A Letter To My Firstborn
Where to begin? I’ll start with your sweet, sensitive soul. A soul, that through adversity, transition, and lack of understanding from so many in the world, continues to teach me how to be a better human. In the depths of your soul lies the softest fiber of being. From the moment I laid my eyes upon you, I knew. I knew you’d forever live in my heart and imprint my soul. You are my firstborn, my first real teacher — the one, who without words, continues to help write chapters of my life. You impact how I raise your human siblings, interact with others, and teach those around me. Your education awards me more compassion and presence in every moment. You are and will forever be, my heart and soul dog. Sunny, I love you.
Our story began when I volunteered at a shelter in Southern California. The moment I spotted you, I loved you. I loved your high-energy and zest for the great outdoors. You hated going back into your kennel after our walks. You’d protest by jumping up and nipping at the leash in my hands. When I’d walk away, you’d do circles in your kennel. Your mind was so overwhelmed by life, your little body didn’t know how to slow down. You’d been in the shelter for over five of your nine months on this earth. I could see and feel the trauma in your soul, maybe because it was a reflection of my own. You never felt what it was like to have your needs met. No one made you feel safe. No one understood that your fear was thwarting your emotional well-being.
I was a budding dog trainer who was ready to take on the responsibility of fostering a dog. I had a college degree in Psychology and had started a professional dog running service. For years I studied anything I could get my paws on on the science of dog, from inspirations like, Patricia McConnell, Temple Grandin and Sophia Yin. Fostering seemed like the best route for learning more about dog behavior and finding my heart dog. I walked you for a few weeks before that defining moment. Your little body couldn’t take it any longer and you leapt up to grab the leash from my hands, but instead, grabbed my stomach with your teeth. You were screaming to be heard; to stay outside and not go back into the “eternal locks of hell and damnation,” at least that was my narrative. How could I possibly allow this beautiful creature to live out his life in a shelter?
Due to policies, I had to fill out a bite report, but all of the folks at the shelter understood your stress and intentions. They understood that you were hurting inside — inside your body and the shelter. The day after you bit me, they asked if I would foster you. Without hesitation, I said YES! I had no idea what that yes actually meant until I brought you home the following day. You did not know what to do with yourself. You had no idea how to live in this foreign world filled with moving people, moving objects, loud sounds, overwhelming smells, and a new home with an unfamiliar male who didn’t understand how deeply your fears impacted your behavior, and so much more that you could not tell me.
Our introduction to training outside of the shelter was from an extraordinary trainer named Paul Owens. He changed our lives and gave us simple tools to help alleviate our fears. Despite our work, you suffered greatly from separation anxiety and were fearful of the world and so much in it, and my life, as it was, was not conducive to your thriving. You were terrified of my roommate who was an editor that worked nights. He was nice guy but not well-informed about dog behavior, not-to-mention we lived in a very small, cave-like two bedroom apartment. You would scream at the top of your lungs for as long as I was away while the nice guy would try and sleep. I couldn’t take you with me on every dog run I had because your body was not fully developed for running, and plenty of the dogs I worked with were not appropriate for you to interact with. I needed to keep you safe but it seemed out of reach.
I tried leaving you in the crate that the shelter provided and suggested we use, but if your screaming wasn’t heartbreak enough, your projectile diarrhea and bloody mouth from trying to escape the crate was. You made it clear that the crate was not an option. I tried leaving you in my bedroom, but your behaviors became more telling. You ripped the blinds from my window and scratched at my door while screaming. The shelter didn’t know what to suggest other than using an x-pen or putting you in our 6-foot fenced backyard, which your athletic and anxious self took one running leap and landed on the other side before I could even lock the gate. How were we going to get through this?
I reached out to the shelter again to describe what was happening. On your evaluation sheet it clearly stated that you had no known behavior concerns. Unfortunately, I found that separation anxiety was not your only concern. You were terrified of the world, particularly children, men, loud sounds, unfamiliar items, and scary dogs to name a few. For weeks we worked tirelessly to help you feel safe, potty train you, and to teach you substitute behaviors other than humping, and lunging and barking at other dogs and people while on leash.
I called in Paul Owens for reinforcement. He helped educate my roommate about your fears and need for us to be compassionate and patient with you. He taught me how to desensitize you to my leaving and over the next few weeks, I’d pick up my keys throughout the day, then put them back on the table. I’d touch the door handle but not open it. I’d put my shoes on, then sit down and read a book. We did lots of this until it became evident that you were ready for me to actually walk out the door and leave you for 30 seconds, then 3 minutes, then 30. We worked up to an hour with you alone, not hurting yourself trying to escape. Victory was in the making!
The day came when the shelter called and told me they had a family that wanted to adopt you, but as your foster, I had the first right. Of course! That was a no brainer. We’d come so far! The following the week, Paul asked if I’d be in a taping for his newest dog training DVD, and of course I said yes. My phone was off and when I got out of filming I noticed that I had many missed calls from my mom, my sister, and my brother. Calling my mom back, I’ll never forget. She could barely speak, but through her torturous cry she screamed, “Your dad is dead! Your dad is dead! Your dad is dead!” My brother took the phone while my sister consoled our mom. He explained that the tractor had flipped over on top our our dad and that our mom found him.
I flew out for two weeks the following day while a group of my close friends, including my roommate, watched you. It was a confusing time upon my return. I was sad and conflicted with my trauma and it was as if all the hard work we had put in for those first few weeks was in vain. My apartment smelled like dog pee and all of the blinds had been ripped from the windows. I was thankful you were okay and didn’t escape, and that you were taken care of even if it meant we had to start from square one.
Over the next couple of weeks, I could feel my mental health begin to suffer and you were in need of so much more. You required someone more skilled and full-time to help you overcome your fears. I felt incapable, so I emailed the shelter director and manager to explain how, with your needs not being met and my processing of my father’s death, that I wasn’t the right person for you. In what would turn out to be a serendipitous turn of events, the director accidentally hit “reply all.” Clearly not meant for my eyes, her email stated how irresponsible it was for me to say I would adopt, then try and give you back, and if I was a budding dog trainer, I should be able to handle your concerns. I felt broken and unrepairable. The email went on to say a few more unsettling things before closing with the fact that they weren’t going to take you back.
I was unprepared for the weight and pain her words would cause on top of the trauma I was already dealing with. It felt like I was left in the deep end to drown even though I was asking for help with people all around. The next day the manager replied, also accidentally hitting “reply all." She was much more empathetic to our situation. She reminded the director that my dad had just died and that your behavior was not common and required a skilled professional. I held my breath waiting for another “reply all,” but nothing came. Days passed before we communicated.
During that time, your first dog friend and my first client, Atticus’ parents graciously gave me money and a list of therapists on a sliding scale. You and I are still together because of them. A deep thank you to the Oshers! That list lead me to a therapist I will never forget. She was my first, and most compassionate introduction into the world of mental health professionals. Our first session, she spoke only 3 sentences, and only one I remember: “How will you feel if you lose someone else you love?”
I went home crying and called my mom. I told her that I couldn’t give you up. That we’d come too far. Those conversations with my therapist and mom gave me the confidence to call the director. I told her that after much thought and deliberation, I was going to keep you. That I couldn’t lose someone else I love. An empathic tone filled my ear and she replied, “Sunny needs you as badly as you need him. Please consider Sunny a gift from me to you.” I was over the moon that we were now an official life’s team! I would forever love you and do my best to keep you safe.
13 years have passed since you rescued me, and every day I fall more in love with you and your wisdom. Because of you, I continue to grow. You helped sculpt so much of who I am. You’re my constant — with me through it all, including the deaths of my mom, dad, and grandmother. You would lay calmly at my feet and remind me that I was never alone. You helped choose your dad as the first man in our lives that you didn’t fear, and so cutely pranced down the aisle at our wedding with a bowtie. You ushered both children home from the hospital with a gentleness any mother could understand. And you stayed by my side through postpartum depression, bringing a calm that felt almost impossible to find. You’re at my side now, laying calmly at my feet — always my shadow but forever my Sun. I love you more than words could ever express.