The Dog Who Needed Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Hilarious, Heroic, Human Dog

Lorraine Cannistra

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There is nothing truer in this world than the love of a good dog.
~Mira Grant

July 4th is typically a holiday for most people, but last year I felt more like crying than celebrating. The day started out with our typical morning routine. One of my caregivers helped me out of bed and into my wheelchair. We got me dressed for the day. The next stop was the kitchen where I was preparing breakfast, but the meal wasn’t for me. Leah, my eleven-year-old service dog, had suffered a stroke two months earlier. Dr. Tom, my vet, told me that it was anybody’s guess if she was going to get better or worse. I bowed my head in prayer for my strength and her health several times per day, trying to prepare myself for any outcome.

She hadn’t been eating well for a while, so I got some chicken and rice out of the fridge. It was her favorite. Ever since her stroke, I had told myself that I was going to put every ounce of effort I could into getting her better, so I mixed the chicken and rice with some of her kibble.

A minute or so later, I saw her out of the corner of my eye. Something was off, so I went to check on her. “Hey sweet pea, are you okay?” Her typical response to that question was to wag her tail or put her head under my hand so I would pet her. She did neither.

Instead, she rolled over and had a seizure. I asked my caregiver to get everything soft off my bed so we could surround Leah while the seizures continued. I forced down the panic as I tried to call Dr. Tom, forgetting that the office was closed because of the holiday. Eventually, I remembered that I had the cell-phone number of one of the staff members who worked there. I found out that Dr. Tom was out of town, but his partner was on call for the clinic. A quick conversation resulted in her telling me that she would be at my house within the hour.

The waiting was torture. The seizures were almost continuous. Watching Leah, this creature I loved with everything in me, made me feel as helpless as being stranded on the floor without my wheelchair. The only thing I knew in those moments was that I wanted my voice to be louder than whatever was going on in her head.

“I love you, Leah, to the moon and back again a billion times. If my love could make you well, you would live forever.” I shouted the words as loud as I could. It became clear that the end was near. My voice kept cracking. “You couldn’t have done a better job for me than you have. I could not have asked any more of you. If this gets to be too much, sweet pea, I want you to run as fast as you possibly can to heaven. For the first time since we have been together, think of your needs before you think of mine.”

The vet came and assessed the situation. We couldn’t get Leah to stand up. We made the decision to let her go, and it was done in about ten minutes. It’s not lost on me that she chose to leave on Independence Day. In our time together, she helped me in so many ways so that I would not need to rely on other people. I believe she chose that day to leave this earth as a symbol to me that she thought I was strong enough to handle her passing.

In the weeks that followed, I don’t know that I would have agreed with her.

The weight of my grief was palpable, like a boulder on my heart that wouldn’t budge. I found out that, at the dog school I go to, the waiting list for another service dog was two years long, and the fees were incredibly high.

My house felt empty. The energy was drastically different, and I didn’t like it at all. I called Dr. Tom since he had seen many people go through this experience, and I asked his advice.

“Lorraine, have you ever thought of getting a dog as a pet?”

“Well, it would have to be the right dog.”

“Send me a list of your criteria.”

Ultimately, Dr. Tom suggested that I get a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. The breed is significantly smaller than the Labs that had been my service dogs, and Dr. Tom thought I might benefit from being able to cuddle a dog on my lap. As soon as I saw some pictures, I was totally smitten.

Within a week, I was on a Facebook page for people who loved this breed, sharing the story of Leah and me and what we had been through. I said I was interested in getting a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and was hoping to find a breeder relatively close to me. I fully expected the process to take at least six months.

That same night, I got a response from a breeder who was five hours away. She said she had puppies and was touched by my story. She offered me a male at a greatly reduced price. Then she sent me his picture, and I knew this adorable guy was going to be my next dog. He had patches of copper color over both of his eyes. They reminded me of the patches that some people used to put on torn jeans. Therefore, I named him Levi. His name also honored Leah a bit.

There were moments before I got him when I began to have doubts. Would I forget Leah too soon if I got another dog so quickly? Was I betraying her memory? Those were hard questions, but every time I closed my eyes and thought of Leah, something told me she wanted me to move forward.

When Levi came home about two weeks later, he was a bouncy five-pound ball of fluff. For the first few days, he was confused and scared. He had been taken away from the only family he had ever known, and it was obvious that he was disoriented.

He spent a lot of time being cradled in my arms. I told him how much fun we were going to have together and how we would become a family over time. I showered him with attention and affection. My life became a flurry of activity. I had never potty-trained a puppy before, and it was quite an experience for both of us. But we also played, and he loved to be held. His antics made me laugh several times per day. Training and loving Levi kept my mind occupied, so I didn’t have much time to think about how much I missed Leah.

Who knew that the answer to grieving a dog who had given me so much independence was to get a dog that needed me so much?

— Lorraine Cannistra —

Reprinted by permission of Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC 2023. In order to protect the rights of the copyright holder, no portion of this publication may be reproduced without prior written consent. All rights reserved.

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