My Inability to Connect to My Dog... And how we eventually fell in love
This Valentine’s Day marks my three-year “adopt-a-versary” with Millie. It was the worst Valentine’s Day of my life.
I adopted Millie too soon after my soul dog died, naively thinking that getting another dog would make my insurmountable pain disappear — as if relationships could just transfer. I was wrong. So wrong. If I thought my grief was bad then, it only worsened as I grieved my dog's loss, and the reality that my impulsivity had once again landed me in a bad situation.
I literally chose the first dog I saw at the shelter. In fact, I hadn’t even made it into the shelter. A volunteer was walking her, and it was as if I yelled, “DIBS!!!” It felt like every dog I was interested in was being adopted, so in my desperation, I chose anyone available. It was like being a home buyer in a seller’s market.
When I first set out to adopt, I had a checklist of traits I wanted in a dog. I had religiously stalked Petfinder, responsibly filtering by age, size, temperament, breed, etc. Because she had an unknown history, I had no idea of her temperament but convinced myself it would work out. My only known checklist violation was that she was five months and wanted an adult.
My husband and I met her a few days before we could take her home. During those days, my gut screamed that I was making a terrible mistake. Why had I insisted on getting a dog so soon and settling? I can only look back now and see it as a manic state where I didn’t think about the consequences of the decade + commitment I was making. The pain of grief and hopes of this being a sedative overrode any logic. I was too embarrassed to call the shelter and tell them I changed my mind, which, in retrospect, would not have been a big deal. So, I dismissed the same voice that screamed at me not to get married 2 weeks before my first marriage. I was a people pleaser then. I would rather disappoint myself than anyone else, no matter how much havoc it wreaked on my life.
I naïvely assumed all dogs had the stereotypical “Hallmark” temperament that Tovi did. This was not the case and led to resentment that grew as I got to know her. She was far from the comforting presence I had hoped for. We soon discovered that Mille was a troubled dog. Fearful, aggressive at times, destructive, and hardest for me, she had a noise phobia which interfered with her ability to go for walks. Walking and hiking were my life, and I wanted so badly a companion to share that with.
The thought of bringing her back to the shelter was not something I could entertain. Not because I loved her, but because I couldn’t tolerate the thought of being judged. I was certain they would shame me and put me on some sort of “do not adopt” list, and then I would never be able to get a dog. So, we enlisted the help and did the work — exhausting work of exposures, counter conditioning, and eventually psychiatric medication. It was a long road that I didn’t have the emotional stability to handle at the time. I fell into a deep depression, now grieving not only Tovi’s loss but simultaneously my life with Millie. I had my own psychiatric cocktail, intensive therapy, and a leave of absence from my job for some time.
But I did it. And in the process, she grew me. She taught me patience increased my frustration tolerance, which someone who easily crumbled needed.
Millie wasn’t able to have a dog walker because of her reactiveness when anyone entered our home, which limited our lives. Thankfully, she had daycare, where she did well. Six months after we adopted her, we tried a dog walker. We responsibly prepared with meets prior and having the dog walker sit with Millie for the entire three hours we would be out so she wouldn’t fear her coming in since she was already in the house (essentially a babysitter). But when she opened the door to take her out, Millie got spooked and bolted. This skittish dog — who wouldn’t let people near her — was now lost. Instead of being worried about her, it felt more like a burden to do the work of 24/7 searching for her, which we did all night. Exhausted, we went to bed to have the energy to start the real work in the morning: Lost signs to be posted in the area, posting on every social media site, awaiting a call back from a dog locating service to begin a search… But we never had to do any of that. Millie ended up finding her way home and appeared on our porch early the next morning. I was relieved, but a part of me was disappointed. I had fantasized about this being my opportunity to get a new dog… Don’t think I don’t know how terrible this sounds, but it was my truth then.
A therapist once profoundly described my inability to attach to her because I saw her as a reflection of my impulsivity, a part of myself I hated; therefore, I hated her. I had a lot of therapy related to our relationship. I wanted to love her for the flawed, special dog she was, but I couldn’t get past the resentment I felt toward her for not being the dog I wanted, essentially not being Tovi, the dog I still grieved for. I could only speak my truth in the confines of therapy.
On the outside, I appeared to be a great dog parent. I went through the motions that I thought would create a connection. I read her books about happy dogs. We fell asleep every night snuggled against each other. She had hundreds of toys and adorable pajamas. We did fun activities like painting (non-toxic paint) canvases with her paws while eating hot dogs. We even had professional photos of us taken (a perfect example of photos of a presumed happy life being deceiving). There was clearly a lot of codependency in our relationship. I hated her, yet I needed her.
It took over a year, but I started to develop real feelings for her. Dog Agility class was recommended to me to increase her confidence. Despite my skepticism, I gave it a try. She was terrified during the first class, and I wasn't going to return, but with encouragement from the trainer, she convinced me to stick with it… and she thrived! Watching her become more confident with every obstacle she mastered made me a proud mom. I saw her genuinely happy and free for the first time, and I felt like her MOM, not just her “pet parent.” I slowly began to focus on who she was and recognize how special my shy, special needs dog was, and I embraced her. Now when I sense a twinge of frustration when she occasionally growls at children or pancakes to the ground and abruptly ends our walk or doesn’t want people to enter her home, it’s OK. I adjust, pivot, and move on. I’ve since learned she does enjoy walking (just not in my neighborhood surrounded by boisterous children and lawnmowers), and she became a great hiking partner!
Two years later, we adopted another dog. A friend was fostering the most easygoing, confident, gentle dog. I was terrified, not knowing how it would turn out, but I knew in my gut Millie needed it, and maybe I did too. She and Ethel bonded quickly and are inseparable. Seeing Ethel’s confidence, Millie learned to “dog.” It’s an odd dynamic watching their bond and feeling like their mom, which is a very different connection than I shared with Tovi, my partner. As much as they love each other, they also love me, and now I am sandwiched to sleep by two dogs. Ethel’s gentle presence and vivacious spirit healed my heart in a way Millie could not. I sometimes wonder how different my experience would have been if Ethel were the dog I adopted after Tovi died. Things may have been easier, but my path led me to advocate for fearful dogs and emotional support for other pet parents experiencing similar struggles. I landed just where I was meant to.
On this 3rd anniversary, I wrote this letter to Millie:
Happy 3rd “Adopt-a-versary!” I love you more with each passing year, and I could never have imagined us having the bond we share today. We grew each other — eventually healed each other — and I can’t imagine my life without you. I am so sorry for the rocky start we had. Your kind is so forgiving. You never loved me any less, even though I suspect you must have sensed my attachment struggles.
Thank you for being my dog and coming back to me. I could never have imagined saying that 3 years ago. The morning you came home from getting lost, I knew you didn’t want to be anywhere else and had to find your way back, even after traveling miles away. You belong here, and I am so blessed to have you.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that this work is not possible for everyone, and that's OK!
This post also appears in Medium