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Millie died one year ago, and I am only now in a place to write about her. I intended to do so for some time but was too ashamed to admit my relief.
I was terrified to reveal my truth. How could I put taboo feelings into words without wanting to run and hide and bury my face in my hands to protect myself from all of the terrible words I expected to be hurled at me like projectiles?
Strained relationships aren't often discussed when we live in a society filled with perfect "Hallmark" dogs.
Millie and I had a complicated relationship. She was my rebound dog after my beloved dog, Tovi, died. Drowning in grief, I was so desperate for a dog that I chose the first dog I met at the shelter. My actions were not rational, and I knew it. I didn’t care that she checked none of my boxes; I was determined to fill the void in my heart…as if Tovi could be replaced.
My husband and I soon discovered that Millie had severe behavioral issues — fearful of noises, scared of people, afraid of being touched, to mention a few. She was always alert and had a killer bark when she perceived a situation as frightening. I was naïve and spoiled with the perfect dog; the thought of a behaviorally challenged dog never crossed my mind. I resented her for the lifestyle she brought upon me and for simply not being Tovi.
She was far from the comforting presence I sought in the midst of debilitating grief. If I thought I was drowning in grief and sadness before, she amplified it.
Her aggressive nature kept me on edge.
All. The. Time.
Life with her was heavy. I wanted my “Before” back. Already having chronic anxiety, she was a constant trigger. It often felt like more than my fragile self could handle. A particular type of weight kept me frozen and fixated on monitoring her behavior. Over the years, although she improved with medication and behavioral specialists, she was never the dog I hoped she could be.
I loved my “home” Millie so much. With my husband and I, she was a loving dog and would never show any aggression. She was the definition of sweetness. She had endearing quirks, and I couldn’t sleep without her by my side. I dressed her up in adorable pajamas. I tried so hard with her — our relationship looked idyllic on the outside. I took the quintessential birthday picture yearly — see above (the kind parents take and flaunt on Facebook). We celebrated her birthdays with gifts and hikes, which were her favorite. I loved that, Millie.
Rationally, I knew her outbursts were born out of fear; much like me, she was always on edge.
We were alike in many ways.
We both struggled to regulate emotions.
We both had chronic anxiety.
We were both on Prozac.
Her behavior improved tremendously with persistent training, and she became less fearful of life. She became an agility star and wasn’t as afraid of being near strangers. Agility brought her confidence and a sense of mastery over something.
But I remained overly cautious — to an extreme — as my husband would say. Even as she improved, I could never get the picture of her snapping at a child out of my head, failing to see her as the dog who had come so far. I could never let go of those memories, and when my heart began to heal, another incident arose that tore it open again.
As difficult as it was, I understood her and devoted my life to keeping her away from triggers. I was her person — the one who protected her. It was exhausting, but I committed to her the day I signed her adoption papers.
If I dig deeply into my most vulnerable self — if it wasn’t for my very patient husband, who loved her with an unconditional love I didn’t have, I considered behavioral euthanasia. Her presence in my life, and her unpredictability, was more than I could handle. I worried her behavior was a liability. She broke me. I lived in a chronic state of anxiety.
Two years into adopting Mille, we adopted Ethel. Behaviorists suggested we adopt a known confident dog to show Millie how to “dog.” Despite not wanting two dogs, I would try anything to help her.
I referred to Ethel my “Angel from Heaven.” She loved to give kisses, never growled or showed any aggression, and rarely barked. As we hoped, she enhanced Millie’s life in many ways. Ethel was the dog I had dreamed of adopting from the beginning. Too often, I fantasized about how much happier I would be if Ethel were my only dog — thoughts I am ashamed of ever entertaining.
It happened suddenly.
Millie was only five when she was diagnosed with cancer and had been our dog for four-and-a-half years at that point. As hard as life was with her, we loved her and did everything we could to save her. Despite chemo, she died six weeks after her diagnosis. I often blame myself. So often, I imagined life without her. Did my faux wish come true?
At the risk of sounding cliche, it wasn’t until she was sick that I realized how much I loved her. As hard as life was, I had learned to carry it, and it became a part of me that I wasn’t sure I was ready to let go of.
She remains on the lock screen on my iPad, but as time passes, she becomes more unfamiliar. My days with her feel like a lifetime away, maybe because that life was different.
Life is light again. My baseline returned. I’m not chronically on edge.
After what I had been through, I was terrified of adopting another dog, but Ethel had become non-respondent without a doggie sibling. Five weeks later, we adopted Fred from a foster home to be more informed about the dog’s temperament. I was terrified to do it any other way. By then, I had become an expert on dealing with a special needs dog like Millie, and if I were at a different point in my life, I might have intentionally adopted a special needs dog, but not now. I had been traumatized and still coming down from everything. I needed a break. It’s strange to hear myself say that, but it’s true.
I often feel guilty about the deep love I have for Fred. It feels wrong to be so happy. But that’s my experience. I will always love Millie and never forget the unique bond we shared. I was her everything and showed her the love she deserved, even when it felt complicated.
When looking for a new dog, I was oddly drawn to dogs who resembled Millie. Their temperaments differed significantly from Millie's, but I missed seeing her. In the end, we found Fred, who shares no resemblance to Millie, and that's probably for the best. Fred isn't perfect; he has his “stuff,” but he doesn’t scare me. Millie taught me to be more accepting of the “stuff” we all have, a lesson I will never forget. I was both blessed and cursed with the perfect first dog.
Written by Elizabeth Weiner