Portrait of golden labrador running forward in camera direction on a field in the summer park, looking at camera. Green grass and trees background
Portrait of golden labrador running forward in camera direction on a field in the summer park, looking at camera. Green grass and trees background
Our sense of well-being can be dependent on sharing our life with a dog. (Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

What I’ve Learned from Loving a New Dog While Grieving Another

Last year, Annette McGivney lost her beloved yellow Lab, Sunny, and was overwhelmed by sadness. Since then she’s built a new life with a challenging rescue dog, and she’s learned a lot about the healing power of human and animal bonds.

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To be fair to my sweet dog, Trudy, she was just trying to play. But she broke my nose instead. It had been a rough seven weeks since I rescued her from a neglectful owner.

Trudy had ripped a squeaker from a toy, and I bent down to grab the prize so she wouldn’t swallow it. I was more used to caring for an ailing 15-year-old yellow Lab named Sunny—who had died on March 25, 2021—and I was out of practice handling an exuberant youngster. Trudy launched her 65-pound body at my face like she was shot out of a cannon. I heard a crunching sound in the center of my nose and then felt a trickle of blood flowing from my nostrils.

This was the third serious headbutt I’d gotten since bringing Trudy home in June. In previous weeks, similarly energetic body launches from the 18-month-old yellow Lab had left me with a large forehead contusion and a cracked tooth.

I put the squeaker in my pocket, threw my head back, grabbed an ice pack from the freezer, and lay on my bed with blood and tears running down my face. Sunny had been gone a little over two months, and my grief from that loss was still more intense than the pain pulsing through my nose. Trudy looked on, wagging her tail, wanting to play. What was I doing bringing a new dog into my life when I was so heartbroken? I feared I had made a terrible mistake.

On that early spring day in 2021, Sunny was euthanized in my backyard, after cancer had consumed her. It was already a time of great transition for me. I was months away from turning 60, what many like to call the start of life’s third act. A year earlier, I had uprooted myself from Flagstaff, Arizona, my home for 26 years, and moved to Cortez, Colorado, where I knew no one but could live more cheaply. I believe Sunny held on as long as she could to usher me safely across the threshold. Except for those last few months, she had enjoyed a great life. Her days were filled with chasing Frisbees, swimming in rivers, romping in the mountains, sleeping on couches, and sneaking table food. She was my faithful hiking partner and supportive copilot as I navigated divorce, single parenting, financial strains, stressful jobs, PTSD, a mother with dementia, a dad with Alzheimer’s disease, and an empty nest after my son went to college. Given Sunny’s long, full life, I thought I would be relieved after she passed and was no longer in pain. But I fell apart.

The grief was so intense that I sought counseling. I wrote about the overwhelming emotions I experienced and shared the advice I got from mental health experts. My essay attracted the attention of many readers who had suffered a similar loss, and they wrote to me: I received dozens of messages from people who were hurting. I wrote all of them back, and our communications developed into an informal pet-loss support group.

Grief counselors told me that copious crying over a pet was normal, and that working through the pain of loss rather than trying to avoid it was the best path forward.

“Last Sunday, our beloved six year old dog collapsed on her morning walk,” a woman from Iowa City, Iowa, named Amy Kahle wrote about Benny, who was euthanized after a surprise diagnosis of liver cancer. “I haven’t felt such crushing grief since my dad died, and maybe even more so.”

“[My husband, Perry, and I] lost our 12-year-old Lab Quinn,” wrote Cathy Condon, a business-systems analyst in Burlington, Vermont. “He was a very good boy and the center of our lives.”

Sharon Reiser, a pet groomer from Ohio, told me about a black Lab who was euthanized two weeks before Sunny. “A part of me died with my Rudy,” she said. “He too had cancer. He was the essence of my being.”

Grief counselors told me that copious crying over a pet was normal, and that working through the pain of loss rather than trying to avoid it was the best path forward. They also advised trying to create a new relationship with Sunny by focusing on the many happy memories we shared. But how could I get through the coming months without her? What kind of life was possible for me and my fellow grievers without our soul mates?

Initially, I thought that being dogless might open a new chapter for me. I could engage in social activities that I’d previously avoided, either because Sunny was too sick or I preferred her company over other options. I joined friends for marathon day hikes in the mountains. I went on road trips to big cities. I dabbled in dating after a long hiatus.

None of it felt right. I was always fighting back tears, wishing I could be with Sunny or at least know she would be waiting when I got home. My friends were excited about the prospect of me finally dating, but I knew deep down that this was probably not what I needed. My sense of well-being had always depended on sharing my life with a dog. And especially wandering alone in the wild with one.

I grew up in a dysfunctional home in the rural East Texas town of Conroe, where my father flew into angry rages and my mother was chronically depressed. The evening routine for much of my childhood went like this: Dad would come home from work in a fairly good mood, but over the span of a few hours he became increasingly agitated. After dinner he was like a volcano ready to blow.

It’s always been a mystery to me and my two sisters why he had such a short fuse, but whatever was behind his anger, I was often blamed for “making” him lose his temper. I didn’t like being bullied, and I would talk back to him or, as he put it, “directly disobey” him. I was the middle sister, eight years old when he started becoming violent. Somehow I thought it was my role to be the target of his wrath, so he wouldn’t hurt the rest of the family.

On the worst nights, he would beat me with his belt in a delirious fury. My mother rarely intervened, and I refused to cry, convinced that this was the only way I could fight back. He would start sweating and breathing hard from the exertion, and he often stopped only when he was exhausted. I remember one time, during a particularly violent episode, when my mother came out from the bedroom and pleaded with him to stop. “You are going to kill her!” she shouted.

The author’s childhood dog, Lucky, in Conroe, Texas, in the late 1970s
The author’s childhood dog, Lucky, in Conroe, Texas, in the late 1970s (Photo: Courtesy Annette McGivney)

My salvation was a Lab mix named Lucky, who came into my life that same year. Lucky was a stray and had been taken in by neighbors of ours in Conroe. In 1969, my family moved to a house across the street from theirs. Lucky and I bonded immediately, and the neighbor agreed to let me keep him.

Lucky was the warm blanket in an otherwise chilling home life. While I believed my parents loved me, for obvious reasons they made me feel more scared, angry, and confused than comforted. Lucky stepped in as my emotional caregiver. I loved him completely. And he loved me back, no strings attached.

My mother said she was allergic to dogs, so Lucky was banned from the house. As a result, I spent most of my time outside, in a magical world of endless forest where Lucky and I roamed for hours, soaking in the smells, safety, and freedom. Sometimes, after being beaten, I would sneak outside and put my arms around Lucky’s chest, pressing my face into his fur. It was the only way I could cry. Lucky held all my tears.

Now, nearly five decades later, it’s not surprising that I still prefer the company of dogs to people. Psychological researchers working in the realm of attachment theory have found that some of us are inclined to seek out a deep connection—what scientists call a “secure relationship”—with an animal instead of a human. This dynamic is especially common among adults like me who had a traumatic childhood and found great comfort from a pet.

Developed in the 1950s and ’60s by British developmental psychiatrist John Bowlby, attachment theory posits that healthy human development starts in early childhood, with at least one primary caregiver relationship that gives a child a “safe haven” where emotional needs can be predictably met. Subsequent research also showed that a primary secure relationship was critical for mental health and emotional resilience throughout a person’s life. Over the past decade, studies have explored the possibility that this critical attachment can also come from a human-animal bond.

“We have to find a source of security, love, and connection somewhere while we are on this planet,” says Sam Carr, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, in England. “Animals are a great place to find it [when] humans have let us down frequently. There is the sort of pervasive pattern in your psyche that, for various reasons, makes it difficult to form healthy attachments with humans.” Carr says that, for those of us who have this tendency, issues with things like trust and intimacy usually don’t carry over to our relationships with animals.

Carr has conducted research for the UK’s foster-care system, and has found that it is easier for children in foster care to establish a safe-haven relationship with a companion animal than with an unfamiliar human caregiver. The animal serves as a bridge, a way for the child to feel comfortable trusting the caregiver. In another study, nearly a thousand dog owners who described themselves as “dedicated” were asked about who they turned to most often in times of emotional distress; dogs rated higher than mothers, fathers, siblings, best friends, and children. Only romantic partners were ranked as a greater safe-haven relationship.

Trudy on the go near Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks
Trudy on the go near Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks (Courtesy MaryEllen Arndorfer)
The author’s memorial to a very good dog, Sunny
The author’s memorial to a very good dog, Sunny (Courtesy Annette McGivney)

Last April and May, I tried to live without a dog and focus entirely on grieving Sunny, but I soon found myself looking at puppies online at two in the morning. One thing led to another, and in early June I drove to Pueblo, Colorado, to pick up Trudy after a rescue organization reached out to me. My contact there knew I was planning to wait at least a year before bringing another dog into my life, but she convinced me to go for it. “This dog really needs someone who is active and can spend a lot of time with her,” she said. “You would be perfect.” Trudy’s elderly owner lived alone and had dementia. He had kept her isolated in a cement dog run for her entire young life.

When the rescue contact shared Trudy’s story, along with a photo of her pressing her face against the inside of a cage, I was taken back to some of the darkest days of my childhood. By the time I was in junior high, my dad was beating me less frequently—during the worst periods, it happened at least three or four times a week—but his angry outbursts continued, which seemed to worsen my mother’s mental health. We had moved again, and my parents insisted that Lucky be kept on a chain in an area behind the garage. It was a flea-infested patch of dirt that was out of sight of the house, leaving Lucky in what must have felt like solitary confinement. I would sometimes curl up inside his doghouse to keep him company.

We also had a 100-pound German shepherd named Baron who was kept in a dog run next to the garage. The conditions for both dogs were terrible, especially during our hot, humid East Texas summers. Because Baron was big and had been turned vicious by his mistreatment, it was too dangerous for my younger sister and me to try to leash and walk him, and I don’t recall him ever being let out of the run. Still, we were responsible for feeding him and cleaning the pen. As I slipped in and out of the cage, I was afraid Baron would escape and kill Lucky, whose chain extended to within about five feet of the door to the run.

I hated the living conditions Lucky and Baron endured, and I knew I had to get away from that house. After graduating from high school in 1979, I moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, a three-hour drive. Lucky died a year later from liver failure. I remain haunted by the idea that I abandoned my best friend.

When I got to Trudy’s home in Pueblo, I found that she had escaped from her run. With help from the owner’s next-door neighbor, we started sprinting around the yard, trying to catch her. Apparently, this was a frequent neighborhood activity. “Are you sure you want to do this?” the neighbor asked of my prospective adoption.

“Yes!” I shouted. I was determined. I was going to save this dog, just like Lucky and Sunny had saved me. “Why wouldn’t I want to do this?” I asked.

“Well, she has some bad habits.”

I naively thought Trudy would be transformed once I introduced her to all the things that Sunny or my previous yellow Lab, Sierra, loved to do. But neither of them were rescues; neither had been subjected to the scary, lonely life that Trudy endured as a puppy.

Trudy took an instant liking to her squeaky toys, cushy bed, and my backyard, but she was afraid of nearly everything else. She was not about to set foot in a river. She was uninterested in a Frisbee or any kind of throwing game. She pulled like hell on the end of a leash. She would not come when called. Perhaps most agonizing for me, she refused to go near my truck after I brought her home. We were relegated for the rest of the summer to neighborhood trails in Cortez, unable to go to my favorite stomping grounds in the San Juan Mountains, only a 30-minute drive away.

When the rescue contact shared Trudy’s story, along with a photo of her pressing her face against the inside of a cage, I was taken back to some of the darkest days of my childhood.

Veteran dog-training consultant and author Suzanne Clothier cautions potential dog owners to think about what they might be getting into before adopting a rescue. “Whatever it was that you enjoyed with Sunny, there are qualities that made that possible,” she says. “I’ve watched a lot of my clients really struggle with getting another dog, because they wanted a concept dog and then what they ended up with was a project dog.” Clothier warns that “you don’t want to be in the horrible position” of asking more from a pet than it is able to offer.

Yes, Trudy was a project dog. I got that, and I was not trying to replace Sunny or paper over my grief by adopting her. I had assumed, however, that since Trudy was a Lab, she would quickly live up to the reputation of her happy, bouncy breed. But instead of being reward seeking like my previous dogs, Trudy was, as Clothier puts it, “risk averse.” This is typical of dogs who are cut off as puppies from socialization and exposure to new things. And, of course, she had been mistreated by her previous owner.

“As a trainer, that’s what I help people do—find the best approach so that dog can have what I call the biggest world that’s comfortable,” says Clothier. “For many rescue dogs, it may often mean a much more redacted and carefully controlled world than the people may have had with a previous dog.”

I knew what it was like to be a child who didn’t feel safe in her own home. It was heartbreaking to me that Trudy carried those wounds.

I had never worked with a trainer before, but I began searching for local and online resources to try and increase the size of Trudy’s world—at her pace. We met with a local trainer once a week and I spent a lot of money on high-quality dog treats. By September, Trudy was following a trail of them into my truck. We were finally mobile. And with a dog riding shotgun, I started to feel more like myself again.

The author and Trudy going long in the San Juan Mountains
The author and Trudy going long in the San Juan Mountains (Courtesy Jillian Sander)
The author and Trudy going long in the San Juan Mountains
(Courtesy Jillian Sander)

As Trudy and I slowly created a life together, my relationship with Sunny continued on a separate but parallel track. The grief over losing her was ever present and disorienting. I would often cry when memories of her randomly came to mind. As I sobbed, I felt compelled to call out, “Sunny! Where are you?” This was weird, since I knew where Sunny was: on my desk, in a box that contained her ashes. I would pet Trudy to make sure my crying didn’t scare her.

“Losing our one-and-only overwhelms us, because we need our loved ones as much as we need food and water,” writes University of Arizona psychology professor Mary-Frances O’Connor in her book The Grieving Brain. “After decades of research, I realized that the brain devotes lots of effort to mapping where our loved ones are while they are alive, so that we can find them when we need them.”

O’Connor’s neuroimaging studies of people who were grieving the death of a longtime partner showed that our brains are wired to locate secure attachment relationships. She likens it to Google Maps for the brain, and says that, as with the maps, “Your brain relies on prior information it knows about the area.” After someone dies, she says, it can take months or years for your “neurobiological attachment system” to fully understand the reality that the loved one is no longer alive. In the meantime, the brain is trying to solve the problem of locating the lost soul mate, and this triggers waves of grief.

After reading O’Connor’s book, I called to ask if she thought these findings applied to human-animal attachments as well. “The neural mechanisms aren’t very different in the studies we’ve done with human beings,” she said. In fact, the feeling could be even stronger in some cases, because of the way pet owners frequently think about where their companion animal is and if it’s been cared for. “[We are] responsible for them. That makes it even more ingrained in the brain,” she added.

Part of my brain was often in low-level search mode for Sunny. But I always felt I had found her—at least in spirit—when I was surrounded by natural beauty. Maybe this was because Sunny and I hiked more than 15,000 miles together, mutually immersed in the wild. When snowcapped mountain summits lit up at sunset, or the Milky Way was a sparkling ribbon overhead, or a fox emerged from a bush and locked eyes with me, I thought, Oh, there you are.

Sunny lives on in my connection to the outdoors, but she also resides in my neurons. “Even as you are hiking in the present moment,” O’Connor explained, “you are perceiving that moment with a brain that was shaped by loving Sunny.”

As the March 25 anniversary of Sunny’s passing approached, I reached out to fellow pet lovers to check in. Turns out, I was not alone in bringing another dog into my life.

Sharon Reiser had a new black Lab puppy called Rue, named in honor of her previous dog, Rudy. “There is no doubt in my mind Rue was sent to me from Rudy,” she said.

Cathy and Perry Condon had just arranged to get a yellow Lab puppy from a litter related to their late dog, Quinn. The puppies were born on January 6, 2022, one year to the day after Quinn died. “We are overjoyed to have this darling puppy, a great nephew of Quinn, coming home with us next week,” Cathy said.

Amy Kahle told me she ended up rescuing a dog whose owner had died less than three weeks after Kahle lost her dog, Benny. At first she thought the timing was terrible, but now she’s grateful for what the new dog, Freddie, brought to her family. “I told my daughter that we can grieve Benny and love Freddie at the same time,” she said. “Our hearts can do both. They can be broken and love. They can heal and still hold on to those we’ve lost.”

Trudy and I continue to work on training and exposure to new things. I hike with her on a leash five to seven miles a day. As long as I reward her with treats, she rarely pulls. She loves to smell deer tracks and rub her belly in snow. She happily jumps in the truck now.

Trudy and the author
“I want Trudy to know she is finally safe.” (Photo: Courtesy Annette McGivney)

Trudy is not the same zen-like hiking partner Sunny was, but she’s helping me learn something important about myself. After a decade of therapy to treat PTSD from my childhood—with Sunny by my side throughout—I’m now able to access a place of serenity on my own. And I’m teaching Trudy how to get there, too. I want her to know she is finally safe. This time around, I am the giver of healing rather than the receiver. And I suspect my neurons are doing some rewiring, because I have definitely become attached.

The other day I took Trudy to the Dolores River, where Sunny loved to swim. Sheets of ice clung to the shore and fresh snowmelt was cutting a path through glacier-like chunks in the middle of the river. Winter was letting go. Trudy waded into the water up to the middle of her legs, deeper than ever before. She playfully sunk her snout below the surface to investigate what was down there. I felt like Sunny was with us, too. I could almost see her swimming in circles in the current, just like she used to do, proudly holding her head above the water with a giant stick in her mouth.

There were tears, but in that moment I felt more grateful than sad. I am so lucky to have had Sunny, along with my previous dogs, and now to have Trudy, teaching me how to be a better human.

Lead Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto