Showering without shoes and feeling the cold bathtub under my bare toes. The smell of my dad brewing coffee in the early hours of the morning before work. Sprawling out onto my queen-sized bed covered with more throw pillows than a Bed Bath & Beyond. These were the comforts of home I thought I’d miss most when I went off to college.
But little did I know that those comforts wouldn’t hold a candle to the feeling of a giant lick on the face every time I walked through the front door. The smell of muddy paws and wet fur after a long run in the rain, and squeezing my way onto the sliver of bed left for me when my furry companion would sprawl himself out on my (what now seemed tiny) queen-sized bed. When I went off to college, these were the things I missed the most.
I’ve always had a dog in my life. I was born into a family of a mom, a dad, a two-year-old sister, and a four-year-old, four-legged Springer Spaniel named Sparky (say that 10 times fast). Sparky was my parents’ first baby, but that all changed when two toddlers came into the picture – rolling all over his soft belly, pulling on his long black ears. Sparky was patient and gentle and is the reason I was never a child who was fearful of dogs – or any animal for that matter. From the earliest age, I learned about true companionship from my K-9 friend.
Sparky was towards the end of his life when we welcomed a new pup into our home. Funny story: we had gone into the pet store to get a fishbowl for the goldfish I’d won at our elementary carnival, and somehow, with my persuasive first-grader ways, walked out with the sweetest Dalmatian, Australian Cattle Dog mix puppy. We named her Pepper.
Bringing Pepper home that day not only changed our lives, it added years to Sparky’s, as his health and spirits improved, trying to keep up with a puppy running around. Due to old age we eventually had to put Sparky down, but long after we ever expected.
Pepper and I had a special relationship because I knew her whole life – teaching her to sit, watching her run alongside my dad for miles and miles without a leash, never leaving his side. I remember her crawling up on my bed to sleep with me at night.
I remember so clearly, the day she followed our minivan down the driveway when we left for a swim meet, and the devastation I felt when we came home and she wasn’t there. The feeling of relief after my dad found her wandering around the neighborhood, then a rush of helplessness after seeing our sweet Pepper with burn marks and torn skin from being hit by a car that night. All because she had wanted to be with us, her family. It was my first experience of total heartbreak.
From Pepper, I learned about trauma, and how it changes you. She was never the same after that night. She was still the sweet girl I knew, but she was skittish and shaken. From Pepper, I also learned about loss. Towards the end of her life, she developed pancreatic cancer, withered to skin and bones until we knew it was time to put her down. I was 16 years old and hadn’t lost a soul, and now I was losing the soul I knew better than anyone else’s.
There were a few months when our house was without a dog. I realized how much I took for granted every time they’d run to the door, tongue out, ready to greet you like you’d just returned home from war. I took for granted the comfort of having a protector at night, watching over our family. I took for granted the tail wags, belly rubs, and snuggle sessions. If I hadn’t known it from growing up with dogs my whole life, these months solidified my stance as a “dog person” through and through.
But then Toby came into our lives. A good family friends’ Australian Shepherd had just had nine plump and perfect little puppies, and when my parents heard, they took us to see them, handed me the fattest one in the litter, and told me he was ours. My eyes immediately welled up with tears. Tears of joy about the little fur ball in my hands and his life ahead, and tears of remembrance for my Pepper.
Toby taught me how to heal, and that with time, everything can and will get better. Within days of bringing Toby home, I was smitten. I may be biased, but he was the cutest puppy in the world. Still kicking myself for not entering him into more contests.
Toby also taught me about maybe 1/20 of what it might be like to be a mom one day and the immense love you can have for another being. With Pepper, I was still a little too young to have that much responsibility when it came to training and taking care of her. But I was now 17 and with Toby, I did it all. Slept by him the first few times he cried through the entire night. Cleaned up his messes when he ate his food way too quickly and then would immediately throw it all backup. I took him for runs, brushed him, bathed him, disciplined him when he stole our lip gloss and underwear – yes we questioned his sexuality too.
But I knew Toby, every inch of his quirky personality, and he knew me. He could be downstairs in the kitchen, and run up into my room the second I’d be tying the laces of my running shoes, already jumping at the prospect of coming with me. Toby has a hyperactive personality, but when I went through my first bad breakup, he just laid next to me quietly and never left my side. When I started packing up boxes filled with way too many pairs of shoes, getting ready to go off to college, he became anxious. He knew there was a big change about to happen to our family and he wasn’t excited about it. At all.
Looking back, the day I left for college, I hope I hugged him tight enough so he knew at that moment just how much I loved him. Because it wasn’t until I got to school that I realized how much the unconditional love and unwavering loyalty of having a dog in your life is missed.
The first few months of college are hard. You’ll get in an awkward fight with your roommate. Some idiot guy will make you feel bad and leave you running out of the party crying. You’ll show up to your Spanish class and literally forget you had a ten-page essay due that day. You’ll get strep throat a handful of times, a viral rash that will cover your whole body for months, appendicitis, and a false diagnosis of scabies right before finals week. Needless to say the start of college for most people kind of sucks.
When you feel like no one really “gets you” you’ll miss the fact that your dog doesn’t care how cool you are, what you wear or what sorority you’re in. They just like you cause you’re you and you scratch their ears sometimes. When you get nervous about texting that guy you kind of like, you’ll miss the fact you can call your dog’s name a bazillion times and they’ll always come running to you – no questions asked. When you go home for break and your high school friends don’t get why you didn’t stay in touch better, you’ll really appreciate when you walk through the door, your dog will instantly forget about those long months you left him. He’ll just be overjoyed that you’re back home. That’s exactly what Toby did every break I came tumbling in with a study hangover and a basket full of dirty laundry.
Every dog I’ve had has taught me something valuable about life and about myself. And maybe that’s why when we go off to college, we miss them so much. When you’re in a new environment, on your own for the first time, surrounded by hoards of people who don’t know your middle name or where you grew up, it’s easy to lose part of yourself – or at least just forget. Our dogs, and pets, in general remind us of that because we never had to be anyone else but ourselves around them. When you’re in college, you’ll miss that comfort of having someone know exactly who you are without first having to tell them.
But that’s why dogs are more than just animals or something to take watch at night so no one steals our lawn ornaments. Dogs become a part of us, and when you leave them behind, it’s natural to miss them. You’re not whole without them.
Don’t take their companionship or loyalty for granted. Give them the same unconditional love back they give to you. Yes, even when they chew your favorite leather purse and won’t stop barking at the mailman. Cause if you do, a dog can and will enrich your life more than you could ever imagine.
I know, cause I’ve had three, and I don’t know who I’d be without my Sparky, Pepper or Toby.