by Joy Anderson
As a kid, I never had animals. Not unless you want to count the beetles I rescued from the pool and held in pebbled triage units 'til they were dried off. There was always the occasional outdoor cat that came and went, but nothing I really bonded with. My folks weren’t real “animal people“, so a pet was just never part of the equation. I think maybe at some point I made a request for a puppy which was undoubtedly met with a stern NO . . . and ten reasons why not. Because it wasn't an option, I guess I just put it out of my head. Still, there was always a yearning, a string being pulled from some corner in my heart to hear the pitter-pat of a four-legged critter in my life.
In 2005 I got my first cat. First came a rescue at an adoption event. Then an impulsive adoption from a business associate. Finally a stray brought herself into our family.
The cats were my muses, my shadows, and a faithful committee insisting I take a break. I remember thinking, Must be nice. Lying about all day, doing whatever you want. No deadlines to meet nowhere to be. No one would criticize them for their life choices or their inability to be on time. Cats fascinated me—their carefree attitude in particular.
The years rolled on. Our cat family eventually dispersed like orphaned children in the aftermath of disaster. I felt terrible that I couldn’t keep the family together, but I had to come to terms with it and moved on. I had let them go, but I held on tightly to what I learned from them: independence, solidarity, and a certain laissez-faire attitude. Simplicity's where it's at . . . with a cat.
Now dogs . . . DOGS are an entirely different animal—literally.
For cats, it's easy for them to blow you off. Dogs just can't wait for you to get home. I know this, because my dogs' day begins when I walk through the door.
The problem was that I knew very little about dogs. It all started with my partner reminiscing one day about a Yorkie that he’d lost in a break-up. It was easy for me to see as he talked about his dog, that the memory of that pooch touched a special place. My heart sunk as he shared how he lost his best friend: it was a deep scar from losing that dog.
Some of those stories he shared with a smile, some through tears. He could see that I just couldn't quite relate—that I had no real understanding of what it was like to be a "dog owner"—a dog lover—and what it's like to experience a dog's unconditional love.
That's when a real change shifted the landscape of my life like a hurricane rearranging the Florida landscape.
My partner had piqued my curiosity talking about that little Yorkie. I did some research on Yorkies and other breeds. I wandered through pet stores looking at cages, beds, special shampoos, training devices . . . all things dog-related. We decided to look up a respected breeder in the area.
*NOTE: I will never do this again knowing what I know now about how over populated the world is with puppies and the astounding number of perfectly good healthy cute lovable animals get euthanized each day just because there aren’t enough homes and fosters available. This statistic makes me want to puke. Adoption is the way.
At any rate, we showed up at the breeder's place, out in the boondocks. We went to pick up the last of the Yorkie litter—a perfect little girl. I’m telling you—in that moment, I became immediately convinced that love-at-first-sight really does exist. She came trotting out of a back room as if to say “Hey! What took ya so long? Let’s get outta here! “ My boyfriend was crazy about her, and as for me? Well, I just didn’t know what to feel . . . or DO. The emotions overwhelmed me.
I morphed into a little five-year-old girl; I was completely, unexpectedly transmogrified—like a spell had been cast on me in front of this wild, adorable little furry . . . thing. She was full of personality and she stole my heart in a second.
I have been a dog lover ever since.
Consequently, she also brought out a mothering instinct in me that I never knew existed. From that day forward, I was a doggie-mama. I sat in bed with her that first night, wondering who she was, what her name should be, and it came to me—Sadie. Then Sadie Belle. Her coat was classified as “blue and gold” so next off my lips rolled, “Sadie Belle Blue Girl.” That was it. A brand on my heart forever—it was official.
Sadie became my first dog. The landscape of my life was changed forever. More importantly, I had changed inside.
Her first meal with us was filet mignon, mashed potatoes and green beans. Naturally, she sat at the table in a chair on a pillow and dined with us. She was too good to eat out of a bowl on the floor. She was part of the family now. I bought her clothes; I talked to her frankly about matters of the world, and she seemed to understand. She seemed to think that chasing something I threw was the solution to any problem. And when that didn’t work, a nap.
Less than a year later we decided Sadie needed a friend. We needed another dog like we needed a hole in our heads, but there is no logic when the bug hits.
It was a Sunday afternoon when I found his black-and-white face in the paper. He looked like a little doggie-mime. Again, love at first sight.
I began returning items to stores in a mad frenzy to raise the cash that day I needed to save that little boy and bring him into our home. We scoured the car for change just to scrape up enough money to get him. It was insane. I was completely obsessed, but it felt natural to me so I didn’t care what anyone thought.
When we arrived to the puppy's location, I saw two bulldog brutes come barrelling out behind a couple of equally substantial Boston Terrier adults - clearly, these were the parents of the litter.
But, way behind, barely as tall as the grass—and half the size of the rest—came my guy, the runt of the gang. I was done. I met my match. I might as well have given birth to him myself. This was clearly MY dog and the feeling was mutual—we were in love.
In my view, Tuff and I were reunited soulmates. I took him everywhere. He slept with me under the covers and didn’t move until I was ready to start my day. We were a unit.
When we arrived home with Tuff that first day, Sadie looked stunned. A confusion crept over her and then at us as if to say, “Are you kidding me? What the f*** is this?!”
Two dogs changed the course of my life. Here's how: I started structuring my life around them—they ran me. I created little monsters, I know. I gave the dogs anything they wanted, whenever they wanted it. I loved and spoiled them and we gave them the best care possible. Regular vet visits, good food, lots of walks, regular grooming—we were model parents.
It seems that when things come that change you permanently, you never see them coming. For better or worse, when the universe decides that you are ready for something new, you get it.
Enter Oliver . . .
A dog changed me, once again, in a different way than the two others had.
I was killing time before a meeting one day, and had pulled into a strip mall for a cup of coffee and I came across a pet store—stores I now have come to loathe. My partner and I grabbed each other’s hands as if to say, “We. Must. Do. This!” and in we went.
It was near the holidays and this was clearly a "pop-up" puppy store filled with the most expensive popular breeds; Yorkies, King Charles Cavaliers, Maltese, Shitzu. Most of the dogs came with the indispensable bow-in-the-hair (and a high price tag) . . . except for one.
That particular little guy looked too thin, emaciated somehow. On closer inspection, I found him to be filthy and smelly. To make matters worse, he had an ear infection so vile that both his ears were clogged with black muck.
I asked the owner, “What is wrong with this dog?”
“Oh, that’s Gadget, I’ll never get rid of him—I’ll never bring that breed in here again.”
The woman thought the dogs were just a "product" on a shelf, and her name for that one proved it. The fact was that puppy was neglected and not getting care and attention he sorely needed. It made me sick to my stomach and explosively angry.
I composed myself and asked to see him. The owner brought him out of the lucite box. He was older than the rest and when I put him on the floor, his back legs went out from under him like a frog. I learned that he’d never been walked on a leash and just went from kennel to box, box to kennel, every single day.
It broke my heart. I wanted to scream.
I learned that day that “bad people” really DO exist and my otherwise live-and-let-live attitude would be challenged and forever changed. I could see that this dog needed immediate medical attention, a bath, food, and exercise. I asked how much he cost and the figure she came back with was laughable, ridiculous.
I said, "How about this instead? I give you X dollars for your trouble, and I take this dog out of here to get the medical attention he needs!"
“You can’t do that; I’ll call the police!”
"Go right ahead!” I replied. “And we can talk to them about animal neglect and abuse while we’re at it!!”
I placed a hundred dollar bill on the counter and stormed out with the dog.
I’d never done anything close to that in my life! But little Oliver brought a rage for justice—he changed me. I have since become an advocate for animal rights, I communicate with rescues and encourage people anywhere I go to adopt. I do my best to educate people about puppy mills, pet stores and the benefits of owning a rescue dog. I also follow developments in how animals are beneficial to recovery process in any type of healing. In two years I went from never knowing the love of a dog (or even being interested in caring for one) to being a well-educated advocate for rescues and adoption. In fact, I now have a goal to acquire some land and operate a rescue of my own. Every day I take a step closer to that goal, even if it’s a just dime in the piggy bank.
The next few years got rocky. I had health issues, family issues, and business issues as well. Life turned on a dime one day after I was assaulted by a family member at my place of employment. I was injured and traumatized, and unable to work. We relocated to get a fresh start, but it only led to complications with my partner’s business. This time ended with my becoming addiction to opiate-based pain meds and our eventual financial ruin.
We lost everything. But, through it all, we kept the dogs.
When I was in the last stages of battling my addiction, a lot of people encouraged me to let my dogs go so they could find a new “forever home.” They said I would have other dogs, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Call me selfish, but to me this sounded like giving up—abandoning ship—abandoning lives I had volunteered to be responsible for.
Some days, those pups were the only thing keeping me from calling it quits in a very final way. Those little guys saved my life many times. I did what I thought was right; I kept them safe, fed and loved. I didn’t give up on them, even after I had given up on myself. Even when it came to the point where I was living in my car with my fiancé (same guy). Our three dogs would cuddle up on one of the cold Florida nights in February and March (it does get cold here), and somehow we scraped up some food and we kept each other warm. There was love, however distorted it might have been. As for the dogs, they gave me just enough reason to live some days—something to live for outside of myself.
I learned then one of many valuable lessons I would learn from my dogs: they never abandoned me. No matter how sad or angry I got; no matter how I fought around them; how I know I scared them; how I was impatient with them when I was using—when all they wanted from me was my attention and to play. Those guys never left me. They stayed.
Luckily, we never allowed ourselves to let them go without eating or without shelter. They ate before we did. Period. But in the midst of everyone else in my life edging me out or shutting the door in my face because they were too hurt. Too lied to. Too stolen from. Too disappointed. Within it all, these dogs never lost hope in us.
There was never a note tucked up under the wiper blade on car's windshield that read: “We’ve had it. We’ve left. Good luck to you.” They were loyal, and it seemed like they even tried to comfort us on the really bad days. They were (and ARE) only pure, unconditional love, and from that . . . there is much I have learned. My animals taught me the kind of love that doesn’t judge, the kind of love that doesn’t hold resentments and is quick to forgive. The kind of love that doesn’t tell you one thing on Monday, and then turns their back on you two days later.
They comforted us when we were on our last shreds of hope and guess what—something always worked out for us. For me that is the Grace of God.
Talk about a transformation. I will never be the same and it's all because of their unconditional, unrelenting, ever-present love.
About the author:
Joy Anderson is a South Florida native and has travelled extensively around the US. She uses her life experience as a personal warehouse of material to draw from when she writes. She currently manages content for the outreach for addiction recovery marketing firm Stodzy Internet Marketing. She is also engaged in several freelance projects. She shares a home with her dogs who continue to teach her how to live. She aspires to be the person who her dogs think she is.