It’s taken me since June to be able to look through these photos I took of Hylo.
The day Hylo became ours I picked him up in Denver and flew with him back to Ohio. He weighed twelve pounds and he spent the entire flight blissfully asleep in my lap, a memory that hit me when we flew back to Denver with Willa last month. It’s hard to believe Willa weighs now what Hylo did then.
When we brought Hylo home Todd’s Golden Retriever, Prada was still with us, although she was sick and we knew our time with her was limited. For a brief period of time we had three dogs in a tiny rental house, and it was the kind of chaos that can seem insurmountable at the time but makes you nostalgic when you look back. (I documented Hylo’s first week and his first month). Eventually we lost Prada and moved to a new house, and all the while Hylo grew into himself and into our family. He had some bad experiences with other dogs when he was a few months old, and he began to have a difficult time being around other dogs. We researched and read and tried every trainer we could find whose philosophies resonated with us. I spent our walks terrified that someone would unwittingly let an off-leash dog approach Hylo (who was always on leash), or that a parent would let a toddler meander up to him without a proper introduction. Hylo weighed a good 100 pounds and I knew I wouldn’t be able to control him if he got upset. And then the vicious cycle: the more worried I got, the more he wanted to protect me and the worse he was around me. It was a toxic mix, but one I couldn’t change no matter how hard I tried. It didn’t change how much I loved him or how much he loved me. He was my boy, ever by my side, ever ready to do whatever he could to make me happy. I just couldn’t teach him that my nervousness needed tranquility as a response, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t squelch that anxiety in myself. I can’t tell you how many days I cried during those years, worrying that Hylo would inadvertently hurt another dog, or–worst of all–a person, worrying that it was all my fault, worrying that I was making him worse, worrying, worrying, worrying. At one point I was talking to my aunt about it, and she said, ‘you know Claire, you can’t change who you are. You can’t change that his behavior makes you nervous, and you can’t beat yourself up over it.’ It was liberating to realize that I couldn’t change my anxiety any more than Hylo could change his.
When we found out we were pregnant I began to seriously worry about Hylo – not so much how he’d be around the baby (I believe he’d have understood she was part of our pack and probably would have been very protective), but because I couldn’t imagine how we could handle the management of a difficult dog while figuring out life with a newborn. I just could not picture it no matter how hard I tried. I worried that our only and safest alternative would be crating him all the time and I just couldn’t come to terms with that reality. We’d kept in touch with one of Hylo’s breeders, a wonderful, warm woman who was nothing but completely empathetic, always understanding where we were coming from and always wanting to help us do what we wanted most: what was best for Hylo. She called me last spring, saying she’d found a perfect home for Hylo. We hadn’t really discussed rehoming him; it was something that was hard for both Todd and I to wrap our heads around. Our dogs have always been our family, and neither of us had ever had to let one go in that kind of circumstance. But our breeder knew a couple who lived in Kentucky, on a horse farm with hundreds of acres and a couple other Ridgebacks of her own, including a male just a little younger than Hylo. I thought it sounded a little bit crazy, the idea of rehoming him with a pack of other dogs considering all the difficulties we’d had. But when I spoke to this woman who wanted Hylo, a woman who’s had Ridgebacks for years, she told me about another dog she’d adopted later in life, a dog who’d had more difficulties than Hylo did, and how when he got to the farm something in his brain just clicked and he was completely fine for the rest of his many days. The more I thought about that the more it made sense.
Todd and I talked it into the ground. I cried more tears than you can image. I’d wake up crying, I’d go sleep crying. I was five months pregnant at the time and would sometimes worry that all my sadness would seep into the baby somehow so I’d spend nights awake, river of tears, silently explaining to the baby that this was what sadness felt like, that it was okay, a necessary part of life, and that this sadness in particular was born out of how much love I had for that dog. Todd and I went around and around in circles, trying to figure out what was best for everyone, but most of all what was best for Hylo. And the conclusion we kept landing on, no matter what angle we looked at it from, was that if Hylo went to live on the farm it was only we who would suffer. We knew Hylo would be happy – it was a life so perfect for a dog it barely sounded real. But if we tried to keep him and something awful happened, or even if we kept him and nothing awful happened but the baby arrived and suddenly we had no time for him, it was he who would suffer and we who would benefit because we’d avoid the pain of letting him go. The only answer was to let him go. We would be devastated, but he would be happy and at least we would know we did right by him.
So that’s what we did. Hylo’s new owner arranged to come pick him up a couple days later, and we spent two days – simultaneously awful and wonderful – doting on Hylo, playing with him, cuddling him, studying every hair on his head, trying to commit it all to memory. I took out my camera for those days, trying to commit to film the things I was trying to commit to memory, the little day-to-day moments that would quickly be a thing of the past.
Hylo went to Kentucky, and his life there has exceeded our wildest expectations. He loves life on the farm and became best buds with the other Ridgeback. We get photos from his wonderful owners all the time – photos of Hylo on hikes with packs of dogs, of Hylo in the barn watching over the horses, curled up in an armchair, snoozing by the fire, spooning with his new dog brother. He leads a life any dog would be jealous of. I don’t believe he spends his time missing us but I like to think that we’ll always be somewhere in his heart.
Those first few months without Hylo were awful. He was a huge dog with an even bigger heart, and the hole he left in our lives was enormous. People told us it would get easier when the baby arrived, that our perspective on the whole thing would shift and we’d realize he was just a dog. It did change when Willa arrived, mostly because we had less time to mourn his absence, and also because now that Willa is here I realize completely that we made the right decision. We struggle to give Roux the attention she needs and I cannot imagine how we’d do with two dogs right now, especially one like Hylo. Meanwhile, Hylo’s new owners are completely dedicated to him. But people were wrong, because I don’t miss him any less than I did the minute he left. My eyes still mist whenever I think about him. A baby does totally shift your entire universe, but it hasn’t made me care any less for my dogs. I still miss him as fiercely as ever, even as my heart expands every day with love for Willa. And so it took me until now to look back over these photographs I took in my last days with Hylo. And as I sit here writing this, babe asleep next to me, and Roux tightly curled by my feet, I still leak tears. I don’t regret the way any of it went, but I will always miss that big head in my lap, those big paws padding behind every step I took.