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First person

My bionic dog

Lewis seemed to be perpetually broken, but we had made a pact: 'You take care of me, I'll take care of you,' Lindsay Tibando writes

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Don't roll your eyes, but my dog Lewis is probably one of the most handsome dogs you'll ever meet. And I know most dog owners say this the same way parents coo over their children, but this is an objective fact. Strangers regularly stop on the street to tell me how good looking he is. I don't blame them. Golden fur, big brown eyes, the toothy grin of a retriever, what's not to love? He hears the word "handsome" so often now, he equates it with back scratches and head rubs. Everywhere we go, he attracts attention. For a single girl, he is the world's greatest wingman.

At only three years old, he has already gotten me through some of the ugliest moments of my life. The end of a decade-long relationship ushered in dark days and pain I didn't know I was capable of feeling. I was completely overwhelmed. Through all my sleepless nights he was there by my side. But this story isn't about that. It's about a pact we made together and what it meant to follow it through.

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The pact began in the middle of the night shortly after my breakup. Alone in a new apartment and unable to sleep, I snuggled up next to him, wrapping my arms around his fur. He rolled over to face me, licking my cheek and resting his head on my shoulder. I scratched his ear in return and whispered "You take care of me, I'll take care of you." He grunted in agreement. The pact was made. When it came time to hold up my end of the bargain, I had no idea what I was in for.

His real name is Lewis the Lemon, an unfortunate moniker he earned when it became obvious I had gotten the faulty one in the litter. He is the embodiment of Murphy's law. A combination of bad genes and bad luck. To the best of my knowledge, he is the only one out of seven siblings to have this much misfortune. It seems he pulled the genetic short straw, his fate sealed long before we even met.

When he was only five-months-old, his front legs had become so crippled from pain he was no longer able to walk. He was diagnosed with a severe form of elbow dysplasia. The options were limited and the odds of a full recovery were not ideal. I was told he would probably spend the rest of his life with a limp. Nevertheless, he underwent corrective surgery. His recovery was long, frustrating and full of setbacks. When things finally turned a corner, I was greeted with the news that his hind legs were giving out because of early onset hip dysplasia. Again, the options were limited. Two more surgeries followed, all before his second birthday. The legs he was born with simply didn't work, so I rebuilt him. He was now the bionic dog. But our problems didn't end there. The surgeries were followed by a myriad of challenges: arthritis, physiotherapy, a staph infection, a viral infection, scar tissue, muscle atrophy, different medications, allergic reactions – you name it, we faced it.

My patience and faith were stretched to the limit. I was going through my own personal version of hell and the added burden of caring for a dog that seemed to be perpetually broken, not to mention financially draining, was wearing me thin. I was exhausted and quite frankly, resentful of the cards I had been dealt. Most people my age are saving their money for a down payment and here I was spending my savings on a dog that could barely walk.

But we had made a pact and despite the fact my dog had no real understanding of that agreement, I pressed on. And so did he. Every day, he got a little bit better. Even when he didn't want to, he forced himself to stand up. Even when it hurt, he took a step forward. After every surgery, he had to relearn to walk on his new leg and trust its strength. He was weary and tired, no doubt getting as annoyed with the whole process as I was, but each time he pushed himself, he got a little bit stronger. Slowly but surely, he got his legs back and things returned to normal. Or at least, a new version of normal.

I realized his struggles were in many ways a reflection of my own. Life had thrown me so many curve balls at once that it knocked my legs out from underneath me. The legs on which I had built my previous life were no longer strong enough to stand. Just like Lewis, I, too, had to relearn to walk on my own and trust this new strength. Even when I didn't want to, I stood up. Even when it hurt, I forced myself to take a step forward. And just like Lewis, slowly but surely, there was a new version of normal.

I joke that he is my spirit animal, the dog equivalent of myself; easygoing yet determined, lazy yet capable and, most importantly, a strong lover of food (I prefer cheese, he likes peanut butter). But it's so much more than that. He is not just my pet, he's my family. We taught each other to walk again when we both thought we never would. We anchored each other's lives when the waters around us got stormy. We leaned on each other when our new legs were too wobbly to be trusted on their own and we stuck with it until it didn't hurt any more.

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So if this story is anything, it's a long-winded thank you letter to my dog Lewis. He has no idea how much he's carried me over the past three years, despite his faulty legs. And it's all thanks to our agreement: "You take care of me, I'll take care of you."

Lindsay Tibando lives in Toronto.

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