This week marks my dog Freyja and I’s four year anniversary together. Four years ago I had no sense of the powerful feelings and experiences that sharing my life with a dog would bring.
To love – and to be loved by – a dog, is a wonderful thing. It’s unconditional, and it’s pure. As someone who struggles with trusting others and who does not always feel very lovable, it has been nourishing for my heart and soul to let go of these fears and let myself yield to the intoxicating reassurance of my dog’s love.
This past fall, my life was turned upside down when Freyja was diagnosed with cancer – a mast cell tumour on her snout. It had been growing for more than a year but it seemed almost certainly to be a benign cyst. We had it tested on a whim – while she was having a small lesion removed from her arm, the vet took a biopsy of her snout bump.
I remember my heart pounding and racing when he told me the news by phone. I sunk to the floor, weak kneed and struggling to breathe. Because of its location it would be difficult to remove, and because of how long it had been present, it may have already metastasized. For the previous nine months I had been working from home and recovering from emotional trauma, and spent nearly all of my time with Freyja. No matter where I was, she was by my side. I had never felt more tightly bonded with another being. And now she might die at only seven years old, and her survival could depend on my limited financial ability to pursue expensive and invasive treatment options.
We made the decision to have the tumour removed, but stopped short at traveling five hours out of town for a month for radiation, or having a second more invasive removal that would require reconstructive surgery of her face. It’s been four months since her surgery, and her prognosis is reasonable, although they were not able to get clean margins: There’s about a 75% chance that it won’t grow back or metastasize. But it might. So every day I examine her face, running my hands over her snout and feeling for abnormalities, cupping her greying “bearded” chin in my hand as I do it.
Loving – and being loved by – a dog has made me a better person, and here’s how:
It pushes me outside of my comfort zone. Having a dog means walking, visiting parks, joining dog groups, and becoming generally more social. I have made some new and wonderful friendships with “dog people” and “rescue people” – it’s like being part of a special club. The best part is, anyone can join!
- It has taught me to appreciate small things. In everything Freyja does, she shows joy. Her tail never stops wagging, and she rarely stops grinning. It’s hard to stay grumpy when a goofy dog is so friggin excited about absolutely everything. Her existence is a reminder that joy can be found in even the simplest things. It also makes winter more bearable – I have never seen anything more joyous than Freyja in freshly fallen snow.
It has made me more empathetic and patient towards others. Dogs and people. Freyja was an adult when we adopted her and she was pretty rude. Training her made me appreciate the challenges of trying to shape another being, and more empathetic to the bad behaviour of the dogs around me. Watching her interact with other dogs – including our two fosters, Gentry and Lilac – has allowed me to witness her impressive patience – and try to emulate it.
- It has forced me to stay active. Even when I feel like just sitting under a blanket in front of my space heater, knowing that Freyja will be disappointed by not getting her walk pushes me out of my inertia and into the outdoors. This can only be good for my health – both mental and physical.
- It has made me so appreciative of those involved with animal rescue. Freyja – and indeed many dogs who end up abandoned – was at risk of being euthanized. The people – mostly women – who bravely enter shelters and pounds to make hard choices about which beings can and should be saved are doing the work and making the decisions that most of us would rather pretend don’t exist. If not for them, I would not have Freyja, and Freyja may very well not have been alive to enjoy the past four years.
- It has made me so grateful. Every night I fall asleep with a dog lying at my side, and as I listen to her draw and release breath, feel her warmth pressed up against my side, and I smell her subtle cheeto odour, I am so grateful that she exists. I’m so grateful that all dogs exist, really, because without them I think our world would be a much more sullen and unpleasant place. I only hope that one day they get as much from us as we receive from them. We can all start by loving them as unconditionally as they love us.
There’s a saying in rescue – Who Rescued Who? – and I know for me that my life has been saved by the love of this dog. I can only hope that I will be the luckiest girl in the world and have another four years with her.
Pamela Tourigny is an Ottawa-based expert on the topics of veganism and vegan advocacy, sustainability, and ethical consumerism. She also consults with business clients with their marketing, communications and public relations needs, and with restaurants on adapting their menus to introduce plant-based options. Sign up to receive her monthly e-newsletter here.