Sometimes when I tell a fellow dog owner that my 2-year-old puppy is an “emotional support animal,” they roll their eyes. Then I quickly make sure to explain to them it’s not some ploy to get her on a plane for free. In the words of my father, “that dog saved [my] life.”
I got Koda a little over a month after my fiancé passed away from complications of esophageal cancer. On the drive home from the hospital where my fiancé died, I told my mom, “You know I’m getting a puppy, right?” She nodded.
We’d been looking at pictures of pomskies (a newer half-pomeranian, half-Husky breed) online but despite our Google searches, never committed. Then one night after scrolling down rows of pomsky babies, I had a dream: We brought the dark-faced puppy in the picture home and named her Koda, a Dakota term for “little bear” or “friend.”
The next day, we drove three states away to get her. Then, she was mine.
Emotional support is no small thing; I’m not sure Koda knows she is an emotional support animal (ESA) but I would confidently wager that she does. Having her classified as an ESA means that she can live with me anywhere (despite no-pet rules), travel on planes for free (and on my lap rather than in a carrier), and more. She has come with me to therapy sessions where she laid at my feet for the total hour, only occasionally stirring to lick up my tears when she noticed I was crying. She has even lived with me on a college campus for a semester when I went back to grad school.
That’s something she does: lick my face with loving whenever I cry. She didn’t go to training for this, nor did I teach her. She just knows.
She is also known to curl up against my chest or ribs when I experience a panic or anxiety attack. It’s like she inherently knows I need comfort. Again, this isn’t something she is specially trained to do. She knows me so well and she knows when I need her. It’s a beautiful, miraculous bond I feel so grateful to have.
After Matthew died, I struggled heavily with inflamed anxiety, depression, PTSD, and symptoms of OCD. I struggled with mental health and was deep in the throes of grief: crying a lot, not going anywhere, refraining from driving or leaving the house for long periods of time. Often times, it would be a triumph to get out of bed.
And that’s something Koda helped with. Having a puppy breathed new life into my lungs: I had something to do, some little life to nurture. It may sound minimal or trivial, but raising a puppy was a hobby and a responsibility. It also forced me to get out of bed, even on days when my depression was the most severe. She had to be walked; she had to be house trained. I took this puppy-mama job seriously and I am grateful for every moment her very presence in my life kept me awake, kept me busy, kept me attentive.
She was also the first thing I consciously chose to love again. It would have been so easy to shirk the concept; What is the point of love if we all just end up alone?
But I knew Matthew would not have wanted that for me. I didn’t want it for myself either, not after experiencing that kind of whirlwind love. To me, it felt much more valid and honest to keep loving despite the prospect of impending loss. I would rather have loved him and lost him twenty times over than have not known that experience at all.
I can say the same for my dog-daughter. I feel so very lucky to be her mama, to be the one who gets to scoop up her poop and sleep with her tail in my face all night.
I could have gone the alternate route, the more pessimistic one full of disbelief and avoidance and shame, but I think the way I went was much harder. I genuinely believe in love and vulnerability; that love is worth every millisecond of devastation and grief and pain that may come after.
Koda’s superpowers hopefully will not stop here; I knew even before I brought her home that I wanted to register her as ESA. Weeks into ripping acorns out of her throat with my pointer finger, I decided I wanted to train her to be a therapy dog. We’re still in the process of getting certified but when and if she is, Koda will be able to visit cancer and mental health patients in the hospital.
I cannot think of a better way to give back to the communities that have shaped so much of my life. We are not done with training yet but thinking of the one smile she may put on a patient’s face someday, I am filled with so much purpose, love, and gratitude. This feels like a pretty meaningful way to go about life and I feel fortunate that this is what I get to do with my time.
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Steph Osmanski is a freelance writer and social media consultant who specializes in health and wellness content. Her words have appeared in Seventeen, Life & Style, Darling Magazine, and more. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton and writing a memoir.