PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
Five-year-old me was riding along on my rusty BMX bike when a German shepherd charged toward me and knocked me straight off my bike and bit me. Luckily, the owner was there to call the dog off, or I probably would have been a meal for the beast. My relationship with dogs at that point was not what I would call positive, but little did I know at that time dogs would become a focal point of my resilience throughout the rest of my life.
A couple of years later, when my dad was deployed somewhere in the middle east as an aircraft maintainer, my brother and I noticed white animal hair as we sat in the back seat of my mom’s 1990s-era coupe on the way home. I was elated.
“You got us a cat? “ I asked my mom.
“It’s a surprise,” my mom replied.
Turns out, it was not a cat. It was a mutt we later named Jake, a white German shepherd mixed with who knows what. The first day he was in our house, I was scared for my life. I climbed up on top of the clothes dryer, kicking at him as he was trying to lick me, trying to make him leave me alone.
Jake did not leave me alone, and I eventually formed a bond with him, and he became a close friend. I was a young teenager when growths started forming throughout his body as a result of cancer. While I was away in Pennsylvania for my grandmother’s funeral, Jake was no longer able to go up or down stairs.
When we returned from the funeral, we had to take Jake to the veterinarian to put him down. My mother, brother and I sat in the spotless, sterile white room waiting for the vet. I pulled out my flip phone and took one last picture.
“Why are you taking that picture?” my mom asked.
“I want to remember” I replied.
That summer was the first time in my life where I experienced significant loss, and they both hit me hard: first my grandmother, then my dog.
Not long after that my mom got an English springer spaniel and we named him Quentin, after the film director. He became just as important to my life as Jake had been. My parents divorced around that same time during my first year of high school. Death and divorce can be a hard thing for a young teen to come to terms with, but I used to play fetch with Quentin for hours and it would take my mind away from the difficulties of these experiences. His obvious, ecstatic joy in something so simple like retrieving a flying disk had a calming effect on my mind.
After high school I went away for college and then joined the service. I’ve been in the Air Force for almost six years now, and haven’t seen Quentin regularly. All-in-all, we’ve been apart for 10 years, with a couple visits in that span of time. Whenever I do visit, he is thrilled to see me. While he has grown old without me present in his life, he remembers me every time I see him. Maybe it’s because I used to give him a lot of treats and play fetch with him all the time; whatever it is, our relationship still feels meaningful.
Aside from spending time with my own dogs, my wife and I volunteer on a regular basis helping people adopt dogs at the local animal shelter. Seeing the great variety of emotions people experience when they pick the dog they want to have in their lives is rewarding. I’ve seen people break down and cry knowing they found their dog.
People look for many things in their companions, and dogs come in all shapes and sizes, serve all kinds of different functions and have all types of personalities, just like people. You have the military working dogs, the bomb-sniffing dogs at the airport, the emotional support dogs who help so many people, dogs who herd, dogs who retrieve, and of course you also have the teacup Chihuahuas who spend a lot of their life in a handbag.
At the dog shelter I’ve seen families with babies and kids, elderly couples, single people, and even a guy with a 10-inch bowie knife on his belt who I had to inform was carrying it illegally. One thing unites them all: they want a dog in their life – they want a companion.
My wife and I adopted a golden doodle puppy from a rescue earlier this year and named him Butters. It has been a lot of work raising and training him, but he has made it past all the big rocks. Yet again, I have a friend, a companion, who I can count on to be there for me, through good days and bad.
Butters’ pure enthusiasm for seeing me at the end of a long day makes me feel good, and it’s as simple as that. Whether it’s some brain chemical responding to the stimuli presented to me or some spiritual connection, I do not know. The little guy just seems to love life to the fullest, and seeing that love helps me love life, even on the hard days.
As the Air Force refocuses on resiliency, I think about the people who have been there for me, but I also think about the canine companions I’ve had in my life, and how they have been there for me every time. There’s always another great dog out there looking for a home.
Resiliency is not the same thing for everyone, and people bolster their resiliency through different means. Find what works for you, be it a dog or something else entirely. Life is not always easy, and the most resilient people do not try to do it alone. They rely on their friends and family, including, for many, their dog friends.