When our Shar Pei Ducky passed suddenly from an aggressive cancer, my husband Nick and I vowed we would never get another dog. No one could ever replace the wrinkly runt who stole our hearts. But our home felt empty without a four-legged companion, and a year later, we adopted a 4-year-old Shar Pei–Beagle mix named Lily. Her anxiety was palpable the moment we met her–constant pacing, panting and jumping up on the gate when the shelter coordinator walked away, and slinking away when my husband and I tried to engage her. But 30 minutes later, she was taking treats out of our hands, and Nick and I were certain we could “rehabilitate” her with a cozy home and a lot of love.
The first month we thought we were on our way to a happy and healthy bond, but looking back, it’s clear that what we read as displays of affection were actually signs of woeful insecurity: her excitable greetings, her nervous kisses, the way she draped herself on us on the couch. It wasn’t until this behavior manifested itself in excessive barking and house accidents that we realized Lily was still incredibly anxious. But we were up to the task, and determined to help her overcome these issues. With enough support, she would come around.
So at the discretion of our veterinarian, we started her on a treatment plan of behavioral therapy and medication, the first in a series of exhaustive efforts that would ultimately last 13 months. My husband ran with her every morning to burn off energy, we whispered calming words in her ear when approaching other dogs, and I tried to desensitize her to signals that we were leaving by jingling my keys and putting my jacket on a dozen times a day. These were only a few of the modifications, and they weren’t working. So we called on the purported “dog whisperer” of Chicago. “She’s a miracle worker,” insisted our friend from the dog park. And while we saw some improvement, it was clear that Lily was still suffering. You could see it in her pleading eyes, and the way she retreated to her bed after having an accident.
But there had to be some expertly calibrated combination of therapy, exercise, and love that would cure her, I thought. We’ll stumble upon the magic ratio one of the days. But it had to be soon—I was five months pregnant and couldn’t imagine dealing with this while simultaneously taking care of a newborn. I was frustrated. Not because our rugs were ruined and our neighbors hated us, but because no matter how much I wanted to, or how hard I tried, I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t undo the first four years of her life, I couldn’t quiet her mind or uproot the seeds of doubt and mistrust that had been planted long ago. And most painful of all, I couldn’t convince her that we were her salvation, because I wasn’t sure anymore.
The truth was, after almost a year of unsuccessful treatments, we felt hopeless, and defeated. But from the beginning, we had promised we’d give Lily all we had to give, so in our final act, we decided to take the plunge and spring for the Holy Grail of dog training, a three month, multi-thousand dollar therapy program that included weekly consultations, a behavior journal, and various medication combinations, all of which fell flat. We were at a loss. And as I began to mourn our failures, our son arrived almost two months ahead of schedule.
Nick and I spent hundreds of hours in the NICU over the course of the next two weeks, and while my primary concern was getting Max strong enough to come home, I spent a lot of time thinking about Lily. Bringing a new life into this world had shed new light on the situation. When I held Max in my arms and we looked into each other’s eyes, it was clear that we belonged together. The magnetic pull between us was strong and easy, and when I nursed him, our hearts beat in sync. I knew I couldn’t compare this bond to my connection with Lily, but I did realize that somewhere in the universe, there was a place where Lily did belong. Somewhere there was a family that was incomplete without her, and it wasn’t because they had more love to give, or more patience, or more money. It was just because they fit.
So once we settled in at home, two very tired parents spent every spare minute they had looking for Lily’s forever family. We refused to send her to another “stepping stone home,” as we called it. She deserved a family that wanted her—and all of her—forever, which is why we provided prospective adopters with all the information about her anxieties that was originally withheld from us. An experienced owner, which is what Lily needed, would understand that while challenging, her issues were also what made her an incredibly tender and devoted animal.
Our first move was to reach out to a close circle of dog-lovers in hopes that they or someone they knew were looking for a new pup. We were prepared to go to local veterinarians and rescue groups after that in order to cast a wider net, but from that initial outreach, we were connected with two wonderful candidates. After conversing with both and talking to their references, we planned an introduction between Lily and a wonderful couple from Canada, a man and woman who had devoted their retirement to rehabilitating troubled pets. They fell in love with her immediately, and made it their priority to show us that they were responsible and committed pet owners—they brought a blanket from their house with their cats’ and dogs’ scents on it, asked questions about Lily’s medical records, and comforted us when we got emotional about the situation. It just felt right. They felt right.
Today, Lily lives on a ranch in Ontario with two dogs and three cats. She chases chipmunks through the woods in her backyard, eats homemade meat casserole on the porch, and takes naps on a window seat overlooking a magnolia tree. As of our last check-in—and they are frequent—she was completely off her medication and getting ready for a trip to Niagara Falls. When we want to see those big brown eyes, we can browse through a number of Facebook albums, all peppered with cameos from other neighborhood pups, doting grandchildren, and enchanting Canadian landscapes. I miss Lily every day, and while it’s hard not to feel like we failed her at times, I’m happy knowing she finally feels like she belongs.