From the moment his new golden retriever puppy jumped into his arms, Edward Grinnan and his wife, Julee, were in love with her. Edward didn’t know it yet, but Millie would change his life.
In this moving memoir, Edward Grinnan writes about his life with Millie—from their first joyous meeting through her struggle with cancer. Edward shares how her sensitivity, unconditional love, and innate goodness helped him discover those qualities in himself and put his complicated past in perspective.
Edward also shares the lessons he has learned from other dogs he’s loved—like Pete, a poodle his father bought him in the wake of his brother’s death; Rudy, who introduced him to his wife; Sally Browne, a mischievous cocker spaniel who befriended the homeless in his neighborhood; and Marty, a hundred-pound Labrador whose behavioral issues challenged his and Julee’s marriage—as well as lessons he’s learned from the celebrated dog stories in Guideposts magazine.
Poignant and insightful, Always By My Side is an inspiring book that explores the unbreakable bond between man and dog, revealing how faith shapes our love for our dogs, and how our dogs shape our faith.
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About the Author
Debbie Macomber, with more than 100 million copies of her books sold worldwide, is one of today’s most popular authors. Visit her at DebbieMacomber.com.
Read an Excerpt
Always By My Side
Our golden girl Millie came to Julee and me on an airplane from Tampa, Florida, via Atlanta, on Memorial Day weekend, 2007, a hot, brilliant, backlit kind of morning, one of those days that stamp a vivid, practically surreal impression on your memory. I remember standing in the baggage claim area at Newark Airport, disembarking passengers streaming around us, waiting for the luggage handlers to bring out a ten-week-old puppy in a sturdy plastic travel kennel provided by her breeder. There were several false alarms, including a Dalmatian who was barking hysterically and a pug with its eyes bulging out of its head.
Then she appeared. Or at least her nose did, poking out of the wire mesh of her kennel door. The kennel was stacked precariously with a whole bunch of non-living luggage on a stainless-steel cart, which the man pushing it seemed determined to bash into everything that stood in its way. I ran over protectively and snatched the kennel. “This one’s mine,” I snapped. He didn’t ask me for my baggage claim ticket. I think he knew better.
We liberated Millie immediately, Julee gently lifting her up in her arms and me taking pictures with my phone. We’d lost Sally, our sixteen-year-old cocker, a few weeks earlier while Julee was on tour in Europe. We waited until she got home to find another dog. It was the longest we’d ever been without a dog as a couple, and the longest Julee had ever been in her life. Julee is known to say that she was raised by golden retrievers and cocker spaniels, in a family that sometimes treated their dogs better than they treated one another. Sally had been at the center of our lives for so long we hardly recognized ourselves as a couple without her. She had lived a long, eventful life, but that didn’t make losing her any less of a heartache. We needed another dog, not to replace her but to fill that void in our hearts.
This creamy, snuggly puppy was an answer to prayer. We had found a small, specialty breeder in Florida online. We’d seen video of the parents, Maggie and Petey, proudly standing with their litter. Immediately both Julee and I were attracted to a puppy with a kind of light in her eyes—Dark Pink Girl, named after the collar that identified her from her brothers and sisters. And now, finally, here she was. Millie.
Yes, she was a little rank and a little damp from her imprisonment, but that could be easily remedied by a quick bath when we got back to New York. Julee held her in her lap in the backseat all the way into Manhattan. I nearly got into several wrecks reaching back to pet Millie. We got to the apartment and carried her upstairs. We had everything ready—toys, bowls, treats, a bed, and wee-wee pads until she was old enough to go outside. I emailed the breeder as soon as we got in: “She’s absolutely out-of-this-world beautiful!”
That night she slept in a brand-new kennel at the foot of the bed. In the middle of the night she cried. Julee started to get up. “No,” I said. “It’s like a baby—you have to let them cry it out. You can’t go running.” Reluctantly Julee went back to sleep. A few minutes later Millie cried again. I stared at the ceiling for about a minute then reached over, undid the door to her kennel and brought her into bed.
She was everything we dreamed of in a pup. We were ready to raise her to be a strong, confident girl, to love her until the ends of the earth and back. If she was traumatized by her time in the belly of a 747, she didn’t show any signs of it. She was the happiest puppy I’d ever seen. Or so I thought.
But we’ll get to that soon enough.
WHEN I AM NOT spending time with my dog, I am the editor-in-chief of Guideposts magazine, a publication featuring true, uplifting personal stories from people of all walks of life. It was a job I literally wandered into one day in 1986, a lost young man desperate to keep body and soul together. Would I be interested in using my writing background to help people tell their stories of hope and inspiration? Well, why not? I had nothing better to do and practically no place to live at the time, no “visible means of support,” as they say. I liked the Midtown Manhattan location of the office. It made me feel like I was coming up in the world and my bottom was a long way down. I figured I’d give it a year, work on my resume, and use the office Xerox machine to make copies to send out. In any event, I wouldn’t stay at Guideposts for long. It wasn’t really my milieu, I told myself.
Things didn’t quite work out like that. I kept staying. One year, then two, then five, until I couldn’t imagine leaving this wonderful publication and the millions of people who are inspired by it every month. They inspired me.
One thing everyone knows about me as an editor is that I love a great dog story. My first cover story for Guideposts was with a man named Bill Irwin, who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in his fifties. No big deal? Well, Bill had never hiked anything in his life. In fact, up until shortly before the story takes place he was a sedentary, lifelong alcoholic. Did I mention that he was blind? And that he hiked the entire 2,000 miles of the trail from Georgia to Maine alone save for his amazing guide dog, Orient? All of this simply because he believed the Lord wanted him to, that a man as broken as Bill Irwin could be restored.
Bill was unforgettable and so was Orient. It was one of my biggest thrills when I finally got to meet them in person, though it was a totally random-rush hour encounter at Union Station in Washington, DC. Well, maybe not so random. Bill and Orient have supplied me with a lifetime of inspiration. I identified with Bill as a recovering alcoholic and a dog devotee. Bill and Orient’s saga infused me with a love of the Appalachian Trail, many miles of which I have hiked with my own dogs, especially Millie. Sometimes I will close my eyes and try to take a few steps, just to feel what it was like to be Bill, but it is an impossible thing to imagine, like trying to imagine what it was like to be Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. No, I was wrong. Bill Irwin and Orient did not hike that great trail alone.
I have learned that some of the most powerful human stories are from people and their dogs. It is a dynamic that can produce great personal insight and change. No wonder then that our dog stories are among the most popular in our repertoire, and have been for more than seventy years. And why not? We’ve been talking about our dogs since we could talk. Prehistoric cave paintings attest to this. So do Minoan pottery and ancient Chinese statuary. Dogs hold an esteemed place in literature. Remember Argos from Homer’s Odyssey? He is the only one to recognize Odysseus after his twenty-year wander, the first dog to appear in literature. Or Dora’s Jip in Dickens’s David Copperfield, who dies at the moment his mistress does.
Hard-living Jack London created two of the most memorable literary dogs—Buck in The Call of the Wild and the eponymous White Fang (technically a wolf-dog), two books I must have read a hundred times as a kid. Who can forget Old Yeller and Lassie? These dogs are canine archetypes—brave and noble and wise. And unforgettable.
I’ve worked on a lot of dog stories through the years and in a way, they are all unforgettable—but maybe that’s just me. I hope it’s you, too.
But my love of dogs started well before I came to Guideposts. For most of my life I have been in the company of a dog, sometimes multiple dogs, and in periods of involuntary doglessness I have sought them out wherever I could, if only for a transitory fix. If a friendly one came bounding down the street, I’d squat and open my arms, I’m sure with a ludicrous expression on my face, even sillier than the canine in question. Many owners have had to tug their charges away from me. Occasionally, I would loiter in the vicinity of a dog park, just to watch them play. I remember sitting at a discreet distance in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, at dusk, observing a sleek Viszla named Ubu (after the Alfred Jarry character, I presume) chasing anything his owner could throw, leaping and snatching the item out of the air as if he could jump all the way to heaven. Ubu’s joy was infectious. So was his human’s.
My very earliest recollection of a dog at my side is almost completely obscured by the mists of memory. I was a colicky baby. I would wail and cry and scream for hours upon hours. I drove everyone to the edge of madness, to hear my family tell it. And with my mom coping with my brother Bobby, who had Down syndrome and was sensitive to disruptions, there was only one sensible thing to do.
The house on Hillcrest Avenue in Havertown, Pennsylvania, just a few miles west of downtown Philly, had a deep, narrow backyard with an empty lot bordering the end farthest from the house. That’s where my playpen was relocated, with me placed in it. Oh, I’m sure my wailing could still be heard, especially by my mom, but it was now muted by the aural rhythms of the neighborhood, just another piece of the cacophony. And wail I did, alone in my pen.
Except for a visitor. It is such a vague fragment of memory, a deep brownish dog with alert ears that pointed to heaven, white markings, and beautiful dark eyes. There he would stand, seemingly for hours (but what did I know about time?), just staring at me, sometimes lying down and resting his chin on his forepaws. And his presence comforted me in my howling.
He could have been a figment of my imagination, possibly retrofitted at some point. But the thing about this mysterious comforter—he was to appear again in my life and somehow I recognized him.
The first dog I truly remember was Sparky, a sweet but at times unruly and errant beagle. I had been led to believe that Sparky had wandered off one summer in Philadelphia while under the care of my father, never to return. At the time of his disappearance the rest of us were down on the Jersey Shore in Stone Harbor, where we had a house.
I didn’t learn the truth about Sparky until a large GrinnanRossiter-Gallagher family reunion somewhere in the Midwest—or was it in the Southeast?—sometime in the nineties. The eventual shock of what was revealed to me that summer day has obliterated the details. I was wandering around a spacious, sun-saturated yard squinting and introducing myself to people I’d never met and would no doubt never see again. I finally ended up in a little knot consisting of Julee; my brother, Joe; his wife, Toni; my sister, Mary Lou; and assorted cousins, nephews, nieces, and corresponding spouses, fiancés, boyfriends, and girlfriends.
The subject turned to dogs, as it often did since we all had them and loved them and loved to talk about them. I lapsed into a reminiscence about Sparky.
I’d long since accepted Sparky’s fate, especially since there would be a far more devastating disappearance to strike my family several years later, a tragedy, and a cruel mystery, that would change everything, including leading me to my first real dog. And Sparky was, after all, a bit of a travelin’ man, and I doubt if he was “fixed.”
Yet I couldn’t help noticing the looks on my siblings’ faces as I fondly held forth at the reunion: bemused disbelief and maybe a little embarrassment that I had never been clued in, or maybe that I was so completely clueless. As in, you didn’t know? You didn’t know what Dad actually did with poor Sparky?
Technically Sparky was Mary Lou’s dog, not mine. I want to be clear about that and that she loved Sparky. I was much too young for a dog. But he constituted the first canine presence in my life, and I would sometimes put him on a leash and pal around with him in the neighborhood, bringing him with me to the O’Malleys’ or the O’Haras’ or the Thompsons’ or the Kennedys’ (there’s a reason they call Haverton the thirty-third county of Ireland).
Mary Lou was a freshman at Archbishop Prendergast High. A dancer, a cheerleader, an activity-consumed extrovert even for a teenager. How she talked my parents, especially my dad, into getting her a dog is a puzzle. She was devoted to Sparky but couldn’t take care of him all by herself.
Worse, my father enforced harsh conditions, or tried to: he exiled Sparky—whose idea was that name?—to Mary Lou’s bedroom when she wasn’t there to watch him. That was the deal, a deal no adult should have ever made with a kid. When Mary Lou wasn’t home, Sparky stayed locked in her bedroom, though I happen to know my mom violated this incarceration from time to time. But she had her hands full with Bobby, my brother who was a few years older than me and in school only half the day.
Before you denounce my father, remember that he was of a different generation, which is not to excuse him in any way, but that fact lends context to his view of pets. He saw a much larger gulf between animal and human, which was amplified by his orthodox Catholicism, Saint Francis notwithstanding (my mother was an entirely different story). It was a generational perspective. Pets were pets. Property not family. And Sparky was canine property. Moreover, Dad put an inordinate importance on the concept of obedience, and dogs are not necessarily naturally obedient, especially if they are not lovingly taught to be, and this holds especially true for beagles, like Sparky, who are known free spirits. My dad, I suspect, perceived canine misbehavior as willful defiance. He subscribed to the rolled-up newspaper school of discipline and dog training. And if you suggested that a dog or any animal might be in possession of something akin to a soul, he would have looked at you blankly. He may have even regarded the notion as heretical. Besides, my father came of age in the Depression, and to hear him tell it, he had to fight dogs for scraps of food to survive.
Now I found myself at the reunion staring at Joe and Mary Lou, the awful truth creeping up on me.
“What?” I demanded.
“Dad had Sparky put down,” Mary Lou said. “You never figured that out?”
I flapped my mouth but no words came out. For more than thirty years I had accepted the perfectly plausible narrative that Sparky had simply given in to his wanderlust and lit out for better opportunities than being locked up in a teenage girl’s room with occasional forays with the little brother. Maybe he’d assumed with all of us away at the shore he’d never see us again. From his point of view, we’d run off, except for my father who was working all day while Sparky was confined. That was no life for a dog. Who could blame him for bolting?
Occasionally, I’d indulged in fantasies, even in adulthood, as to what became of Sparky, the fascinating trajectory of his post-Grinnan life. Was he adopted by some jolly butcher? Given a job by a wise old farmer? Did he offer comfort and companionship to some sweet but lonely couple adrift in their golden years, romping with the grandchildren when they came to visit, increasing those visits by his lovable presence? “Mom, Dad, can we go see Sparky at Grandma and Grampy’s house? Please?” Or did he end up at a Philly firehouse perched atop a hook-and-ladder truck racing to five-alarm blazes, ears flying, head high, smelling the smoke before anyone else?
No. Dad returned him to “the pound” whence he came and reported that the dog was incorrigible. Apparently, he peed all over and chewed the walls, though I don’t remember it. And there was no way my father would ever tolerate that, probably not even from his own children. I imagine he saw it virtually as a moral failing on Sparky’s part. Disobedience. Defiance. And no way Sparky was ever getting out of the pound again alive. Not now.
I didn’t want to make a fool of myself blubbering and carrying on at the big family reunion about a dog I barely remembered and who wasn’t technically mine. So I kept a stiff upper lip while Joe and Mary Lou laughed a little self-consciously, not at Sparky’s end but at my naïveté. What did I think had happened?
I thought he’d run away because that’s what everyone had told me. I accepted the explanation.
Walking back to the car Julee took my arm and said, “That really upset you, didn’t it? You really didn’t know?”
“No. I totally believed the cover story. I never doubted it. Why would I?”
“I remember my dad sobbing when he had to put one of our goldens down. He was inconsolable.” Dr. Cruise may have had his failings, but he adored his dogs.
“I only saw Dad sob once, the day they found Bobby’s body.” Bobby’s mysterious death at age twelve haunted us all.
“Sparky was a long time ago, Edward.”
“They lied to me.”
“Maybe they were trying to protect you.”
“Yeah, but the truth came out. It has a habit of doing that.”
Driving back to New York, I brooded on Sparky’s short, troubled history in our little home on Hillcrest Avenue. Why had everything gone so wrong? Why did I look back on it so bleakly, as if the memory hollowed out a part of me? I knew Julee was right. It was a long time ago and people were different. But I just couldn’t see it that way.
Sometimes one memory dredges up another, and I found myself thinking about a dog that had long since migrated from my memory, whose name I could not even remember, if it even had a name.
Not long after Sparky was condemned, another dog appeared on the scene—a beautiful, purebred Kerry blue terrier pup. Maybe my father thought an Irish dog would work out better than a lowly beagle from the pound.
I think other forces were driving him as well, forces he himself may not fully have come to grips with. I think he felt bad about eliminating the family pet. Maybe even guilty. Perhaps he confessed it to a priest. Maybe the priest pointed him toward the Kerry blue breeder, or perhaps a business associate advised him. Maybe my mother was involved. In any event, one day a beautiful Kerry blue puppy appeared in our house.
I can’t remember much about that dog’s brief residence. I remember lots of vet visits and the poor thing not exactly thriving. I overheard conversations about how much the dog was costing to treat and that awful strain that came into my father’s voice whenever things were boiled down to money, an echo from the depths of the Great Depression. Finally, one afternoon Dad came home from work early and collected the Kerry blue and carried him to the car.
“Eddie, come with me.”
I climbed into the seafoam-green Pontiac Bonneville my dad was driving so proudly those days, the one with the miracle of power steering, and held the puppy on my lap. He dropped his head between my knees. I peeked down at his eyes. That’s where the problem was. He was going blind and that blindness might lead to worse, more expensive problems, I had heard. There was an operation, but it was pricey, which made me wonder if it was about the dog or the money.
We brought the dog inside the clinic. Dad conferred with the vet in low, somber tones. I heard something about cost, saw Dad shake his head, then the dog was handed over to the vet, who disappeared in back with it, the last I was ever to see of him. My father explained the dog was sick and there was nothing to be done.
Why had I been brought along for this? Why not just deceived again? Upon many years of reflection, through what I pray is a lens of understanding and forgiveness, I believe it was an honest attempt to acquaint me with the truth of life, the truth of the world, the truth of death. It is, after all, a lesson all kids must come to learn and accept. My father was afraid of how confused I might be if yet another dog simply vanished. I think it broke his heart to euthanize the Kerry blue. I think he was trying to do the right thing and he failed.
But I did ask my father one question. “Will he go to heaven?”
Dad looked at me quizzically, maybe even a bit anxiously and said nothing. Just fired up the Bonneville.
It would be another five years before Dad got me another dog, after we moved to a bigger house in Michigan, a short time after they found Bobby’s body floating mysteriously in a Michigan lake and it felt like my family was coming apart like something caught in a tornado. That dog would be with me for many years, yet he, too, was to meet an untimely end.
Bobby disappeared on a winter’s day when I was at school, not long after my family moved from Philly to Birmingham, Michigan, just north of Detroit. The police and my family believed it was foul play and the Detroit media made a big deal about it. I remember their vans parked in front of our house on Pebbleshire Road. I remember my parents making an appeal on TV. I remember Annette Funicello, Bobby’s favorite Mouseketeer, also making a broadcast appeal. People assumed he could still be alive. Abducted or maybe just lost and confused. Then, many weeks later, during the Michigan spring thaw, they found his body floating in a lake that had been searched many times. There was a lot of controversy about how to close the case. The detectives wanted to continue the search for whoever abducted him. The trail had gone cold and the DA didn’t want an open case involving the disappearance of a child on the books. He was running for reelection. He closed the case, and the chief of detectives resigned in protest. And my parents tried to go on.
I don’t know if what my family went through during that time accounted for the trouble with depression and drugs and alcohol and everything else I had later in life . . . and not that much later, really, since I started drinking when I was thirteen, just a few years after Bobby died. That is a different story than the one I am telling here about Millie and my other dogs, though. I wrote a book about my journey to sobriety and sanity and faith called The Promise of Hope, and it helped me come to terms with my life. I am convinced it is only by the grace of God that I found my way to where I am today, a God who sent dogs to guide my way from the darkness that once threatened to swallow me.
MY QUESTION THAT DAY about the possibility of that poor Kerry blue going to heaven did not come out of thin air. It came from something I saw Sparky do, something in him, something not completely explicable to me at the time. Just a hint of what I would discover throughout my life, like a curtain being inched aside for a fleeting reveal.
Before the Great Depression, my father’s family was fairly well off, not rich but certainly well-to-do, as the expression was back then. Then the market crashed and the economy imploded and a wave of poverty swept over the country like a shadow. Dad’s family had not protected their assets very wisely, and most of the money disappeared. Dad’s father turned to drink, and Dad had to forgo medical school to support his family. Things turned even worse when the crooked family lawyer absconded with the last $250,000, aided and abetted by strong-willed but hopelessly naïve Aunt Blanche, my father’s first cousin or second cousin, I never quite knew.
The episode was sordid and completed the financial demise of my father’s family, its little sandcastle of wealth washed away by the tide of history and avarice. Years of struggle followed. Blanche disappeared. No one knew what became of her or the sticky-fingered lawyer, who was said to have swept Blanche off her poor spinster feet.
But the story finally came out as the Great Depression ground on. The lawyer had abandoned Blanche when he was through with her, dumped her like an old tire. He’d gotten what he wanted, which definitely wasn’t her. Heartbroken and ashamed, her life ruined, Blanche lived in poverty and obscurity . . . until my father tracked her down decades later.
You see, he wasn’t a heartless man. He was the only member of the family who tried to understand Blanche and to forgive her. No doubt a priest helped him with this. And a private detective he hired as well. The detective found her in St. Louis or Chattanooga or some other down-at-the-heels town that could have served as the backdrop of a Tennessee Williams play, and Dad brought her to Philly, where he built a little addition to the back of the house on Hillcrest that had a bed and a sitting area and a bathroom and where he installed her so she could live out the rest of her lonely days in relative comfort and something approaching dignity.
Which wasn’t long. I don’t think Dad ever asked what possessed Aunt Blanche to conspire with the lawyer to make off with the remains of the family money, to ruin everything like that. I doubt it mattered much to him at that point. I think he simply couldn’t bear to think of Blanche choking and gasping and dying in some decrepit rooming house and dumped in a pauper’s grave, a few members of the local parish recruited to say prayers with the priest over the plain off-the-shelf casket bought by the Altar Society for just such a person as Blanche, who no one ever really knew. I think the Eleanor Rigby scenario troubled him very deeply, so he decided to bring her home to Philadelphia, where in fact she did die in that little addition a few years later, the lawyer’s name on her lips. In what context I am not sure.
Which is where I come back to Sparky. His arrival came shortly after Blanche’s departure, and the addition was turned into a guest room and a spot for a second TV and phone. On several occasions, we tried to induce Sparky, an otherwise bold, adventurous dog as has been documented, to enter that space, and each and every time he resisted. He would howl miserably and yelp and prostrate himself and struggle until he got away. And for as long as he was with us, Sparky never could bring himself to cross the threshold of that sad room where the tragic Blanche breathed her last.
That, I believe, is when I first had an inkling that dogs were more than just . . . dogs. They had feelings, not just the obvious mammalian imperatives but rich, complex inner emotional lives that so often we humans are blind to even when dogs are rarely blind to ours. They sense things deeply, not just instinctually but emotionally. I think dogs yearn for us to understand them, and nothing I’ve experienced in my relationship with the canine world has ever disabused me of that notion. Even when dogs are broken or vicious or untrusting, even when they have seemingly lost the ability to connect with human beings or even other dogs, when somehow their psyches have been shattered, even then love can change them, just as it changes us.
NEVER WAS THAT MORE evident than in a story we published in Guideposts about a dog who went to war and came back, like so many soldiers, broken. We called the story “A Different Kind of Hero,” and we got mail about it for months. I think you’ll see why.
“A Different Kind of Hero” was about a military working dog (MWD) named Ddoc, who served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The double D denoted that he was bred to be a MWD at Lackland Air Force Base, one of nearly seven hundred canines who served as sentries and scouts, sniffing out bombs, clearing buildings, and protecting troops. MWDs are tough and extraordinarily brave. Storming an objective, they are the first ones in. No hesitation, just single-minded commitment to the mission and the protection of their unit. Many of these amazing dogs are Belgian Malinois, long known for their ferocity in battle. Ddoc was a Malinois. A proud one.
After his discharge from the military, he somehow ended up in a shelter from which he was adopted by a family who soon discovered they couldn’t handle him. Enter a behavioral health therapist stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Sgt. Chloe Wells.
Sgt. Wells wasn’t a dog handler. She just loved dogs and with her husband, Jeff, had already adopted a Malinois named Ranger and a German shepherd named Sofie. Through the grapevine she heard of this homeless dog, Ddoc.
“We’re not keeping him,” Jeff said when she brought Ddoc back to their modest off-base house. “We can’t keep up with the dogs we have.”
“Just until I can find him a good home,” Chloe pleaded. “He’s a veteran. He needs a safe place. We owe him that much, at least.”
Chloe got out food and water bowls. Jeff knew the battle was lost, so he dug through a closet for some old blankets and made a bed for Ddoc on the living room floor.
Chloe had put Ranger and Sofie in another room so Ddoc wouldn’t feel too stressed meeting the other dogs. She led him into the living room after he ate to show him his bed. Ddoc grew hyperalert. He circled the living room, sniffing and searching, checking under the furniture and in corners, double-checking, triple-checking, Chloe suddenly realized, for bombs.
“It’s okay, Ddoc,” she said. “You’re safe now.” But Ddoc wouldn’t stop patrolling until he was satisfied that the area was secure. Finally, he lay down on his blanket with a deep sigh. How exhausting it must be for a dog to carry such responsibility. He still thinks he’s on the front lines, Chloe thought sadly.
BOOM. Jeff and Chloe were used to hearing practice rounds fired at Fort Bragg. Ranger and Sofie had learned to pay no mind. Ddoc snapped to attention. He leapt up and circled his bed, panting, eyes frantic. Every few minutes he’d stop dead in his tracks, cock his head, and listen intently and then go back to pacing. Nothing Chloe did arrested his intense anxiety. He was trembling, backing away from her, eyes darting, as if he were somewhere else entirely, reliving an experience so traumatic he had never completely stopped living it.
Chloe knew that look. At Bragg, she worked with a team that counseled returning soldiers with PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder. These were soldiers who suffered extreme trauma on the battlefield, the debilitating psychological effects of which lingered long after they had returned home, long after they had left the service, often for the rest of their lives if treatment was not given or if it failed. At its essence, PTSD is an extreme insult to the mind, an assault on our very moral core, an injury to the soul. It can be as crippling as lost limbs or blindness or brain damage. It can impair a person from living normally or happily for the rest of his or her life. It is one of the greatest tragedies of war.
Chloe dropped to her knees and took Ddoc’s head in her hands and whispered to Jeff, “I didn’t realize he had these problems. I thought he was just having trouble adjusting.”
“Chloe,” Jeff said, “this guy is really hurting. What are we going to do?”
“Jeff, this dog has PTSD. I’m sure of it. Something had to cause it.”
That very night Chloe tracked down Ddoc’s former handler, Mike, still stationed in Afghanistan. They talked for a long time. The handler was emotional about what happened to Ddoc and was disturbed that he’d fallen through the cracks back in the States.
The incident had happened only months before. Ddoc and Mike were out on patrol in Taliban-contested territory. Mortar fire erupted and Mike and Ddoc were blown off their feet. Mike landed on top of Ddoc and tried to return fire. Their position was dreadfully exposed, deafening mortar fire exploding all around, smoke and rocks and dirt flung into the air. Ddoc took hold of Mike’s combat fatigues and dragged him to the cover of a ditch, where he stood guard over Mike until the firing finally stopped. Then he led a rattled Mike safely back to base.
Ddoc spent the night trembling under Mike’s bed. The next morning, he wouldn’t come out. In fact, he couldn’t bring himself to go out on patrol again. They brought in a trainer to work with him but to no avail. Finally, they sent him home.
“Ddoc found and alerted our unit to no less than fourteen IEDs,” Mike had told Chloe. “He never backed down in a firefight or when we were searching a house. He saved many soldiers’ lives.” But he would never work in the military again.
What were they going to do about Ddoc? Did anyone know about treating military dogs with PTSD?
Now Jeff stroked the dog’s head gently. “He’s a hero, Chloe,” Jeff said. “He stays here. With us.” Chloe eased her cheek against Ddoc’s powerful neck so as not to startle him and hoped he didn’t mind the tears.
Jeff and Chloe took Ddoc into their bedroom and let him sleep next to their bed. In the dark of the night Ddoc cried out in his sleep, his muscles twitching, paws moving like he wanted to run. Repeatedly Chloe woke the dog and tried to comfort him, but she feared she alone could not fully heal Ddoc. “God,” she prayed, “help Ddoc, your loyal creature. Help me help him. Ease his fear and his pain.”
In the morning, she opened the back door to let Ddoc out into the yard. “Ddoc, go on. It’s okay.” He wouldn’t leave her side. He just sat leaning heavily against Chloe’s leg, staring out at the dawn. Was this when they went on patrol back in Afghanistan? As the sun rose over the Hindu Kush?
Chloe rustled up a leash and led Ddoc into the yard. He stayed within inches of her. She knelt and stroked him. “I’m here. I won’t let anything bad happen to you. I promise.” She left for work hoping Ddoc would be okay inside the house and that there wouldn’t be any sudden noises.
All that day she dealt with soldiers struggling to readjust to civilian life, men and women who were tormented and confused by memories they couldn’t exorcise. She followed her training, expressing empathy while staying emotionally detached and objective. Yet in their eyes she saw Ddoc’s haunted eyes, and when she returned home that night the dog was waiting for her and her objectivity went AWOL. She had to save Ddoc from a life of misery and uncertainty. She wanted him to be a dog who greeted the dawn with joy.
Her vet put Ddoc on antidepressants and antianxiety meds. Just like my soldiers, thought Chloe. She gave Ddoc a pill every time she thought there would be an artillery barrage, but the drug took thirty minutes to hit the brain, and sometimes when the firing started before that, all she could do was hold Ddoc close and tell him over and over that he was safe and loved and protected. Sometimes she told Ddoc that God stood guard over him.
At Bragg, she was learning things from treating returning troops with PTSD that were amazingly applicable to Ddoc’s situation. Indeed, she was seeing PTSD as a completely shared experience between human and dog. It wasn’t as if a dog had some lesser manifestation of it. It was every bit the injury to a dog’s psyche as it was to a human’s. A dog was every bit as appalled by the carnage and madness of war.
Exercise was often helpful for her patients, so Chloe took Ddoc on long runs. He was like Forrest Gump, running as if he could never catch up to what he was chasing. Ddoc slept better at night after running all day and cried less, but Chloe was exhausted.
One night after a particularly trying shift at work, Chloe came home beaten down by the strain of helping people navigate their way through the psychic labyrinth of PTSD. She was met with the sight of Ddoc and Jeff curled up on the floor together, Ranger and Sofie looking on. Chloe could scarcely contain herself. She held her breath for what seemed like forever. Then she got Ddoc’s leash and took him outside. “This is your home. No one will ever hurt you here.”
Ddoc raised his eyes and met Chloe’s. His tail wagged, just a little. He inclined his head and slowly, tentatively, licked her hand. In an instant, she was on her knees, hugging him. “You understand, don’t you? You understand!” Ddoc wagged his tail more than Chloe had ever seen.
Progress was slow and steady. Chloe took Ddoc to the park, the pet store, never trying to push him through his fear. She let him take it on his own terms. She knew he was working things out in his mind, sorting his traumatic memories from reality. He was working through his PTSD memory by memory, just like the soldiers at Bragg. The more she worked with Ddoc, the more she learned that what helped him was the same as what helped her soldiers, that same unchanging message of reassurance: you are safe, don’t give up hope, you are not alone, not ever, you are going to be okay, you are loved by a universal force more powerful than any harm that can befall us.
Bragg is one of the facilities used to train combat dogs, and one day Chloe heard that a memorial sculpture of a Malinois honoring the MWDs killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan was to be unveiled. Was Ddoc up for that? There would be a ceremony and dignitaries and speeches. A pretty large crowd, for sure. “Want to give it a try, boy?” she asked him.
The minute Chloe arrived with Ddoc, she knew she’d totally messed up. There were hundreds of people, a long line of handlers with their dogs, vets in the black vests of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle chapter. Motorcycles! Chloe groped for Ddoc’s meds in her purse. She wanted them at the ready if he went into a panic attack.
She led him slowly to the edge of the crowd, both of them tentative. They stopped. Ddoc sat. His eyes scanned the crowd, checking for danger. A speaker had taken the stage. “Dogs have been used by the US military in every conflict since the Revolutionary War. In Iraq and Afghanistan, they cleared thousands of miles of roads. Had it not been for their bravery many of us would not be here today.”
Chloe glanced down at Ddoc, who appeared for all the world to be standing at attention, head high, shoulders erect. A hero, just as Jeff said. She felt herself flush with pride, with love.
“Special Forces dogs are loyal, reliable, and brave. They consider their team to be their pack. And they will do anything to protect their pack.”
Chloe thought of Ddoc standing guard over Mike in the wake of the mortar attack. Suddenly, Ddoc tugged at his leash and eased a few feet into the crowd. There was an explosion of applause as the speaker finished. Ddoc tensed and Chloe eased him back, but Ddoc quickly regained himself and moved forward, all the way to the front. No fear. No dread. He was home. He was with his pack.
Dogs and handlers milled about, veterans who would not be alive if their dogs hadn’t saved them. Soldiers told stories of incredible heroism, of dogs who did not return and were mourned as deeply as comrades, equal in arms.
Chloe and Ddoc made their way to the memorial statue. It was surrounded by fifty-eight inscribed concrete squares of dogs who had given their lives. Ddoc sat next to the statue and Chloe snapped his picture. He bore an uncanny resemblance to the statue. People stopped. They stared. Soon everyone was taking Ddoc’s picture. “Is he the one the statue is modeled after?” folks wanted to know. “Is that really him?” Chloe just smiled.
Today Ddoc is back in training. But not for war. Never again for war. He is training to become a therapy dog for soldiers suffering from PTSD. Chloe discovered that Ddoc had an incredible effect on her team’s patients. A gift. Ddoc understood what they were going through. He’d been there. The soldiers were at ease around him. In Ddoc they felt a comforting presence, a dog who knew what it was like to suffer as they had, and who miraculously helped them open up about their pain. They understood Ddoc, and he understood them. He knew they were warriors, like him. He could provide them with the assurance that there was indeed light beyond the darkness if they only believed it was possible to feel safe again.
THAT TRUST BETWEEN CHLOE and Ddoc, between Ddoc and soldiers with PTSD, is the foundation of any relationship with a dog. No one knows for sure exactly what brought our two species together so intimately as long as fifteen thousand years ago, around the end of the last ice age when the glaciers were unshrouding the earth, but it started with a tentative bond of trust. Our planet was poised for an unprecedented proliferation of warm-blooded life. Certainly, we humans domesticated wolves to help us hunt, herd, and guard. To perform tasks at which they are better than we are. How we figured out that wolves had greater talents than we did, and how to turn those talented wild creatures into domesticated dogs is lost to time. Perhaps, as some anthropologists have suggested, a brave and innovative wolf, dissatisfied with scavenging behind a lumbering group of prehistoric hunters and gatherers, took matters into her own hands (or paws) and summarily led the humans to their prey (come on, guys, follow us!). The wolves then did not have to worry about the dangerous business of subduing the quarry. Man did their bidding, and they got the leftovers. This may be slightly more fanciful than plausible, but something tells me it was the wolf that made the first move.
These were the initial human-canine interactions. Call it a strategic alliance. Both parties benefited: wolf led man to food source, man shared scraps with wolf. The wolf-dog’s hunting prowess was extraordinary. In fact, some researchers have hypothesized that it was this alliance with the wolf-dog that gave modern man a decisive advantage over the predecessor he eventually vanquished, the Neanderthals. We envision our immediate cousins on the evolutionary timeline as knuckle-dragging brutes. It may just be that their greatest disadvantage and their ultimate fate was sealed by not having dogs. Our wolf-dogs made us better hunters and therefore better nourished, more able to seize territory. This nourishment may have even enhanced brain development in modern man. Could it be possible that dogs made us smarter?
Our dogs soon demonstrated other talents that could aid us. We shared more than food. We gave them shelter. We bred them for selected strengths. We nursed them when they were sick and injured. They rewarded us with loyalty and devotion commensurate with the ferocity of their core instincts. From that shared alchemy of needs arose something startling, something transformative for both species and based in absolute trust: Love.