Annette McGivney with Sunny in Flagstaff, AZ in 2019
Annette McGivney with Sunny in Flagstaff, AZ in 2019 (Photo: Courtesy Eirini Pajak)
Adventures in Audio

The Many Ways Dogs Can Heal Us

The author with Sunny in Flagstaff, AZ in 2019

Our furry friends are the best of adventure playmates. But they can also provide pure, unconditional love that gets us through the darkest times. A series of dogs have supported Colorado outdoor writer Annette McGivney since childhood, as she endured domestic abuse, the loss of family members, and a bitter divorce. She’s not alone: after McGivney published a pair of essays for Outside Online detailing her relationship with her dogs, she was flooded with responses and questions from readers. In this episode, she opens up about her long journey and details research showing just how special the bond between humans and animals can be.


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Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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Michael Roberts (host): From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside podcast.

We publish a lot of stories at Outside. On our website it's dozens every week. And the truth is we're never really sure which ones are going to take off.

This is Michael Roberts, and I can say that, historically at least, survival stories perform well for Outside, same with articles about major controversies in the outdoor world. And then there was that time when everyone on the internet seemed to be reading a column we ran about a better way to cook chicken.

But of all the recent stories we've published, perhaps none was a more surprising hit than a feature-length essay by Colorado-based writer Annette McGivney about saying goodbye to her beloved yellow lab titled, "How to Grieve for a Very Good Dog." It ran last September and quickly became one of our top five most popular stories of the year. This is partly because Annette is an excellent writer. She's a veteran journalist and her 2018 book, Pure Land, won the National Outdoor Book Award. But her essay also tapped into the powerful feelings that people have about their pets.

Because while Annette and her lab had shared all kinds of adventures together, their bonds ran much deeper than being hiking companions and playmates. As Annette detailed in a follow-up piece that we published this April, she had long ago come to depend on dogs for healing that she desperately needed.

For today's episode by producer Paddy O'Connell, Annette shares the very personal story of her life with her best friends.

Before we start, please note that this episode discusses domestic abuse and may not be suitable for younger listeners.

Annete McGivney: Of course I have my special dog voice that I use when I'm talking to my dogs that I don't ever talk to anyone in that voice.

Paddy O’Connell: Give me an example of this special dog voice.

Annette: If I'm talking to my dog that I have right now: ‘good girl, Trudy. What a good girl.’

Paddy: Isn’t it so hilarious, ridiculous, you know?

Annette: Yeah!

Paddy: I get around my dogs and instead of any kind of, like, nasally Chicago accent that comes out of me or anything like that, you know, I'm like, ‘oh, the little babies, how are you? Hello. How are you? I love you so much?’ It's ridiculous. It's like, you're just in the mind-meld communicating with them. And other people might think you're totally bonkers.

Annette: Right, right. It's this unique bond that you have with another creature that you could never have with another human in that way. They love me so completely. And I love them so completely with no baggage or strings attached. There's no negotiating like, ‘well, I did this for you, so you need to do this for me.’ It's just pure joy in our relationship. And that just is so wonderful. And it's, it's been sort of like the bedrock of my life since I was a little kid.

Paddy: If you're smiling and nodding your head right now while scooping up your pal's poop on a walk, you're not alone: a lot of people have very strong feelings for their pooches, especially, it seems, those of us who live in outdoorsy areas. Around my home outside of Aspen, Colorado, people seem to show more affection for their dogs than their children and spouses. And yet, Annette McGivney's relationships with dogs goes to a whole 'nother level.

Annette: I am a devoted dog person that will forsake many relationships in my life, including two marriages, but never my relationship with dogs.

Paddy: What is a dog person?

Annette: I would say there's a spec, it's on a spectrum of like kind of casual, barely dog person, too, like extreme hardcore dog person.

Paddy: Yeah.

Annette: Dog people like to take their dogs places. You drive around with them. You take them on trips with you. You take them on hikes and outdoors is huge. And so I think dog people really are, in using myself as an example, thinking about their dog most of the day. Like, when am I going to do something with my dog? And maybe the dog is thinking about their human most of the days, like when are we going to do something? Oh, good. We're doing something together now. Like they just share this routine of the day in a way that's so intertwined

Patty: Annete has loved many dogs, but none more than Sunny, the yellow lab who she memorialized in her essay for Outside last year. She found Sunny in 2006, when she was living in Flagstaff, Arizona with her former husband and their son, Austin, who was then six years old. On a cold November day, they drove an hour and 15 minutes to look at a litter of puppies in the town of Dewey.

Annette: The puppies were all in this igloo dog house that was kind of grim. And, they had a hairdryer going inside the doghouse to keep the puppies warm. 

Paddy: Oh my god.

And, and so we went into this, like, kind of igloo situation and Austin sat down and immediately this little yellow lab, female, just crawled into his lap. And, um, I can't even, I talk about Sunny without starting to cry. So I'm sorry.

Paddy: It’s okay.

Annette: Anyway, so she crawled into his lap and just sat there. And, we were like, ‘okay.’ And so we, we brought Sunny home. And on the way home, my husband, he had this, north face down jacket that was like, you know, the kind of thing you would take to Everest, like a $700 down jacket.

And, and he had it in the back seat and Sonny laid on it and threw up on it. And so that was sort of her initiation into our family. And, yeah, and then we just brought her home and it went from there.

Paddy: Sunny would come to play a very important role in Annette's life, but one that she wouldn't fully understand for another 15 years, when Sunny died and Annette began to process how dogs had provided her with security and love at her most difficult moments.

The first dog to do this was Lucky, back when Annette was in first grade and her family had moved from Houston to Conroe, Texas, a small town 40 miles north. A stray dog, a black and white lab mix, started showing up and hanging around Annette, her two sisters, and the neighborhood kids. They called him Lucky.

Annette: I remember just kind of latching on to Lucky. And, I guess Lucky was part of this experience of moving from a very urban area in Houston, where there was traffic and we couldn't leave the backyard cause we'd get run over. And all of a sudden we were living in this rural area that was surrounded by woods and like kind of all this freedom. And I had a dog to roam around in the forest with, which was amazing.

Paddy: Annette's family adopted Lucky, but her parents banned the dog from the house, so it lived in the backyard. There, Lucky provided Annette with what she calls a warm blanket in an otherwise chilling home life.

Annette: My dad would get really angry and have these outbursts. My mom was depressed. So she wasn't able to step in and stand up to my dad the way maybe some women would. And, my younger sister and my older sister and my mom were all like walking on thin ice all the time. You know, we just all kind of lived in fear of what he was going to do next. And so the outdoors seemed like this is the place I, I belong. I feel safe in these woods. And, and this dog that's like my best friend is traveling in this world with me. And so that outdoor world became my safe place and Lucky became kind of my partner in that place.

Before I talk about the really negative stuff about my dad, there was a lot of positive stuff. Like he loved me and my sisters and my mom, but he had a mental illness of which, you know, I don't know, it was never formally diagnosed. So I don't know, but he, he had these demons, I guess. And, and so these angry outbursts were way more than just yelling. It was basically attacking. He became another person, like he lost control of himself. And, he would just keep beating me harder and harder.

I can't say, I remember a lot. It's sort of like just flashes of terror that I remember. But, I remember what I was feeling and it was, I don't know if he's able to stop. Like, it doesn't seem like he's able to stop, but I also remember feeling like he wants to show me that he's hurting me in a weird, like, sadistic way. And I thought I'm not going to give that to him. So I would just keep myself from crying until after it was over. And knowing that Lucky was there, that Lucky was outside. I would go outside afterwards and, and just sit with him and hug him and cry. And, you know, I guess just kind of bring myself back down into the world where I lived, because when my dad would beat me. Like I would kind of have to leave my body.

Even I would imagine that I was outside while it was going on. I remember like, kind of like, looking at it happening from outside, like outside the window, I would like actually leave my body and be with Lucky while it was happening. And so I feel like going outside with Lucky kind of helped me to get back. And I guess just knowing that he was present and, uh, I guess the fact that he had to be outside just made me want to be outside more and live outside. We had a separate life, me and Lucky.

Lucky loved me without like the threat of hurting me. I felt like my mom and dad, they loved me, but they also hurt me. And that's so confusing to a child. Like, what is love, you know, if the person who loves you also hurts. And so Lucky showed me what love was like, just pure love, you know, that doesn't come with pain.

Paddy: In addition to her relationship with Lucky, Annette says another coping mechanism she used was forcefully keeping herself from thinking about the abuse, a tactic she deployed from her childhood into her 40s.

But eventually, it no longer worked. Annette's father was diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2002 and passed away in 2007. A year later, she began a bitter divorce and her mother started suffering from dementia. In 2010, Annette started experiencing flashbacks of the abuse from her childhood, and she says everything collided into a mental health crisis.

Annette sought professional help and was diagnosed with complex post traumatic stress disorder. She started therapy. And by her side was a perpetually energetic and optimistic yellow lab named Sunny.

Annette: I could not have done it without Sunny. She would be with me during therapy appointments. There were times when, like, I'd start having flashbacks and she would actually start trembling. And, I don't know energetically what was happening. And, like a big part of what helped me to cope was just me and Sonny walking in the woods, our hiking together, and, and just feeling the trees.

Wrapping around me and the energy of that and the sky and the wind and in Sunny, like being plugged into that natural world and kind of taking me with her into that safe place. That's really been, like, sort of the, my emotional and psychological bedrock, you know, for my mental health, since I was a kid. Her determination to be joyful always helped pull me out of the deepest holes. You know, she was like, come on, let's go.

I'm not like a religious person, but I definitely feel like I've had these different dogs that are truly have been guardian angels.

Paddy: But what do you do when your guardian angel leaves? In Annette's case, you find out what made that relationship so special. And then, you start another one.

That story after the break.

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Paddy: When Annette McGivney was diagnosed with complex PTSD following flashbacks of childhood abuse, a divorce, and the deterioration of her parents' health, she leaned on her dog Sunny, who she describes as the handrail on the edge of a thousand foot cliff.

Annette: My relationship with Sunny became closer and closer. as sort of my midlife, you know, trials and tribulations ramped up. She sort of became my partner in single parenting. And also Sunny provided companionship in a way that maybe you don't need or are able to develop when you have a spouse.

Paddy: No matter how hard things got for Annette, Sunny was there, by her side, usually urging her to go on a hike. Annette thinks they hiked around 15,000 miles in Sunny's lifetime. Sometimes it was a big backpacking trip, other times a cross country ski outing that lasted a few hours. But mostly it was daily tromps on the trails around Flagstaff.

After Annette's mother had been diagnosed with dementia, Annete had moved her into a nearby facility, and she'd often take Sunny there when she'd visit.

Annette: I needed to visit my mom every day and look in on things as she declined. And it was so rough, like that experience with my mom that it was almost like I had to evacuate emotionally the situation, and Sunny and I would go on a hike, like straight from the facility. We’d cut across this field and go up this, like,side of this mountain. And I remember one time, there was this cloud and it was like above the summit of where we were hiking toward.

And I was like, ‘wow, that's a cool cloud’. And it just disappeared. And, and I, I just remember thinking, ‘I'm so lucky to have Sunny, to get me through this.’ I thought, you know, this is sort of like this experience with Sunny allows me to like that trauma of like, dealing with my mom, just evaporates when I'm here, you know, walking up this mountain with Sunny.

After my mom died. And I had to go view her body at the funeral home. Like I hadn't seen her body until I went into the funeral home and, and I took Sunny with me and I knew Sunny wasn't going to go in the funeral home, but I just needed Sunny to be in the car.

And I remember like, ‘okay, there's my mom.’ And, and I would like, look out the window and see Sunny sitting in the passenger seat. And like, almost like Sunny was like, ‘you got this.’ You know, she knew I was inside and I knew Sunny was right there.

And it just made me feel like, ‘okay, I can, I can see my mom,’ because I know Sunny is nearby. Just knowing she was with me and she was traveling with me through these stressful situations, made me feel like I can handle it. And some people might say, ‘oh, you know, you're a confident, you know, highly functional person.’

But, I really felt like a lot of that, you know, came from my relationship with Sunny

A lot of people couldn't see that from the outside, you know, she just looked like a dog and we went hiking and she could be annoying a lot of times, like barking, you know, trying to get food and stuff. But she just had this deep understanding of me–

Paddy: Yeah,

Annette: Like this kind of knowing, that I could sense. To the point where, you know, she, like, kind of nudge me in certain ways and I would just do what she said, because I knew like she, she knew what I needed.

Paddy: In 2019, Sunny began to experience multiple health issues. She was diagnosed with canine cognitive dementia and cancer, and a large tumor started to show up on her leg. In April of 2020, Sunny and Austin went on a walk in Annette's new hometown of Cortez, Colorado. Sunny swallowed a fish hook and needed a four hour surgery to remove it.

Annette: Even though she had all these serious health conditions, she was Sunny. Like she was going to keep going. And she, we did a lot of hiking. She swam in rivers and we hiked 10,000, 11,000 feet in the San Juan mountains, when she was 15 and a half. And, you know, she kept going and almost up until the very end, she was, like, wanting to, like, push on, you know, she'd like, wanted to keep hiking and so we did.

It was, um, January of last year, in February, her back legs started giving out and she started having, like, seizures where she would collapse. And I know it's so hard for anyone to have to make that decision, to put their dog down. And I knew it was going to come eventually, but I mean, she had her 15th birthday in October of 2020, and I thought, ‘I don't know, could we make it to 16.’

But no, like, yeah, I put her down in March of 2021.

Paddy: Sunny's last few days were spent pigging out on her favorite foods like sausage, steak, and salmon, watching movies with Austin and Annette, and going on walks to her most loved places. On the final day, Annette and Austin laid Sunny on her favorite patch of grass in the backyard. Annette held Sunny as the vet prepared the injection.

After the vet left, Annette anointed Sunny with essential oils, and tyed a pink ribbon around her neck. Austin wrapped her in a blanket, carried her to the car, and they drove to the pet crematorium in Durango.

Annette: I was just a basket case. Like, I was like making emergency calls to my doctor's saying I am so distraught. Like I can't sleep. I felt like not like myself at all. I have never cried so much in my life and what's going on with me. Like, I didn't even know, like I would feel this way and why am I feeling this way?

And like, I just like to understand things about myself and about other people's behavior. And so I started sort of looking into grief, you know. What happens when you lose a dog? And I was Googling like a pet loss and how to grieve a dog and looking into support groups. Because I had done that work, fortunately of the trauma work around my childhood, and I knew that you have to get support from others. I kind of knew the healing steps that you need to take when you're in an emotional crisis. And so I was following those same steps in my grief over Sunny .

And as I have done with other things, I thought, you know, obviously there's a need for this beyond just me

And so then I was like running on eight cylinders in terms of like, ‘I'm gonna, like, write the best pet loss story ever,’ because not only to help people, but cause like I'm going to show the world how amazing Sunny.

Paddy: During her reporting for her first Outside essay, Annette spoke with 10 different specialists: experts in the fields of grief, the pet-human bond, and pet loss. Among the most helpful to her personally was Richard Mercer, a therapist in Boulder, Colorado, who leads a pet loss support group. He let her know just how common it is to feel the way she did.

Annette: So that was super helpful. And then, this grief expert, Robert Niemeyer, in Portland, who runs a center for grief and loss also just helped me to have a deeper understanding of how important and sacred grief is. Like, not to view it as like a stomach flu or something, like, ‘I got to get over this.’ It's like an act of love to fully grieve the loss of your loved one and, and to like lean into it instead of to pull away from it. And, to embrace that, and to allow the grief to just flow like a river, and the tears flow like a river.

Sam Carr, who is in the UK at the University of Bath, researched how humans have the capacity to form a intimate, secure bond with a pet instead of a human. That we all as humans, like, we need that secure attachment. We're social creatures to feel safe in the world. But some people are more prone to making that attachment with an animal.

And certainly that's my pattern in my life that started with my dog Lucky. 

Paddy: While Annette was researching her story, she started thinking about when she would be ready to build a relationship with another dog. Initially, she thought she'd need about a year.

Annette: I tried for a couple months, you know, to just be the best griever ever, in living without a dog. You know, and just thinking about Sunny and that wasn't gonna cut it for me. So, I knew deep down. I needed to get another dog.

NARRATION: In June of last year, a contact at a dog rescue program in Colorado who knew that Annette was planning on finding a new companion reached out about a 15 month old female yellow lab named Trudy. The dog's elderly owner had dementia and had kept Trudy isolated in a cement dog run for her entire young life. Hearing this, Annette was taken back to the dark days of her childhood. When she had been in junior high, her family had moved again and in their new home her parents kept Lucky, the dog who meant so much to young Annette, chained up on a flea-infested patch of dirt behind the garage.

Annette immediately said yes to adopting Trudy.

Annette: It was kind of like a really complicated situation, getting her from that home. And she was really traumatized. And I brought her home, and I mean, it was hard, you know, she was like freaking out and everything, but I was like, ‘oh now, I have a dog. I have Trudy. I feel like Sunny wants me to have Trudy.’ And I felt okay. All of a sudden I was like, ‘I'm me again.’ Like, I'm Annette, the dog person. And I wake up with a dog next to me and this bed that I just bought for this new dog. This is sort of how I function in the world. You know, a driving force in my life is, is going from one dog to the next.

Paddy: Annette's feature about Sunny, "How To Grieve a For a Very Good Dog" was published in September 2021.

Then, in early April of this year, she published her follow-up, about Trudy, "What I've Learned From Loving A New Dog While Grieving Another." Ever since, Annette's inbox and social media accounts have been overflowing with responses and questions from readers.

Annette: It just makes me feel really grateful, you know, to be in that position of being able to help people. Like, you know, I started just trying to help myself and then, you know, I was able to help others.

I didn't want it to just end there with the first article, I just felt like I needed to offer a little bit more to people. Because if you're a dog person, you're probably going to want to get another dog, know? And so how do you do that?

Paddy: After reading Annette's essays and then talking to her about everything that she's been through, I could see how she has evolved and grown as a person in relation to these three very special dogs. First, there was Lucky, who provided Annette with an island of safety and love during a traumatic childhood. Then there was Sunny, who guided her through a process of healing while helping her find joy. And now with Trudy, Annette, with a fully open heart, is able to give all that back.

Paddy: It seems like lucky and sunny were these vehicles to get you today so that you yourself can be the vehicle of help for Trudy.

Annette: Right. That's true. That’s totally true. Because if it weren't for Lucky and Sunny, I wouldn't be able to be at a healthy enough place to share healing with Trudy. So it's, it's a miracle. Like, I feel like I can't believe how far I've come. And I couldn't have done it without Lucky and Sunny.

And, and I, I feel like it's a whole different level of healing to be able to be at a place where you can pass your healing onto another

Paddy: Still, even now, in a healthy and generally happy place, Annette says she is still mourning the loss of Sunny. She may always be, and that is okay.

Annette: I'm so grateful for Sunny. I can't imagine how I could have made it without her. And even the grief that's been so intense and painful has also been equally beautiful. Like to be able to connect with all these readers and to learn things about myself and my capacity for emotion and my ability to cry. I mean, I trained myself not to and Sunny taught me how to cry.

I feel very deeply the loss of her. And I think about her every day. Like just yesterday, I was on a hike with Trudy and, and the light against the LaPlata mountains and in the sky. And, it was just like, everything was like kind of golden. And I just like, think of Sunny and like, oh. 

So she continues to be with me. And I, yeah, I feel like it's, it's been the last year has been wrenching, but also equally beautiful and amazing.

And I love the way my dogs always remind me to be in the moment and to, to like, appreciate what's right here. What's right now. So I'm really grateful for that.

Paddy: Man. Do you know what I'm going to do right now?

Annette: Eat some ice cream?

Paddy: Well, I'll probably eat some ice cream but I'm going to hug the shit out of my dogs.

Annette: Yeah, me too.

Michael Roberts: If you are a survivor of domestic abuse or are worried about someone else’s safety, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline toll-free from anywhere in the U.S. at 1-800-799-7233, or text “START” to 88788

You can read Annette McGivney's essays on Outside Online. To learn more about her books and other work, check out her website, annettemcgivney.com. This episode was produced by Paddy O'Connell and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.

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The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at outsideonline.com/podplus. Also, we're offering new members a 25% discount Just enter the code pod25 at checkout

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.