I Never Wanted a Dog—Certainly Not One that Bit People

Somehow, I found myself spending an hour a day in the woods with a rescue animal that had attacked my sons. Would this end well?

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. I suffer with severe recurring depression. I worried that the work of a dog would make me feel worse. But I wanted to be a good mother.

For nearly a decade, I placated my son with caged and tank animals. But, on his 10th birthday, when I found out that the African hedgehog we were about to bring home was really a porcupine and required gloves to handle, I knew it was time for the dog.

I’m not a shopper. I usually am OK with “good enough.” Good enough wasn’t going to cut it with the dog. I bought a book describing more than 500 dog breeds.

When my son came home from a teammate’s house excited about a wheaten terrier, I looked it up in the book. It did everything but empty the dishwasher. I called the breeder. They had a 10-month-old, Mattie. We could meet her that weekend and if things checked out, we could take her home. 

A close-up photo of the face of a dog swimming

Milo’s “enthusiasm, his joie de vivre, lifted me out of myself and lightened my mood,” says Anne Charm Abel. Photo: Courtesy of Anne Charm Abel

Sunday, as my family piled into the car, I walked through my house. It was never going to look like this again. If the boys and my husband were talking on the ride to the breeder, I didn’t hear them. I was feeling even more mired than usual.

The breeder told us to wait in his kitchen for Mattie. I stood there comatose. 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, wrapping my arms around her. I was in love.

Once Mattie came home with us, it was impossible to imagine life without her. She was a living, breathing stuffed animal who wanted nothing more than to give love and take love. She was absolutely no work. 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. A few phone calls later someone said, “Would you take a rescue?”

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

The next day I was at the shelter. The owner was in a sunny meadow with Milo waiting for me. 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 later, after he arrived at our home, he began howling and prowling, jumping and humping. A few days later, he bit two of my sons, one on the back and one on the wrist.

As I was bandaging my middle son’s 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 facility, sad and lonely in the rag-lined kennel I had glimpsed after our meadow visit, 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 “included taking him to a lobby of Bed, Bath & Beyond and convincing him that he didn’t want to eat the shoppers.” 

Anne Charm Abel, E76

I was the one in my family who had wanted to replace Mattie immediately. My sons had wanted to take time to grieve Mattie. But when my husband and I explained how important it was for me to have a replacement to help me cope with my depression they had readily agreed. So, I took full responsibility for Milo’s rehabilitation.    

For six months I trudged to school with Milo. For Milo’s sake, I did my best.

Milo was a smart dog. He quickly learned to mostly play along, as I pretended to be a confident coach through our curriculum, which included desensitizing Milo to his myriad triggers (anything that moved). This included taking him to a lobby of Bed, Bath & Beyond and convincing him that he didn’t want to eat the shoppers.

It seemed daunting. Reckless. But I had learned to trust our teacher. With time, I even learned to trust her belief in me and my abilities. 

After six months, she said we were ready to graduate. Milo had learned, for the most part, that I was the alpha in our relationship, and he was responsive to my commands. He was not only a good leash walker, but also terrific at coming when called when he wasn’t leashed.

I was thrilled that we were done with classes. But then the teacher said, “Anne, your work with Milo has just begun. Every morning you need to go to the woods with him 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 had crampons, rain gear, bug repellent. I’d trudge along the trail counting down the minutes when Milo would come soaring above my path, crossing from one side of the woods to the other. Seeing him like this took my breath away. I was elated to watch him be the living being he wanted to be. 

Being Milo’s person taught me that I could experience joy in the exact place I dreaded. In meditation classes, 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.

Being a good dog mom to Milo was having the desired effect on me. When Mattie died, I had hoped that getting Milo would help me cope with my depression. Milo gave me so much more. 

I would never have traded Mattie for Milo. My love for low-maintenance Mattie had been as simple and pure as her love for me. She never frustrated or angered me. 

Milo was a different story. He needed not to be a threat. For me, the best way to meet Milo’s needs was to play to his strengths, encourage his nonthreatening behaviors.

Just as my favorite role as mother was enabling my children to find and pursue their passions, I wanted the same for Milo. I wanted to help Milo be the best Milo he could be, even if it meant doing things I didn’t like to do. I learned to experience moments of the day through Milo’s eyes. His enthusiasm, his joie de vivre, lifted me out of myself and lightened my mood.

Comparing the dog I had seen in his kennel on a bed of rags at the rescue with the dog maximizing every moment in the woods with all his vivacious being made my heart soar. The contrast between what Milo had been and what he became with me was well worth the work. It made me feel good to be able to make a difference in another creature’s life.

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: A Memoir.

Back to Top