From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul


Adog is one of the few remaining reasons why some people can be persuaded to go for a walk.

O. A. Battista

Over the past few years, depression has become a common topic; even TV commercials advertise the latest drugs to treat it. This was not the case in 1986. People knew about depression, but it was not really accepted as a legitimate illness. Like alcoholism, depression fell more into the category of a “character flaw.” It was not something people talked much about, and it was certainly not something you wanted anyone to know that you had.

By 1986, I had suffered for five years with the terrible illness known as depression. I had become a shell of the person I’d once been, going through the motions of life but not really living anymore. Despair was my daily companion. Each day was a struggle to survive the darkness that made me want to end it all and seek peace in death. I had been to doctors who prescribed drugs, and I had been in therapy. Nothing had worked. My family loved me and tried to help, but still I couldn’t make my way out of the awful pit I found myself in. I was so ill that my once-a-week trip into town for groceries was an ordeal that I dreaded all week and that afterward left me unable to function for the rest of the day. My five-year-old son was all that kept me hanging on—though I was so numb I could hardly feel my love for him or his love for me. Yet I knew that ending my suffering would cast a terrible shadow on this innocent little boy’s life, and so, even though I didn’t want to, I kept what was left of myself alive day after day.

That was my situation when I walked into the Wayne CountyHumane Society one sunnyOctober day. Although it was unusual for me to be able to leave my home, I was there on an errand for my landlady, who wanted me to find a dog for her.

I should explain. All my life I have loved dogs and lived with dogs, but during my pregnancy and the years following, we lived in a rental and the landlady wouldn’t hear of our having a dog. Despite my begging and promising to take excellent care of a dog and not let it destroy the apartment, my landlady steadfastly refused. Though by nature I am not a hateful person, in the midst of my depression it was easy to sincerely hate this woman who seemed bent on depriving me of the one thing I thought might give me a small bit of pleasure in my otherwise painful existence.

Hate is a terrible thing; I knew this. When my hate continued to grow, I sought therapy. I also prayed, asking God to help me love my enemy, to truly feel some measure of love for this woman. Over a period of weeks and months, I made progress and we became friends of sorts. I found out that she actually liked dogs as much as I did. She didn’t have one herself because she thought it wouldn’t be fair to her renters if she had a dog while not allowing us to have any. My heart went out to her. She was old and didn’t have many years left to enjoy a dog. I assured her no one would care if she got a dog; that, in fact, I thought she should get one right away, and I would be glad to help her find one.

So when I walked into the shelter that day, I was looking for a dog for my landlady—now my friend—to share her golden years. I looked at them all. A long, low, brown and white dog in particular really appealed to me, but I quickly passed him by because of his size. He was about fifty pounds, much too big for my frail landlady. I did find a sweet little dog who I knew would be perfect for her. When I got back to her house and told her about him, she said she’d been thinking and had decided that getting a dog was a bad idea because of her failing health. She had few relatives and fewer friends, and didn’t want to end up in the hospital or nursing home with no one to take her dog. I was disappointed for her but I understood.

That night, my depression was still very much with me, but I did feel a little bit better just from trying to help someone else. And the fact that my hate had been turned into love by the grace of God was something I knew was wonderful—even though I couldn’t feel the wonderfulness of it because of my illness.

The next day my landlady called and told me she had reconsidered letting me have a dog. She said I could have one providing I brought it over to visit with her. I was so shocked I couldn’t speak. I came as close to having happy feelings as I was able. I actually got into the car without stopping to be afraid to go somewhere, and drove straight to the shelter to find the brown and white dog I’d seen before.

All the dogs were jumping and barking except for the one long, low, brown and white dog. He was just standing and slowly wagging his tail, looking up at me with the kindest eyes I had ever seen. I started to open the door of his run to get better acquainted, but then decided to be cautious because the back door of the building was wide open, letting in the glorious sunny fresh air of the October day. This dog looked like he had a lot of basset hound in him. I had no doubt he would try to make a break for that door and the outside delights well known to all hunting dogs, especially pleasant on a crisp autumn morning like this one.

So as I opened his gate, I quickly squatted down and held my arms out wide to be able to head him off if he bolted. This dog had no thoughts of that. With great deliberation, he waddled straight into my arms, sat down and leaned against me, fastening those kind eyes on mine and giving a great sigh of contentment. The very tip of his tail wagged ever so gently.

As he continued to gaze at me, I felt something miraculous taking place inside me. Looking into the dog’s loving gaze, I saw myself as I had once been, before my illness, before the darkness overtook me and drained me of myself. This dog’s gaze looked past all that. He saw the real me, the healthy me that was still in there somewhere. And looking into his eyes, I saw it, too. I remembered who I was!

I began to cry. Holding the dog in my arms I cried and cried—with joy, with sorrow for the wreck I had become, but mostly with relief—because I knew who I was again and knowing that was a way out of the pit I had been in for five very miserable years. It was like seeing the Promised Land or being handed the key to open a prison cell. It was a miracle. The dog sat there and never moved while I held him and cried. He took my tears and all the pain of my five-year illness in exchange for a few minutes of human contact. Truly this dog was a gift from God to me. I believed it at that moment, and I came to know it even better in the years that followed.

Max came home with me. (And yes, we made regular visits to my landlady, who always had a cookie for him.) Max became my best friend, my brother, my teacher and, most of all, my healer. With Max at my side, I was eventually able to leave my home without feelings of fear and panic. Instead of worrying if my depression was showing, I concentrated on people’s reaction to Max—which was always positive since Max, being mostly basset hound, was not only very friendly but also amusing to look at.

Together Max and I attended obedience classes, and also took many rambling walks in the country where our bond became even stronger and our delight in and understanding of each other continued to increase. After a year or so my depression was over. I was out of the pit. It was unbelievable to me. I could love my son and my husband and feel their love for me. I was me again: able to love and laugh and live my life once more.

I grew to depend on Max’s constant loving gaze, and many times over the years his devotion was a great comfort to me—on hot days he could always make me laugh just by lying on his back on the couch, with all four paws in the air, soaking up the A/C.

Max had a good life. He was much loved by me, as well as by all my friends and family, until the day he left me. When he took his last breath, I held him in my arms and whispered in his ear the words I had told him a thousand times in our fourteen devoted years together: “Best dog in the universe.”

At times I wonder if I would have recovered from my depression without Max. I don’t know. I do know that the moment I looked into his loving eyes, something inside me began to shift. Do I believe that angels can come to us in our darkest hours wearing funny, furry, brown and white dog suits? You bet I do!

Susan Boyer

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