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Learning to Love the Puppy I Didn’t Want

I recently entered a Valentine’s Day Instagram contest hosted by a dog apparel brand that asked entrants to post a photo and tell them what love means to us in the caption.

This content posed a bit of a challenge for me, in the context of Laila and love.

Before Sora died, I’d write these long, beautiful captions about the love and bond we shared together. She was the love of my life. My love for her came easily, from the moment I met her.

Laila on the other hand has had to earn my love. It’s not that I don’t love her. It’s just that it’s been a challenging ride.

I wasn’t in the right mental or emotional state when we adopted her. Although we had discussed for months that we would adopt a second dog after we moved to Spain, Laila came into our lives during a difficult time.

We had just moved to Spain six weeks prior.

Dave’s dad died the day after we arrived in Spain.

We discovered that Sora’s cancer had returned after we came back from the US to tend to Dave’s father’s death.

Sora had just had surgery to remove what our vet could of the tumor and would be starting radiation therapy in just a few weeks.

I knew that Sora’s time with us would be limited.

I didn’t want a puppy.

I said no puppy.

I really didn’t want a puppy.

Dave had found a listing for a cute brindled puppy in a village three hours away. It was actually Laila’s brother, but we learned that he had a sister as well. It was a three hour drive. You don’t go drive for six hours round trip and not come home with a dog.

We got a puppy.

We had no puppy-appropriate toys, no bed for her, no kennel, nothing. No, that’s not true. I had a bandana she could wear. I hadn’t spent time reading books or watching YouTube videos on training a puppy. I didn’t feel prepared on how to bring a puppy into our home.

Sora was still recovering from surgery and in a cone.

Dave agreed to handle Laila while I focused my energy on Sora. He was the one pushing for a dog right now and he was the one who wanted to go see the puppy. I’d agreed to get the puppy on those conditions.

Only, she proved to be too much for him and he was not able to handle her alone.

My love for Laila hasn’t come easily. In the beginning, she took away from the little remaining time I had with Sora. She demanded my constant attention. She threw tantrums when we were out at restaurants. Or walking. Or when she saw another dog. Or another person. Or birds. We couldn’t have conversations with friends. One of us had to dedicate the entirety of our efforts on controlling Laila.

Walking down the street meant paying attention to every dog, child, rolling suitcase, person, skateboard, bicycle, bird, piece of food, tree fruit dropping, and countless other distractions. It was mentally exhausting.

I resented her.

I resented Dave.

And my heart ached anticipating the day we would have to say goodbye to Sora.

Laila had — and still has— boundless energy. And when you have a puppy, they can’t run or hike long distances. Or really, much distance at all. Sora couldn’t run because of her age and recovery. I was training for a 50km race throughout the summer and would leave Dave with the dogs while I ran in the mountains for seven hours.

I’d feel guilty that I got to run and he couldn’t, but he pushed for the puppy, I’d remind myself. And I’d disappear into the mountains without a glance back.

When we did hike, Laila would go off on “fantastic voyages.” She would disappear for 10 minutes at a time and ignoring our calls. The first time she did it with me alone, I thought, “well, maybe she just won’t come back and that’ll be that. I called her and she didn’t come, what can I do?”

Inevitably, she’d come tearing down the trail, tongue hanging a foot out of her mouth, grinning over the solo adventure she’d just had.

I didn’t even want to look at her.

Or, she’d take advantage of an off-leash moment and sprint toward a herd of horses or cows. She has no fear, this skinny little puppy. She’d bark and prance right up to livestock without worry of their hooves kicking her halfway across the field crushing every bone in her body. Like in the woods, our calls would go unanswered.

Sometimes, I wished that the horse or cow would give her a swift kick to the gut. I wanted her to learn that they are not animals to fuck with. They are not play mates.

Inevitably, we’d have to chase after her, and figure out a way to strangle wrangle her back to us and to safety. She’d pant with a grin on her face and I wanted to just drop her to the ground and let her fend for herself.

I didn’t want to walk her. I didn’t want to train her. I didn’t want to be around her.

She wore on me. She wore on Dave. She wore on us.

She demanded the time I needed to put toward Sora.

As Sora’s health declined, Laila became less and less of a priority to me. I wanted to spend every single second with Sora. My heart, my emotions, my love belonged entirely to her.

When The Very Bad Day Came, Laila was there to fill the gaping hole she had left behind. Though she didn’t quite understand what was going on, she provided comfort and emotional support.

Sora’s gift to Laila was space in my heart. With Sora’s physical presence gone, I now had room to try and build my relationship with Laila.

I took the energy I put into caring for Sora into training Laila. We still have a long, long road ahead of us, but we celebrate the small wins. The times she whips her head back to me, rather than choosing to bark at the dog walking past.

We walk back and forth and back and forth and back and forth past our veterinarian, her favorite place in the world, until she learns that walking past doesn’t meant that we get to pull to go inside.

We go to the park and play recall games, focus games, and sit-stay exercises.

Rather than see her flaws, I choose to focus on her strengths.

Laila loves people and other dogs. We were used to managing a reactive dog who didn’t feel so fond of others. While we work on controlling her excitement around others, we find relief in knowing that we don’t have to worry about her harming anyone.

Laila is chill in the house. Where she zips around like a Tazmanian Devil in the woods, at home, she’s calm, sleeps on the couch, and has never chewed the furniture or our belongings.

Laila is the best cuddler. She sleeps with her head on our pillows, sometimes resting in the crook between our neck and ears. During the winter, she sleeps under the covers, offering a personal space heater to warm our bodies.

Laila is a great runner. Now that she has the OK to build up with us for longer runs, she comes along. Her recall is sloooowly improving and I’m learning to trust her more. Or, I’ll put her on a harness and she’ll pull me along, tiring her out and making me faster.

I also stopped blaming Dave for bringing her into our lives and accepted this as our situation. We’re figuring out how to work together, with the help of a trainer, to mold her into the adventure dog we hope she’ll become.

Laila is still highly excitable, challenging, and frustrating at times. Sometimes, I can’t deal with her and I just hand the leash over to Dave, other times, I take a deep breath and try to channel her energy elsewhere, shaping it into a more desired behavior, building our bond.

I don’t know that she’ll ever choose me over goat poop or horses or cows. Or that she’ll ever wag her tail for me the way she does for complete strangers. Perhaps one day she’ll decide that I’m cool enough to return to when she’s off exploring in the woods. Some day, I hope to be able to open my front door and be able to give 100% of my focus and attention on my guest and not my dog.

Laila has shown me that we can love in spite of the exasperating times, that resentment only digs a deeper hole, and that the tests she throws my way challenge my personal growth.

Sora will always hold the biggest piece of my heart, but it doesn’t mean that it cannot expand to allow others inside.

Jen Sotolongo

Hello! I'm Jen. I'm a writer, photographer, dog mom, and outdoor enthusiast. When I'm not writing about awesome ways to get outside with your dog, I'm probably out for a long trail run. I also fancy myself a pretty decent vegan cook, and am always happy to whip up a batch of cookies for friends. I am based in the Pacific Northwest and I never leave home without my dogs.

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