10 min read

Three Lessons I Learned From My Rescue Dog

<p>Patricia Li<br></p>

My rescue dog and I are both in recovery.

After desperate years of crippling depression, anxiety and, finally, low-bottom alcoholism, I haven't had a drink in more than four years. And after several desperate years of scrounging for rotting scraps on Puerto Rico's notorious Dead Dog Beach, my dog, Vector, has been a dearly loved member of our family since September 2013.

Given our common theme of redemption, I feel a kindred connection with Vector - a bond tying us together even more tightly than his status as my four-legged firstborn (he'll have a human little brother soon). I identify with Vector - we are both rescues, of sorts - and identification often leads to learning ... even if the teacher has paws and floppy ears.

Three lessons Vector has helped me learn:

1. You don't know who you really are when life is a perpetual emergency.

Dead Dog Beach is aptly named. When I first brought Vector home, he'd clearly lived a nightmare: His right ear had an inch-long tear, his snout a deep, permanent scar and, most glaringly, his tail had been non-surgically lopped off - the likely result of being either run over by an ATV or bitten by a fellow stray.

His mental state was even worse: Vector was a skittish, shaking nervous wreck. He was on guard, suspicious, waiting for the other paw to drop; so terrified, in fact, that for the first two weeks he was too fearful to so much as relieve himself outdoors, making pee pads - and several area rugs - necessary short-term substitutes for fire hydrants.

Two years later, Vector is an actual dog rather than a shell of one. He loves playing fetch in the backyard, enjoys a spirited game of rope-toy tug of war, and is a safe bet to sniff and mark seemingly every tree in the park. He also has a personality - quirks and subtleties that make him unique, make him ours, make him him.

Patricia Li

Patricia Li

And he only has these things because he has an environment in which those personal attributes can emerge. Vector has calm, peace, love. He doesn't have to worry where he's going to sleep tonight, or where his next meal is coming from.

Desperation trumps development and suppresses individuality. Giving Vector a forever home saved not only his life, but his sense of self. Noticing this helped me realize that true recovery leads to far more than physical sobriety: It provides the safety and space to discover, little by little, what makes me tick as an individual. Calamity may test one's character, but calmness helps one build it.

2. When friends said "Get a dog before you have kids ... "

... they were right.

Almost immediately upon adoption, Vector needed a heartworm treatment that could have potentially killed him – introducing us to the pain of being worried sick over a helpless loved one's illness. He recovered, and has continued to prove an ideal trial run for parenthood.

Dog ownership provides a chance to practice patience with a family member who doesn't know any better; a taste of responsibility without round-the-clock vigilance; and a chance to fall head-over-heels in love without being shunned once the pooch hits his teen years.

It also brings a duty to discipline. Only after two years am I learning how to be stern with someone I love as much as Vector, whose status as a rescue just adds to the already-deep temptation to spoil him rotten. It's difficult enough to say no to those eyes, those whiskers, those ears; his history affords me the easy out of saying "he's suffered enough" and giving him anything his now worm-free heart desires. But I can't because, among other things, he'd be morbidly obese within a month.

Patricia Li

Patricia Li

Cards on the table: Vector - not my closest relatives or dearest friends - showed me how much I could love another being outside the bonds of matrimony. If my wife and I love our son - who will arrive in less than three months - as much as we love Vector, the kid will be appropriately doted upon, to say the least.

3. Unconditional love exists, and we should strive for it.

My father, who adores Vector and comes to my house to walk and feed him on the rare days my wife doesn't work from home, once got his days mixed up. I wasn't clued into his error until 7:30 that evening, at which point Vector had been alone, unfed and unrelieved for 12 hours – the last three in total darkness.

I was furious. Vector, unsurprisingly, was the complete opposite.

I've been married going on nine years, but sober for only four. My wife is either crazy or clairvoyant; regardless, I can never truly repay that love debt. An apt comparison would be a man whose wife stood by him through a lengthy affair: It would seem both likely and fitting if the marriage was largely defined by an unbalanced living amends for the foreseeable future.

Our marriage, however, has no such unbalance. We're honestly just happy. For a long while, I felt undeserving of this normalcy. I felt guilty for not being guilt-tripped, and attributed my getting off easy more to unhealthy spousal suppression than unheralded spousal sainthood.

Of all things, it took Vector's jumps and shrieks of joy in my pitch-black living room for me to see how wrong that assessment was.

Vector's unlimited loyalty and absence of bitterness helps me understand my wife's ability to enjoy the present without dwelling in the past. It took an unabashed and infinitely endearing moment of puppy-love euphoria - pure joy from a dog with a mistreated history after a mistreated day - for me to drop my guard as surely as my wife had dropped hers, and to work toward loving with as few constraints as humanly possible.

For information on adopting a dog rescued from Dead Dog Beach, contact The Sato Project at www.thesatoproject.org.

Patricia Li

Patricia Li