My dog taught me how to love without limits

I have been talking about writing this post for about two years. This morning, I decided it was finally time!

In early February 2012, I caught sight of a beautiful blonde on facebook. She was a little too thin, but I could not get her out of my mind. Her eyes were sad and it hurt my heart. I found myself staring off into space at work, thinking about her when I was supposed to be doing something like listening to a conference call. After a week of being unable to get her out of my mind, I decided that she needed to be in my life. I, of course, am talking about my dog.

my dog

This is the first photo I saw of her, taken in the Birmingham, Alabama animal control shelter. They picked her up wandering around the city streets, pregnant and alone. She was about a year old, they said she was a Dachshund mix. I wasn’t really even sure what kind of a dog a Dachshund was at the time, but I knew that there was something important about the fact that I literally could not stop thinking about her for a week. On my day off, I drove four hours to another state to adopt this dog, without ever having met her before. I had never lived with a dog before. I bought “Dogs for Dummies” and read blogs. I purchased a crate, food bowls, food, toys, a collar, a leash, a bed, gates to keep her out of the cats’ area. I set up my apartment, and then I drove to Birmingham. I gave the woman behind the bullet-proof glass (the animal control building isn’t in the greatest area of town) the adoption fee, and the man that I had spoken to on the phone led the dog that would be my dog out of the scary metal doors. I took her leash and bent down to pet her. I had adopted a dog. We went out to the grassy area beside the parking lot so she could pee and then we both tried to figure out how to behave. She jumped in the car and we drove four hours back home.

my dog Here she is on the ride home from the shelter

It really wasn’t the best time for me to make a big life change. I was traveling pretty extensively for work, the nonprofit I worked for at the time had a grant to address mental health on the Mississippi Gulf Coast so there was a lot of driving back and forth from Jackson to the Coast. I also knew I’d been spending a week in Seattle, Washington for a work conference. I was also in a pretty bad depression. I was at the tail-end of my relationship with the alcoholic, although I didn’t know it at the time (I should have!) and had a trip planned to Albuquerque, New Mexico to see her. At the time my mother was not a fan of dogs, so I was going to have to board Caroline at the Dog Wash, a local doggy daycare spa, whenever I was traveling. Still, I had followed my heart and I knew I would work it all out.

We had a few rocky points where I was trying to figure out if she had ever been potty trained. I read articles online that said if she ever had an accident in the house it was not her fault, it was MY fault for not watching her closely enough or leaving her alone. Dogs can’t just know to potty outside and any failings she had to meet my expectations were my responsibility not hers. I know these were worded harshly to keep new owners from yelling at or perhaps even hitting a dog who did not understand what they had done wrong. For me however, it elevated my anxiety to a point where I felt guilty every time I left her alone so that I could shower or go to work. I worried that I wasn’t doing a good enough job trying to help her know what I wanted her to know. I worried that she was alone too much when I was working even though she had began staying with my parents two days a week and going to doggy daycare one day a week. I worked myself up to a point of near-panic that I think even my therapist was surprised by. Luckily my therapist helped me realize that the dog, no matter how inconsistent a job I was doing as an awful human being who occasionally had to shower and work, the dog was better off with me than in a kill-shelter. Slowly but surely, we settled into a routine, I stopped worrying, and we became a family.

my dog

My depression didn’t ease much when the alcoholic and I finally ended the doomed, stressful, horrible, unhealthy relationship that we had hung onto for much too long. Having Caroline in an apartment meant that every morning I had to get up, get out of bed, put her harness on her, take her outside for a short walk so that she could go to the bathroom, and then do the same thing in the evening. That responsibility for caring for something outside of myself was essential to me during that time. I probably would not have left my apartment on the weekends if I hadn’t had to take her outside. I definitely would not have ever walked to the park. I couldn’t do things for myself but I could do things for her because she needed me. She was helpless without me. Her whole well-being was dependent on me and I wanted her to be happy and healthy. It was different than my codependency. I wasn’t trying to care for someone that should be caring for themselves. I wasn’t trying to get an adult to take responsibility for their life or love themselves when they couldn’t – I was legitimately taking responsibility for a being that could not without me complete the basic functions necessary to be happy and healthy. My dog was like a child, and in her need, I began to see exactly what it meant to care for someone/thing that actually needed me, as opposed to wanting to be needed by someone that should not need me at all, in ways no adult should need another adult.

our feet

Caroline needed me, but it was separate from her love for me. She loves me so completely – it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. When I walk into a room, she lights up, she gets so excited. I have the ability to make her day better, just by existing, by being me. She doesn’t care if I’m perfect or that I lost 30 pounds, she doesn’t care what my GPA is like or if I make enough money; she cares about walks and treats and cuddles. She wants to be close to me, and doesn’t want to be apart from me for any longer than necessary. I can comfort her when she is sad, but I don’t have to take responsibility for her sadness or happiness. I make her happy, but not by doing certain things or being a certain way, I just have to be me and be present. Even though I have had cats for 14 years, it’s nothing like having a dog. Caroline loves me in a way that no person or animal or being has ever loved me. In her loving me, I could not help but love her back completely, 100%. There really isn’t an option to hold part of yourself back with a creature that believes that you are the sun. A being who goes from slumping on her bed dejectedly to wagging the entire bottom half of her body because you walked in the front door. There’s no way to give only 3/4 of your heart to a love like that. I don’t know that I really knew what true, real, laid-bare love was before Caroline loved me and in turn allowed me to love her without limits.

I can’t articulate for you the internal work that made it possible for me to open up all those tiny, walled-off parts in my heart to my dog and because of that do it again later, with another human being. There isn’t an internal dialogue that I had about love and fear. It was just the very act of her loving me, the volume of her love, the completeness of it, that awakened in me the knowledge that love was different than what I thought it was for the first 31 years of my life. I know a lot of people say that they didn’t really rescue their dog, but their dog really rescued them. Even though it’s a cliche, I know that it is true for me. Dogs are incredible creatures. They go through abuse, neglect, and abandonment that most human beings will never experience, and they still open themselves up again. Dogs that are beaten, burned with fire and chemicals, mutilated, cut, yelled at, shoved out of moving cars, thrown over animal shelter fences, dumped in ditches out in the country, thrown in bags onto highways (sorry, yes these are all stories I have read on animal shelter/rescue facebook pages) dogs that are chained to trucks and dragged and somehow survive blossom when they are loved by people. They trust when they have no reason to. They love after they have been hurt beyond reason. They open up their tiny hearts once again and give themselves over fully to people that they don’t know won’t hurt them like they’ve been hurt before, but they do it anyway. Maybe they have an instinct about it that we humans don’t – but I think that in reality they have a resiliency that we don’t. Caroline didn’t know that I wouldn’t abandon her the way she was abandoned before. In fact, I think she sometimes thinks I’m putting her in the car to take her someplace and leave her. That doesn’t stop her from loving me in a huge way. I know that I would never have had the courage to open up to another human being in the way that I have opened up to my boyfriend if I hadn’t first been loved by Caroline. In loving me and allowing me to love her, Caroline taught me how to love another person. I know that I would not be the person I am today if she had not come into my life. I am immeasurably grateful to her for it. ❤

me and caroline

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