She had us at the first hug. She nuzzled her tiny snout into each of our shoulders and couldn’t have been any cuter if she tried. We bonded, filled out the paperwork, signed the check and suddenly we were on our way home with a new baby that we named Charly.
I held her securely on my lap on the way home, marveling at how right she felt. The wave of contentment that blew through me as I held her for the first time was so strong it almost felt physical. I blinked back tears and hugged her harder.
Charly is of unknown parentage. She was found abandoned in South Carolina. The rescue — all4paws in Malvern, Penn. — guesses that she is a Border Collie mix but who knows. And really, who cares?
My husband Tim and I are dog people. In addition to our newest baby, our current pack includes a 14-year-old cattle dog mix named Beatrice, a 12-year-old Jack Russell named Oscar and lab-pitbull mix named Sadie. We also have Max and Obie, two rescue cats, and a rescue turtle (creatively named Turtle) but to be honest it is the dogs that drive us.
Between us, we’ve had more than a dozen dogs and Tim now operates his own pet care business. There’s never a shortage of canine company between our pack and Tim’s clients.
But last year I lost my companion dog Abe to kidney disease and I’ve felt a hole in my soul since he passed. (I also realized about three months ago that my memories of the 12 years I had with Abe are being erased; I mostly just have the images of him from our photos together. Otherwise my memory banks are cleared of him; in some ways it is as though he never existed.)
Abe was represented the last time we adopted a dog so young. Hard to believe, but 13 years had passed since we had the “joy” of raising a real furbaby.
After we had been approved to adopt Charly, my sister kindly reminded me that the last time we had a puppy of that age, I was working more than full-time in NYC and traveling like a madman.
The day-to-day raising of Abe fell on Tim and, oh man, does he have stories to tell.
Like when he ran through the Pepto Bismol-pink paint sealant that had just been applied in our newly renovated bathroom and tracked it throughout the house or the day he chased a squirrel into a drainpipe in front of our house and wouldn’t come out for 2.5 hours. (I apparently was in San Francisco.)
Today I’m retired on disability and home basically 24-7. Now it is Tim who is gone much of the day taking care of his pet care clients.
Could I manage a puppy while dealing with the memory holes and other issues of mild cognitive impairment?
As that question swirled in my mind, I often thought about how my friend Christy Turner (aka The Dementia Sherpa) describes herself as “scared spitless” on her first day at work in a memory care facility. That was me. The night before we picked Charly up from the rescue, I found myself trembling with anxiety and binging on tostitos chips and Hershey’s Kisses. It wasn’t pretty.
Now that she’s home, I’m happy we adopted. Yes, I’m sleep deprived and, yes, that’s not great when my endurance isn’t the best to begin with. Charly is into everything and we have to watch her like a hawk. Happily she sleeps well and we’ve already gotten into a habit of midday napping together.
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of what’s called pet-assisted therapy for people living with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive illnesses: Added companionship for what is often a very isolating disease. Reduced anxiety and agitation. A reason to get exercise.
What the science can’t capture, though, is the actual experience of dog companionship. Dogs don’t understand that your brain is defective, and instead of judgment, they offer unconditional love and trust.
Instead the daily challenges of cognitive and memory loss, our pets push aside the negative and promise to help us create new memories.
And to a person living with Alzheimer’s, that is an invaluable gift.
Phil Gutis is a former New York Times reporter and civil liberties and environmental advocate who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2016.