. Before you go writing me off as another crazy dog lady, I can admit that Lucy wasn’t my entire world. She was, however, an important piece of the puzzle that gave my life stability and forward motion.
The irony of those words is that Lucy was the dog I swore I would never adopt. She was a rambunctious, disobedient, house-soiling foster dog. A misfit. A problem child. But after a few months, her mischief had grown on me and I adopted her. It wasn’t that I felt a strong connection with her at the time. It was more that I felt I “knew better” and any other adopter wouldn’t be able to handle what this dog dished out.
Over the next eight years, Lucy and I connected. More than that, she became a permanent fixture in my life. So much so that when she died my mother admitted, “When I think of you, I think of Lucy, not your husband or anything else. You and Lucy, you’re a part of each other.” Indeed, Lucy had become an extension of myself. And now she was gone.
Bracing for goodbye
The last three years of Lucy’s life were spent trying to keep her walking. We tried every remedy out there as arthritis slowly wore away at her joints. Her silent killer was the plain, old generic variety of arthritis. It was happily tamed by NSAIDs, but the NSAIDs were no match for Lucy’s frail system. Instead, she was prescribed a cocktail of supplements and pain relievers to keep her comfortable, and she kept a regular schedule of walking on the water treadmill and cold laser therapy to keep her moving. But I eventually came to find that “arthritis always wins in the end.”
For three years, I quietly prepared myself for the reality that this appendage I called “my dog” was one day going to die. I had come to the realization that telling myself over and over again, “I don’t know what I’ll do when she dies,” was foolish planning. And I am a planner. So, instead of setting myself up for desperation, I made an effort to shift my perspective and accept that one day Lucy wouldn’t be here anymore.
Despite all my all my efforts at mentally preparing for her death, when the time came I simply wasn’t ready to let her go. For weeks, as she declined I agonized over when “the right time” would be. Once her legs finally gave out and she could no longer lift herself into a stand, I couldn’t agonize anymore; the time was now. We arranged for our vet to meet us at our house. And as Lucy drew her final breaths, I felt the earth shift under my feet.
More than “just a dog”
When I first met Lucy I thought she was a train wreck and impossible to fall in love with. Over the years though, that’s exactly what happened. Like any relationship, our bond was made stronger through shared experiences, but also through the understanding that only time can cultivate. She spent the better part of my twenties watching me grow up. And as I got my life together, I grew to understand her better as a dog.
By the time she passed, Lucy had seen me through the worst of times. There were periods when she was the only constant thing in my life. She was the one I could count on to still be at my side after the dust settled. This crazy, neurotic dog needed me; a fact that shaped my everyday. In my darkest moments, she alone was the reason I knew I had to “hang in there.” In my brightest moments, she reminded me, like any good dog does, how to live in the moment gloriously.
Only in her old age did I start to realize all the mistakes I had made as a dog mom. I was taking dog training seriously, reading up on current research and science-based methods for teaching dogs new tricks. What I learned contrasted sharply with the harsh methods of traditional training, which had shaped the beginnings of our relationship. The more I learned, the more I desperately wanted more time with Lucy. More time to make up for all the horrible mistakes I had made with her.
But I’m sad to say that her final moments weren’t what I wanted them to be. She was the same fearful dog I adopted, if not more fearful thanks to my early heavy-handedness. Though we made Lucy’s passing as peaceful as possible, I knew that I had failed her in so many ways.
When Lucy died I was careful about with whom and how I shared my grief. Grief over a dog is still stigmatized. And if life only pauses when we lose close human family members, it barely blinked when I lost my dog. I put my head down and went back to my everyday. But inside I felt wrecked and lost. I didn’t have any one I could work through that with. Even my husband, for all his trying, can’t understand why Lucy’s passing took such a toll on me.
The closest I came to sharing my grief happened months later. I was driving back from a long day of learning with two classmates from the Victoria Stilwell Academy when one of them said something that shook me at my core. We were talking about why we want to be dog trainers and she said something along the lines of “all we can do is pay it forward for all they’ve given us.” She didn’t realize it at the time but that was the life raft I needed to stay afloat when the Lucy floodgates opened.
Lucy’s death left me feeling angry and ashamed for all I didn’t know when I first adopted her; for the ways I had failed to build her confidence, even though I thought I was “curing” her disobedience. After all, caring for Lucy had become an intricate part of my purpose in life. As ridiculous as that may sound to some, it was the thing that lifted me out of dark holes and turned me back onto right paths. So, realizing in the end that I had failed was devastating. And with her gone there was no way of undoing what I had done wrong.
But Anne’s words gave me a spark of hope that had been clouded by my grief. All I can do is pay it forward. Lucy is gone and I can never repay her. But I can pay forward everything she did for me. Pay it forward. Everything dogs have done for me. I don’t think you have to be a dog person to understand what I’m saying here. If a dog has ever warmed your heart, made you laugh or licked tears off your face, you know what I’m talking about.
Life goes on
The hope of paying it forward wasn’t given to me until several months after Lucy left. What did come quickly was the addition of a puppy to my life. Aptly named, Hope was a dog I didn’t really want. When Lucy died I told my husband we would not be adopting a dog for at least six months. I don’t know where I came up with that arbitrary timeline but I do know why I didn’t want a dog. Another dog would be overshadowed by the loss I felt. Another dog would never be as good as Lucy. And I could never love another dog as much as I loved Lucy.
But three weeks after Lucy died my husband admitted to me that he was eager to adopt a puppy. Maybe I wasn’t as good at hiding my grief as I thought. Our home and our lives were too sad and boring, he said. He thought a puppy would liven things up. [Now, I can already hear the activists clamoring about “wrong reasons” to adopt a dog. But let’s lay our judgments aside for the sake of a story here.] I couldn’t disagree; a puppy would indeed liven things up. A puppy would also keep me busy. And if I kept busy, then the Lucy floodgates stayed closed.
That’s when I stumbled across a little black and tan nugget sitting in a kennel at the Georgia SPCA. I was at my first Victoria Stilwell Academy intensive learning more about dog cognition and positive training methods. My brain was lighting up in all sorts of exciting ways, and I’m willing to bet this was part of the reason I opened up to the idea of a puppy. At the end of each day of training, I visited the puppy. I played games with her, snuggled her, facetimed my husband with her. After much mulling, we decided to adopt the little nugget.
As I loaded her up in my truck for the drive home, I remember thinking “here goes nothing.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m too much of a planner to just wing anything. I had already planned our schedules, instructed the hubs on how to set up the house, and gone on a supply shopping spree. But in my mind, I was still a little unsure about the timing of this puppy. I still missed my dog so much. The kind of longing that makes your chest throb. And I just wasn’t sure there was room in my heart for a shiny new puppy.
After all, this puppy was nothing like Lucy. I met Lucy after her formative years and although I wasn’t sure what had happened to her, there were hints that she had been through some rough times. Add in my early heavy-handed, alpha-dog “training” style and this dog undoubtedly experienced trauma. That was something Lucy and I had in common, we were both survivors of trauma. Surely, this shiny new puppy knew nothing of the dread, pain and desperation that Lucy and I had been subjected to. Shiny new puppies are innocent, fearless and stinkin’ adorable. Shiny new puppies and I have nothing in common.
But if nothing else, I had a new mission. Never repeat any of the mistakes I made with Lucy. Looking back, I suppose it was more of an un-mission. It took time for that un-mission to morph into something greater. In the meantime, I filled shiny new puppy’s life with all the things Lucy deserved but didn’t get enough of: a predictable schedule, positive reinforcement, puppy play dates, and a house full of enrichment. In all I was trying to give her, little did I realize what the shiny new puppy was giving me back in return.
To be continued…Don’t miss our next post where we share how things turned out with the shiny new puppy! Here’s a hint: Lucy’s legacy lives on.