What this family physician learned from his dog

I, much like many others, made a terrible decision on my 21st birthday.  Mine, however, didn’t involve alcohol; I adopted a dog.

She was a scruffy, brindle-coated, malnourished 30-pound terrier puppy.  So in between organic chemistry, physics, Spanish, studying for the MCAT, and multiple other classes, I had to housebreak a puppy.  Those glorious visions I had of dog ownership hadn’t included several key aspects, like cleaning up accidents, cleaning up dog hair, cleaning up more accidents, replacing roommates’ shoes, fixing carpet, buying new electrical cords, apartment pet fees, toenails ripping my car seats, etc etc.  Like I said, it was a terrible decision.  I remember multiple nights standing in the yard for hours, trying to get her to use the bathroom, with her leash in one hand and a set of chemistry notes in the other.  She pushed me to the point of breaking, and I vividly remember having a discussion with my girlfriend about whether I should take her back to the shelter, because I couldn’t handle it.  I remember thinking I wasn’t going to be able to pass all my classes, and I remember thinking I was going to bomb the MCAT.

But things got better.  She learned how to use the bathroom outside, and I did fine in all my classes.  The MCAT came and went.  That poor, pitiful looking puppy grew into an energetic, friendly, beautiful dog.  Everything evolved.  Those multiple-hour, frustrating nightly bathroom trips turned into efficient jaunts, and she quickly changed from a source of stress to a source of stress relief.  Study breaks became times to romp with my dog.  Exercise became more essential because it calmed down her anxiety, as well as mine.  I suddenly had an excuse to go to the park.  My girlfriend fell in love with her (and later me).

That beautiful scruffy terrier, Charlotte, helped me through the rest of college, medical school, residency, and my first year as an attending.  She was a crucial part of my wedding (that girlfriend became my wife), as well as being with us through the birth of our daughter.  To say that she has been one of my closest friends is an understatement; I often wonder if I could have made it through everything without her.

I had to have her put to sleep yesterday; she had a chronic medical problem that we dealt with for several years now.  I’ve been crying for weeks because I knew it was coming.

I never knew I could learn so much from a 40-pound dog.  She taught me that sometimes all people need is someone to listen.  She taught me to never lose my zest for life.  She taught me that tough times often pass.  I find myself saying this so frequently. To new medical students, new residents, new parents, people going through rehab for terrible injuries, patients going through divorces, family members who have lost loved ones.  She also taught me that sometimes those terrible situations help make us stronger.  And she taught me that sometimes we keep our loved ones alive longer for us, not them.

So over the next several weeks, if anybody sees me laying on my back in the grass while basking in the sunlight, or drinking water after a long run in the shade of a tree, or cuddling with my wife on the couch at night, or chasing a squirrel in the yard, please understand that I’m not crazy.  Those are just a few of the tricks I learned from Charlotte — a scruffy little terrier that taught me so much about living life to the fullest.

Justin Reno is a family physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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