By Sangi Ravichandran, as told to Keri Wiginton
Mellow and I only lived together for about 5 years. He died of cancer when he was young. But he brought so much calm to my life and the lives of everyone around me. People would pet him and want him around because he helped their anxiety. He seemed to be everyone’s favorite dog.
I would bring Mellow to my office, and people would ask me to leave my door open so they could see him. He really brought a lot of peace and calm energy to everyone. He also expanded the idea of family for me. All these people became Mellow’s aunts and uncles. And their love of him brought them closer to me.
But my love for dogs didn’t start with Mellow.
Johnny and Zephyr
I grew up with a guard dog. His name was Johnny, and he was a German shepherd. This was in India. And one day, the people who pick up strays from the street, they picked up Johnny. He didn’t have a collar, and he’d wandered off.
When I came home from school, he was just gone. Even though I was young, Johnny made this mark in my life. I still have a lot of feelings and thoughts about dogs not having homes.
And then in college, my best friend’s dog, Zephyr, changed my life in some ways. He was this huge, overweight Lab who drooled and was hot all the time. But he was such a loving guy. And I got to see what it was like to have a dog inside the house.
Since Zephyr, I’ve always wanted to have a relationship with a dog. And several years ago, my then-roommate agreed to adopt one with me.
The animal shelter brought this dog over for a home visit. It felt kind of like we were adopting a child. He came up to the house and sniffed all the corners. Then he sat down and let out a sigh. At that moment, we knew: This is the dog.
And that was Mellow.
My whole way of existing changed after he came into my life. When you start to care for another being, that anchors your day. I know that really shifted how I lived my life, including how I made relationships outside of the house.
It wasn’t just that I’d talk about how cute Mellow was, and post pictures on social media. I knew he was waiting for me at home. That was always on my mind. He really grounded me and helped me find home here in the United States.
He made me think about intentional ways of living. I’m an immigrant, and I try to do everything. Mellow really changed that. I had to slow down.
The last year of his life was really tough -- for him, for me, for people who really cared about him. He was so sick, but he would try so hard to be cheerful and to make me happy. I’ve never seen another being act so generous and selfless.
Room for More Love
Mellow died in February of 2020, just before the pandemic.
I was devastated. My depression came with a lot of anger, and I took time to process that. But when Mellow passed, the force that anchored my day went with him. And my friends encouraged me to get another dog.
I had a lot of mixed feelings about adopting again. I wondered if it was too soon. But life without a dog felt like a vacuum. And then the pandemic happened, which made everything worse. That’s when I started looking online at dogs up for adoption.
Then I saw Iris, whose original name was Banana. There was something about her eyes. I saw the picture and knew this dog felt right for me.
At first, the agency didn’t want to adopt her to me. She’s what you call a high-needs dog. They weren’t confident that someone who lives without other dogs, in a city, could meet her needs.
But they gave me a chance to watch her on a trial basis. My partner and I were excited to pick her up from the foster -- she ran away before she ever came inside. Someone found her sitting in an alley and returned her to us about a day later.
She wasn’t calm when she came back. She wanted to bite, and she seemed worried. But I understand anxious dogs -- I have ADHD with high anxiety -- and I think they understand me.
Learning How to Feel Safe
Iris has taught me so much about myself. She was so anxious. But the way she learned safety showed me I could learn safety. I’m a sexual violence survivor. My trauma left me with a lasting fear. I’d accepted that there are just certain things in life that I can’t ever do. But watching Iris gave me courage.
That shift in her helped me learn that it’s possible to find safe relationships. She showed me that I can work out of my trauma. And even if angry or anxious feelings come back, I can find my way out. She really taught me all those pieces.
Iris is a whole other dog now. She’s so mild. Sometimes she gets jumpy, but when she sees me or my partner, she calms down. We’re able to soothe each other.
Mellow and Iris both have taught me how to live in a more thoughtful way. I try to extend that to everyone around me. I think about how other people in my life might’ve experienced trauma. How can I show up and be a safe person for them?
My partner’s cat passed away in September of 2020, just before we got Iris. It was hard on Sarah to lose Frank. They were buddies for 14 years. But Iris has really helped Sarah deal with that grief. The two now have a very sweet bond. And we’ve even taken Iris to Frank’s grave.
Support is the biggest thing that comes to mind when I think about what my dogs have done for me and what I’ve done for them. In a world that teaches us to focus on ourselves, dogs and other animals really show you what it means to depend on others.
Mellow and Iris have given me a neat map that I can follow to get closer to the kind of world I want to live in. And Iris has taught me it’s OK to be anxious, to have trauma. You can still live a good life if you’re able to change some of the conditions around you.
Love and Loss
Animals may pass on or get sick, which is hard. But we can’t hope to live a life without pain. Even through their death, they can teach us how to manage hard feelings and get better.
For folks with depression, caring for a dog can ground you. You have to get up and feed them or take them for a walk. And there’s something beautiful that happens when another being depends on you.
I really look forward to the moment of coming home. Mellow would hear my car at the end of the street and wait at the door. Then he’d jump up and down when he saw me. No one in my life has ever been that excited to see me every day. I hope everyone gets to feel that special.
I feel honored and grateful to have that kind of relationship. I don’t think I’ll ever live without a dog. Ever.
Sangi Ravichandran is a queer South Asian activist scholar, art therapist, and PhD student at the University of Illinois in the sociology program. She lives in Chicago with Iris and their partner Sarah.