My dog died two weeks before Christmas. We had twelve and a half lovely years together.

I’m not going to go into great detail about Gilly’s last days. The short of it is, her leg broke and the vet found metastasized cancer. I was with her during the transition. 

Gilly died on a Friday evening, and I spent the next two days weeping. All day long, with breaks to sleep and play solitaire on my phone, which I find enormously comforting. Over that weekend, I would look around for her and be shocked all over again that she was gone, and then I would remember what had happened. I felt angry, so I yelled how unfair it is to lose your most loyal companion. I wondered, “What if” in various forms – What if I had done xxx differently? What if we had found it sooner? 

I swung through all of the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and – finally – acceptance. I was a pendulum, swinging back and forth, even as I accepted that it happened. I made it through the first day without Gilly, then the first weekend, then the first week. I made it through a series of Firsts without her – the first time going to the pet store, the first time walking our other dog, the first time to the park. 

Now I am at the stage of being able to remember her. To look through pictures without dissolving into a puddle of tears. And as I’ve considered how best to honor Gilly’s presence in my life, it occurred to me that she has taught me so much about what it means to be a good human. Here are the lessons my dog taught me that have made me a better person

Communicate Clearly

There’s a saying that the eyes are windows to the soul. This is true for our furry pets, especially our dogs. They talk to us in various ways, and we can listen if we learn how they communicate. 

Gilly was most expressive through her eyes. I’ve worked from home for over a decade, with her often sleeping on the couch beside me. I could tell what she needed through her gaze, adoring or intense or sad or in pain. 

With a look, she let me know when it was time to take walks or snuggle, to eat or to play. In her later years, she “ruffed” more, with different tones and pitches depending on the situation. A very impatient “ruff” signaled that I was late serving her dinner, and once I realized, she would dance and prance around my legs as we walked to her food bowl. With a look on her last day with me, I knew that she was ready to go, and that she trusted me to help her.

Sit With Those Who are Hurting

Although it wasn’t official, Gilly was my emotional support dog. I called her my best antidepressant. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and complex trauma, and have been diagnosed with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. 

No matter what, Gilly was there. If I was crying, she was there, beside me on the couch or the bed, holding eye contact. She would be there – sitting or lying near or on my lap – for as long as I needed her. The panic attack or tears or triggers would cycle through and pass on, and she was not afraid or intimidated. She was simply present. 

Treasure Your Toys

One of my favorite things about Gilly was how much she enjoyed toys, especially the ones that squeak. She had so many toys that I had a basket that served as Gilly’s Toy Box. She loved to scatter them throughout the house, a toy in each room, and gather them up and hide them under her dog bed. After a while, she would want to play but I would be unable to find a toy, and then I would remember to look under her bed. Sure enough, there they all were. 

Make the Most of Every Opportunity

My favorite Gilly story involves a Costco-sized box of dog bones, the treats that I would hand out at different parts of the day as part of our routine. We had to buy one of those giant boxes from Costco every couple of months, along with an enormous amount of food to feed two rapidly growing boys. 

One Saturday, my now ex-husband, my two boys, and I were around the house. It was a typical Saturday, with dishes, laundry, playing games, and cartoons. Every so often, Gilly would appear with one of those dog bone treats, nonchalantly crunching away. 

I remember seeing her and thinking, “Cool, one of the boys is doing some training with her.”

That evening, I walked into my home office and discovered the huge box of treats that one of us had left on the floor, torn open with about eight treats missing. She had been going into that room at intervals, gently and quietly taking a treat, disappearing with it, and enjoying it to her heart’s content. Each one of us had seen her at least once throughout the day, and simply thought another family member had given her a treat.

Gilly was sweet and smart, but I don’t want to give the impression that she wasn’t naughty. Gilly was a dog, after all, doing dog things. Like going after the guinea pigs in our house. Chasing the cats, didn’t matter whose cats. Getting into the cabinet where the garbage can was, taking the can out, and spreading trash all over the kitchen and dining room. Running through creeks, trying to catch ducks, and then surprising herself by catching one, in front of a grandmother and her grandchildren. And going to our friend’s house, sneaking into the backyard, unlatching the door to the chicken coop, and gently holding a hen down in the corner of the coop while the rest of us – chickens and humans – shrieked and bawked, leaving feathers everywhere (the chicken was fine, Gilly was not invited back).

Nope, not perfect, but neither am I. However, I am a better human because of my dog.

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