The goal of many dog owners is to be as wonderful as their dogs think they are. Annie Brody's story is one of love, companionship, personal challenges, and heroism. She was every bit as good a best friend to him as he was to her.
"Someone once told me that you should name your dog for the characteristics you want him to have," Annie Brody told me when I sat down to interview her. "So I named my dog Hero. I thought it was a good idea, in case I ever got into a jam and needed a hero."
"Did you really think that?" I asked.
"Yes, I did," Annie laughed. "Who knows what's in store as you go through life?
A hero might be a very good thing to have handy." Little did she know how right she was.
Annie had always loved dogs, ever since she was a little girl. But she grew up in a housing complex in Manhattan where pets were not allowed. "Dogs always brought me joy," Annie said, "and I was always drawn to them my whole life.
"When I went to college at Cornell, I want to study to be a veterinarian, but my science grades weren't good enough. So I ended up getting a degree in communication instead. Then when I started my career, my job took me on the road a lot, so it never seemed to be a good time to have a dog.
"But then they started opening dog parks in Manhattan -- in fact, there was one practically downstairs from where I lived, at 22nd and Broadway. I recall one day I was coming home from work and saw one of my neighbors in the hallway. He had a golden puppy named Kona. I bent down to pet the dog, engage with her on her level, and make friends with her Afterward, I went into my apartment and suddenly realized that my entire energy field had changed. I felt excited, happy, relaxed, and sort of glowing -- like I'd just met a new friend that I liked a lot. I thought, Oh my god, I got that from the dog!"
"Sounds like a revelation ... an epiphany for you," I said.
"It was," Annie nodded. "I said, 'I'm not going to put this off anymore.' And within two weeks I adopted Hero from the local ASPCA. He had been found wandering lost in the Bronx and someone turned him in to the shelter. He was a golden retriever, about one or two years old."
"How old were you at the time?"
"I was 45. And this was my very first dog," Annie replied.
"I was 52 when I got my first dog," I said. "It's kind of odd to be getting one's first dog as a middle aged person, isn't it?"
"Yes, most people who love dogs have them when they're kids," Annie answered, "but it's never too late to get your first dog."
"My sentiments exactly," I agreed. "So tell me what it was like for you and Hero."
"What I recall most is how I began to see the world through is eyes," Annie said. "I noticed how noisy the city was, how much grey, sharp-edged concrete there was, and the lack of green living things. There were people pushing, always in a hurry. It was intense and anxiety-making. Over time, I began to not like the city anymore. I wanted to live in a place where Hero and I could feel more peaceful, enjoy lots of greenery, and where he could run free off leash.
"So I moved to Columbia County in the upper Hudson Valley. It's real rural and farm-y here. I loved it and so did Hero. In fact, we loved it so much that I got inspired to start a new venture -- it's called Camp Unleashed (where city dogs and their people go to ruff it). Twice a year, people come here with their dogs and we spend a long weekend together in the countryside and the woods. The dogs have a great time and their human companions get to learn more about them and experience them as their true doggie selves -- playing together in a pack, free of the leash and in nature. The dogs are great teachers. It's an amazing experience."
"It sounds fabulous!"
"It is. And I owe it all to Hero. If it weren't for him, I'd still be in the rat race in the city -- and as Lily Tomlin once pointed out, 'Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat."
We both laughed.
"So Hero inspired you to start a new entrepreneurial venture. What happened after that?"
"One day Hero and I were out walking and he stumbled badly. It turned out he broke his femur. I rushed him to the vet, who did X-rays to assess the damage. She discovered a large tumor -- osteosarcoma -- and told me the prognosis was not good. Standard treatment is amputation, followed by chemotherapy and/or holistic treatment. But life expectancy would only be a few months. Hero was nine years old at the time, and I was determined to give him every chance at a long life. So I told the vet I would do whatever it took to save him.
"She referred me to the veterinary hospital at Tufts University; she wrote a letter saying that this was an emergency. So I took him there the very same day. They performed the amputation the next morning. I'll never forget watching Hero as he came out of the anesthesia and tried to get up and take his first steps. At first he was a little confused, like, What's wrong here? Then he took a couple halting steps, trying to get his balance. I could practically see his brain trying to make sense of this new situation. And suddenly he got this look on his face, like, Oh, I get it. And within just a couple more minutes, he was moving around just fine. I swear, the whole process of learning to walk again took him only five minutes! I was so impressed and inspired by him. A Hero, indeed."
"That's an amazing story," I said.
"He was an amazing dog," Annie continued. "There was no whimpering or whining. He didn't spend any time feeling sorry for himself or complaining. He just adapted to his new reality and got on with the business of living."
"Thanks to good holistic care by his wonderful vet with herbs and nutrition, and regular canine hydrotherapy and massage to keep him limber, Hero lived happily for another three years after that.
"He was a therapy dog, a Delta Pet Partner, and he visited kids with cerebral palsy. He would lie down on the floor and the kids would be all over him. I remember one little kid who was deaf and blind -- he probably didn't even know what a dog was. But he could lie next to Hero on the floor and feel his fur, his warmth, his breathing, his heartbeat, and a gentle smile would come to his face. Hero was such a gentle, patient dog. I'm sure those kids felt the same glow that I felt when I first met my neighbor's dog years earlier."
"Well, you certainly named him well, didn't you?" I asked.
"Yes," Annie said softly. "Hero died when he was twelve, but he's still my hero today."
"He just taught me so much about life and love. He taught me about adaptability -- about dealing with life on life's terms. He showed me that there is no value in self-pity or lamenting 'why me?' His resiliency was remarkable -- magnified by his courage and grace.
"Just last year, I thought of Hero when I got laid off from my job because of the bad economy. I was the sales manager for a pet products company and I'd been with them for two and a half years. But the recession has affected all businesses, including pet businesses, so they let me go to save money.
"At first I was upset -- that lasted about 24 hours. Then I remembered Hero and the way he had handled his own personal disaster. So after my initial shock from the layoff wore off, I told myself, I've been an entrepreneur before - I can do it again. I very quickly saw that this career setback could really be a blessing. I now had more time to build Camp Unleashed into a successful business. Before, I always had to squeeze it in around my 'real job,' but now I could focus on what I really loved to do - get to know and play with lots of dogs and their people.
"I immediately got into action: I started visioning what I wanted the business to look like; I reached out to others and let all my friends and colleagues know what I was up to; I contacted the Small Business Development Office and enrolled in a program with them. I got a mentor and wrote a business plan. I realized that I could professionalize what I loved - I could take Camp Unleashed to the next level.
"So next year I plan to double the number of camp sessions we have. We just finished our first winter camp and it was amazing. I want to expand to other locations. Like Hero, I'm adapting. There's no self-pity here. I'm following in the steps of a Hero. Like I've always said about him: he lost his leg but not his heart."
"I just love your story, Annie," I said. "Thank you for sharing it with me. I have just one last question: Do you have any advice for others?"
"Any advice I'd give would be what I learned from Hero," Annie replied. "When bad things happen, it's OK to be shocked, hurt, and/or confused - just don't get stuck there. Process your feelings as quickly as you can and move on. You can't go back and change what happened to you, so just accept it.
"Second, don't take it personally when something bad happens. Nobody's picking on you; God isn't punishing you; you're not a victim of Fate. Life just happens - good stuff and bad stuff - everybody gets some of both.
"And finally, keep moving. No matter how bad yesterday was, today is a new day, and tomorrow is another. Keep moving forward. You don't drive your car by obsessing about what's in your rearview mirror - you look forward through our windshield and through your side windows, too. It's the same with life.
"Hero loved to ride in the car with his head out the window, feeling the rush of air past his face, taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells coming at him. I don't recall him ever looking backward - he was always looking forward or to the side to see what was happening around him."
Annie smiled. "That's a nice image for people to hold. A happy dog, eager to experience the journey."
For more information about Camp Unleashed, see www.campunleashed.com