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A Shepherding Life: Remembering Eden the Therapy Dog

When I first started bringing Eden into the office with me for therapy sessions, I didn't know how clients would respond. Eden wasn't large, as far as German Shepherds go, but she was by no means small, and the breed has a mixed reputation when it comes to approachableness, warmth, and sociability. I feared some clients might be uncomfortable having her in the room, or that she may somehow throw off the sense of safety I try to create in my therapy office. I even went so far as to create a separate release and informed consent document alerting clients of her possible presence in sessions, as well as providing them with the option to opt out of having her in the room during their therapy hour.


Taking a break in between sessions

Of course, I ended up having the exact opposite problem. Clients almost unanimously loved having her in the room with them. She was a calming, gentle presence. She was uniquely attuned to their anxiety, sadness, and fear, and often came and comforted my clients when they were distressed or overwhelmed by the content of a given session. If Eden was ever unexpectedly absent, clients voiced concern and disappointment, and some even requested to have their sessions moved to days that they knew Eden would be in the office.


Eden's healing presence wasn't limited to her time in the office. She was a daily therapeutic presence in my and my partner Adam's lives, often serving as an intermediary for those painful and important conversations all couples have. We would gladly triangulate Eden in disagreements, and she often served as a tiebreaker when one of us really needed to have something go our way, "It really seems like Eden's on my side on this one," we'd joke. During COVID, when Adam was suddenly isolated all day working from home, Eden filled in for him as an administrative assistant, colleague, and emotional support, letting him bounce ideas off her and letting him know when it was time to take a break for "treat o'clock" by knocking his keyboard over with her nose. The full extent of the way she filled our lives, however, we are still learning through her absence.


Last month, peacefully and covered in our kisses, pets, and tears, Eden slipped away from us. We knew she was ready and knew we would never be, and so, after a year of struggling with a degenerative and uncurable disorder, we let her go.


After years of showing us how to love unconditionally, enthusiastically, and consistently (that last one is the hardest for me), she gave us her last lesson: how to say goodbye.


I’ll admit that, as with her lessons of love, this lesson hasn't fully stuck. My heart still thinks every rustle of leaves is her sigh, every out-of-sight jingle her collar. I still find a half-second of hope in every low, peripheral shadow that moves across the wall. The “Mental Health Professional” part of me observes this phenomenon of grief with interest and a differentiated curiosity. It observes and assesses:


I can’t accept the silence yet, so I’m filling it with her. I know that.


Two days after her passing, I was preparing to leave for work, and I caught myself closing the doors to rooms Eden wasn’t allowed in when we weren't home. In that moment, "Eden alive” and “Eden dead” collided in a painful percussion as my system tried to integrate two seemingly irreconcilable realities, tried to force acceptance, tried to tell me,


“That was then, this is now.”


“Doors got closed before, but now they don’t need to be. There's no one to close them for.”


That morning, I found that I could neither close the doors and pretend everything was the same as before nor fully accept that, of course Eden no longer needed to be kept out of the bathroom or the guest room because there was no longer an Eden at all. Instead, I took the middle road. I left the doors open and decided that the Eden that was still there, still waiting for us, could roam whatever rooms she wants. Can settle into any shadow, any sound, any dusty sunbeam that she likes.


When I'd get home, I'd sit down in the living room and see her empty bed, her form still pressed into it enough for me to believe she wasn't gone. That she’d just wandered into the next room and in some soon, softly undefined moment, she’d be back. Even now, I find myself believing that the clicking and clacking of her feet on these dog-warn floors isn’t absent in a forever way, just in a “not right now” way.


So she’ll keep haunting the house a while longer, always just in the next room, or next moment. or just on the edge of my vision. She’ll keep patiently teaching me how to let her go.


While she was never a patient dog (not with food or walks or car rides to the park or holding her barf until I could get the back door open and let her outside), she was always, always patient with me. What I mean is, as a shepherding dog, she always wanted me to get where she wanted me to go, but she never gave up on me or left me behind. When Eden could still run, I'd take her to empty trails or big open fields and let her run freely. She'd always run a few yards forward, stop, look back, and wait for me to catch up. Run forward, stop, look back, and wait. And when I wasn’t going fast enough, she’d run back to me, then forward, back and forth, back and forth, between me and the place she needed me to get to.

That’s what today feels like. She’s gone and she’s here, she’s ahead of me and she’s with me. Back and forth, back and forth.


I’m trying to catch up with her. She's yards, maybe miles ahead of me now. And I keep trailing behind in my own goodbye. Not ready to accept that all these emptinesses are permanent. That every new "from now on" won't have her in it. So she’ll keep shepherding me. She’ll keep coming and going. Back and forth, back and forth, until I get where she needs me to go.


And maybe there, in that far-flung field of acceptance, when I've finally caught up, I'll be able to feel her absence as something other than pain, something other than that catch in the heart, something other than the cold, clanging dissonance between the "then" and the "now." If I can learn fully the lessons she worked so hard to teach me, I'll learn to fill up these empty spaces the way she did, to pour love into a void, and believe wholeheartedly any void can be filled with it. She's teaching me still, in the only way she knew how: consistently, repetitiously, patiently, back and forth, back and forth.


Logan is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Therapist, and Co-Founder of Trailhead Treatment Center.


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