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Pet Diaries: The Catahoula Leopard Dog That Taught Me About Love and Self-Respect

Introducing Pet Diaries: Life lessons learned from our pets. This 9-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®, and explores how having a pet can change your place in your neighborhood, community, and beyond. Check out more stories at the GOOD Pets hub.

Most families aren’t your stereotypical Leave it to Beaver types. Sometimes kids grow up having to learn how to be adults the hard way, or along paths that aren’t always smooth. While traveling on my own rocky path, I was blessed to have a four-legged friend as my guide.

When I was 15 years old, my mother gave me up to foster care. She was an alcoholic and I was a rebellious teenager trying to get attention any way I could. I’d get in trouble with the police for smoking cigarettes underage and being out too late. I ran away multiple times. My mother and I would have power struggles, and I’d fight with her often.

My dad worked full time in Boston (more than an hour away), and I only saw him every other weekend, so when the court date came, it was completely unexpected when he showed up to take full custody rather than giving me up to the state. My father did his best to get me back into his life, and I had to live out of a camper in the backyard while he put on an addition to his house. As I was going through physical, emotional, and behavioral changes as a teenager, I was confused and questioned my own purpose. Being the new girl in school was difficult because cliques were already established. I felt like an outsider, with no identity or role. I remember eating lunch in a bathroom stall due to my complete lack of confidence.

A year later, in my junior year of high school, I got off the bus to discover my father had adopted a Catahoula Leopard puppy from the SPCA, because now that we had a yard, he was excited to have a pet. Due to raging hormones, I was angry at the world, and I wasn’t excited about anything, especially a needy puppy. So when it started following me to my camper at night, it was unexpected, but oddly comforting. I named her Annie, after the orphan from the comic strip and musical, and she quickly became a companion to me.

Most teenagers tend to be pretty self-absorbed, caring strictly for their own well-being. My relationship with Annie prohibited selfishness because every day I needed to go home to let her out and make sure she was fed and had water. The day she got attacked by a porcupine, I took her to the vet immediately and paid the expensive bill without question, even though I only had a part-time job at a convenience store. It was Annie who valued me and gave me a role to play, which was caregiver. She trusted me for what I gave her, and she gave back. With those icy blue eyes looking straight into mine, she made me feel like I was being heard, and she would answer me, or at least comfort me, without judgment. Annie also protected me against untrustworthy people. How she barked and reacted to visitors even informed whom I chose to hang out with later. When I was sad, she’d nuzzle me with affection, making me see that someone was concerned about my well-being.

A year after my father fixed up his house, which was livable but not finished, he decided to move in with his girlfriend two towns over. I was left to live alone while I finished up high school, so in a way, Annie and I became orphans again. During this difficult time, I made the unconventional decision to drop out of school to work and live at a ski resort with a group of friends. Although it was a big change for me, those few months as a ski bum were some of the best in my life. While I had time to reflect, having Annie loyally by my side gave me confidence in who I was and the choices I was making. And, when Annie and I returned to my dad’s empty house, I went back to school, graduating with honors the following year.

Growing up without a “traditional family,” I learned that my dog was my family, and that was enough. This was true even later in life, when I found myself in an unhealthy relationship with my daughter’s father. Because Annie never abandoned me, I knew I wouldn’t be alone as long as I had her. So, when it was time to get out of the abusive relationship, I took my daughter in one arm and Annie in the other, and left.

Annie by Heather’s daughter’s side when she had the flu

Now, as I pursue a Master’s in Art Therapy at Lesley University, I recognize the dangers of abandonment and lack of guidance. Despite the odds, I’ve learned how to be a wonderful mother and most recently, a devoted wife to a loving husband. Fifteen years have passed since Annie became a part of my life, and she is starting to show signs of frailty. But every morning, despite her ailing hips, she jumps up on my bed the second I’m awake. She is still teaching me valuable lessons, especially the importance of being thankful for the beautiful life I live. I firmly believe that I have become a well-adjusted adult because Annie had faith that I would, and she stood by me until I did. I learned that I am worthy of healthy and reciprocal relationships because Annie was the first to offer me just that.

Heather and her family

Photos courtesy of Heather Cohen

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