Nature’s Prozac

Every day I come home to a pair of tiny bouncing dogs and they always make me happy. Most pet owners know this phenomenon and studies have proven it: feel-good chemicals flood the brain when we interact with our pets. That’s why I call them: Nature’s Prozac.

I got my first dog when I was twenty-five. My best friend Tracy had recently given birth and I was yearning for my own creature to nurture at that young age when the desire to be a mother is strong. It was a big decision, and a good one. Ruby was a seven pound black toy poodle I bought from a breeder when she was three months old.

At the time, I’d heard about rescue dogs, but was not interested in considering that option because I had preconceived ideas that made me think it was a bad idea. Weren’t all rescue dogs big old mutts with emotional problems that were hard to train? I wanted a small purebred poodle – a well-adjusted happy puppy I could easily teach. Getting a rescue dog felt like buying a used car with all of its hidden snags. Why buy something secondhand when you could get something brand new!

Ruby was a remarkable dog. From the beginning she was a pleasure although I admit I got a little depressed the first week after I brought her home. I felt trapped by the sudden responsibility and it felt heavy to me. Not only that, but training a puppy was hard work! She required a lot of vigilance and chewed on everything. Fortunately, that phase didn’t last long and she matured into a calm, well-mannered dog.

Ruby was my sidekick, my familiar, and the owl on my shoulder. I felt lucky to have this smart, funny animal in my life that brought me more fully into the world. Whenever we went for a walk, I interacted with people who said hello to her and it was uplifting. It was nice to talk to strangers! Over the years we met other dogs too, many of whom I was surprised to discover were rescues, and I learned that rescued dogs came in different sizes, breeds, ages and temperaments.

I dreaded the day Ruby would die, and almost from the beginning of our time together when she could still fit into my coat pocket, I contemplated this terrible fate. It was a painful thought yet I courted it regularly, hoping it would act like a vaccination shot to protect me against the inevitable devastation I would feel.

Ruby was fourteen when she died. She was blind and deaf and had been retreating into her own world the previous months. I believed she was preparing me for her absence by withdrawing. Ruby waited for me to go on a family vacation before she died in Tracy’s arms. I was on a flight to New Zealand, gazing at Venus in the dawn sky when it happened. After I landed and got the surreal phone call, I spent the next ten days grieving in paradise, surrounded by the people who loved me most.  I felt so fortunate. The crash landing was cushioned with so much grace – just like Ruby would have wanted for me.

Although I was heartbroken to return home without Ruby there to greet me, and while I missed her loving companionship and the easy way she enabled me to interact with others in my community, I decided not to get another dog for at least five years. I was thirty-eight and I needed freedom from the responsibility. It was nice not to have to get up early to take Ruby on her morning walk and it was liberating to be able to go out after work without having to rush home.

This freedom lasted only eleven months because one night I got curious and decided to browse the small dog section of “just to see.” Once I started looking, my heart sang “yes.” It was time to have another canine sidekick, and I was ready for those feel-good chemicals to return!

Fortunately, by this point I was well informed about rescue dogs and came to see that my bias against them was wrong. Also, I learned more about the dog breeding industry and no longer wanted to support it because aside from unethical “backyard breeders,” there already exist millions of dogs that need a home. In fact, every year about four million dogs end up in animal shelters, typically surrendered by owners who can no longer care for them. I imagined Ruby being in that situation as a nine year old and I was sad to think no one would want her because she was an older “secondhand” dog. She changed my belief that I’d only be happy with a purebred puppy. Ruby opened me up to the world of dogs and as long as a dog was cute, mellow, and weighed less than eight pounds, I’d be fine with anything!

After scouring online adoption sites for a week, I found the funniest looking tiny Brussels Griffon mix who was eleven months old. His profile name was Mighty Joe Young and he was living in a foster home in Seattle. Despite my common sense, I filled out an application for him. Did I really want to fly up to Seattle to meet a dog I might not connect with? I wasn’t sure.

When my application was accepted and I was informed that I could adopt Barney – I mean Mighty Joe – I had to make a decision since it meant taking the day off work to embark on a two-hour flight and drive a rental car to Tacoma just to investigate. It didn’t seem prudent and I was ready to decline when my friend David observed something I too had perceived but never said aloud: “His eyes look like Ruby.” I decided it was a sign, and the next day I was on a flight to Seattle.

I heard Barney bark before I saw him. When I entered his foster mom’s mobile home, he was jumping up and down in his wire pen trying to get out and say hello to me. He was skinny and unkempt and as we got to know each other, all he wanted to do was sit in my lap. When I went to the car to get something, Barney waited for me by the front door. His foster mom said he had never done that before and I believed her.

Barney was an only pup from a breeder in Idaho. A family with three small children bought him from a pet store in Seattle and called him Smoky. The father traveled a lot and the mother became overwhelmed – having three young kids and a rambunctious puppy proved to be too much. Barney was surrendered to the animal shelter on Halloween where he spent one night before being taken to a foster home that rescued small dogs. Three weeks later, I signed the papers, paid the adoption fee, and pondered what to call him as we drove to the airport together. Mighty Joe Young was not an option.

When I walked through SEA-TAC to fly home with my newly adopted bundle of cuteness, people noticed Barney in my arms and smiled at us. They stopped to pet him and talk to me. Suddenly, I was no longer invisible like I had been the previous eleven months. I was back in a social world where friendly strangers approached me with warmth to say hello and chitchat. I didn’t realize how much I had missed that with Ruby gone. That’s when I came to see that although I lost some freedom, I had my joy back, and it was worth it. Having a dog in my life again was cheerful!

As it turns out, Barney was born three days after Ruby died and he is a lot like her yet different. Although he came with his quirks and some bad habits that last until this day (like happily running away from me whenever I try to pick him up even though he loves being picked up) he’s been the most perfect “second dog” I could ever have. He proved to me that I could love another dog as much as I loved Ruby – even, or should I say, especially – a rescue dog. Barney healed my fear of loss, and he showed me that rescuing a dog is the way to go. It just feels so good to give a dog in need a great life. I believe rescued dogs are fully aware of what you’ve done for them and are extra grateful for your love and care. It’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve since rescued two other dogs – a brave and velvety senior Chihuahua that lived with us for five good years before he passed, and a fabulous sassy Chorkie girl who is Barney’s best friend. Barney and Cocoa wrassle and play and make me smile every day.

Barney is now twelve and a half and I’m going to have to say goodbye to him one day, just like I’ll have to say goodbye to Cocoa too. I know my heart will break again, but that’s the price we pay if we’re going to outlive our pets. For me, the love is always worth it. My dogs make me happy. Naturally!