A story of loyalty, dedication and love during National Pet Month by Anne Abel

When I was seven my father brought home a beagle puppy. “She Wore An Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was a song playing on radios everywhere that summer. I named the dog Teeny, and I loved him.

One morning Teeny peed on the rug. When my father saw it, he opened the basement door and threw Teeny down the stairs. I heard Teeny’s yelp. Next thing I knew my father was walking out the door with him. “Your father is taking Teeny to the vet,” my mother said.

I never saw Teeny again. I was too afraid to ask what happened. I don’t remember when I realized he had died. But all summer when I heard the “Yellow Polka Dot” song on the radio, I cried.

In childhood I did not feel liked, loved, or welcomed by my parents. My mother and father each attempted to eliminate any individuality that I had. My mother was harsh, dismissive and sarcastic with me. My father forbade me to speak at the dinner table and told me he had no interest in what I had to say. “I don’t want to talk to you,” he would say to me on the rare occasions I tried to speak to him.

I was determined to be a different kind of parent to my own children. 

“Dog” was the first word spoken by my middle son. “I want a dog,” was his first complete sentence. I. Did. Not. Want. A. Dog. It wasn’t just the distant memory of Teeny that kept me from wanting a dog. I suffer with severe recurring depression. I worried that the added work of a dog would make me feel worse. For ten years I placated my son with caged and tank animals. But, on his tenth birthday, when I found out the African hedgehog we were about to bring home was really a porcupine and required gloves to handle, I knew it was time.

On our way to the breeder, I was feeling even more mired than usual. The breeder told us to wait in his kitchen for our chosen wheaten terrier, Mattie. Suddenly, a white ball of fluff came flying into the room, running from one of us to another, then landing at my feet. I dropped to the floor, and wrapped my arms around her. I was in love.

Once Mattie came home with us, it was impossible to imagine life without her. She wanted nothing more than to give love and take love. Whenever I was with her, whenever I thought about her, warmth and happiness filled me. She was a helpful antidote for my depression.

One December afternoon, seven years after we got Mattie, I came home and let her out. I still had my jacket on when I heard the doorbell. It was the UPS man.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I just hit your dog in the driveway and killed her.”

I collapsed to the floor sobbing. As soon as I could stand myself up I called Mattie’s breeder. I knew getting another dog wasn’t going to make me miss Mattie less. But, I was terrified that without a distraction, the void left by Mattie would push me into the abyss. The breeder was no longer breeding. Then he said, “Would you take a rescue?”

“I’ll take anything,” I heard myself say.

The next day I was at the rescue. Milo was a beautiful, sandy-colored, sphinx-like dog with soulful eyes and white oversized paws. He seemed mellow and lovable.

But, a few hours after I got him home he began howling and prowling, jumping and humping. Then he bit my son twice. As I was bandaging his bloody wrist he said, “I bet they sedated Milo at the rescue before you got there.”

As soon as he said it, it was obvious. I was pissed. I was taking this monster back. 

Then, I pictured Milo at the rescue in his cage on a bed of rags and I knew I couldn’t do it. But, we couldn’t go on like this. As much as I didn’t want to, I enrolled in dog school.

Training Milo brought me face-to-face with my low self-esteem. My parents were always berating and belittling me. Working with Milo taught me how to look at myself in a different way. Instead of telling myself that I did not know what I was doing, in order to help Milo I had to figure out how to effectively train him to believe in me–which meant I had to believe in myself, had to believe that I could do it.

I learned that I needed to say, “Good job, Anne,” as well as saying “Good job, Milo,” to Milo. We were a team, and as a team we each needed to believe in each other and trust each other. You can’t fake confidence with a dog. So, I learned to actually develop confidence in myself.

When I was growing up, my parents reminded me often that I was a burden. I was discouraged from asking for anything, including help. When I was twelve, I asked my father for a ride to my friend’s house. “Make believe I’m dead,” he said.

With Milo, I learned it was okay to ask for help from people in the dog community. I also learned that it was okay to accept their help when they offered.

After six months of dog school, our teacher, Mary, said we were ready to graduate. Then she said, “Anne, every morning you need to go to the woods with Milo for an hour. He needs the time to run free and be the adventurous hunter he wants to be.” My heart sank. I hate nature. I hate hiking.  An hour?! Every day?!

But there we were in the woods, the next morning–and every single morning after that for ten years. I’d trudge along the path counting the minutes before Milo would come soaring past. Seeing him become the living being he wanted to be took my breath away.

Being Milo’s “person” taught me that I could experience joy in the exact place I dreaded. In meditation, I’d heard of sympathetic joy, but I’d never really understood the concept. This is exactly what I was experiencing. Joy in proportion to Milo’s joy. 

I helped Milo become a better version of himself by teaching him how to be more civilized and not to act on his aggressive impulses. I was able to give him positive feedback–something he had never experienced. It was life-affirming and healing for Milo to feel that he was good, accepted and loved.

Milo helped me heal and become a better version of myself by helping me expand my abilities as a person. I learned how to deal not only with a difficult dog, but also with difficult people. I learned to carry over the lessons I learned with Milo to people, such as being firm but kind, assertive but gentle. This helped boost my self-esteem. I was a less timid person. I did not back down when I felt I had been wronged. I knew how to gently assert myself and get what I needed and wanted.

The dog I had before Milo was like a living, breathing hug. Milo was the opposite. He had a fierce energy that reminded me at times of my parents. As a child I had to accept whatever aggression my parents directed at me, or they would retaliate with more aggression. As a survivor of childhood abuse, I learned from working with Milo that building a loving relationship with him required protecting myself from his aggressive urges. Working with Milo, I learned that love does not include accepting abuse.

The contrast between what Milo had been and what he became with me was well worth the work. 

I helped Milo, and Milo helped me. It was simple. It was complicated. It was love.


Anne Abel is the author of “Mattie, Milo, and Me” (She Writes Press, April 23, 2024). Her story about unwittingly rescuing an aggressive dog, Milo, won a Moth StorySLAM in New York City. She has won two additional Moth StorySLAMs in Chicago. Her credentials include an MFA from The New School for Social Research, an MBA from the University of Chicago, and a BS in chemical engineering from Tufts University. Anne lives in New York City with her husband, Andy, and their three rescue dogs, Ryan, Megan, and Chase.Find out more about her at anneabelauthor.com .