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Do You Have a “Heart Dog”?

I bonded deeply with Charlie the moment we met. He grabbed my heart tightly and changed my life.

Raygan Swan  |  Mar 4th 2016


I remember the first time I heard someone say “heart dog.”

My Springer Spaniel and I were waiting our turn to run an agility course. Charlie’s front paws were on my knees. We were just about nose-to-nose, and my hands were twirling through his wavy brown ears.

A lady whom I’d only known a short time came over and commented, “He’s your heart dog, isn’t he?”

The words fell over me like a warm blanket, and I buried my face in Charlie’s neck, certain I was going to cry. Her words defined him so eloquently, so succinctly, and so accurately. I had never heard the term “heart dog” before that day, but clearly the emotion that those two small words evoked inside my own heart meant I didn’t need an explanation.

“Yes,” I said. “He is my heart dog.”

My heart dog, Charlie. (Photo by Raygan Swan)

My heart dog, Charlie. (Photo by Raygan Swan)

Originating in the dog community, the term “heart dog” has been thrown around for years, but I’m guessing it really took off when the human-to-dog relationship changed in the early 2000s, around the same time the pet industry exploded and dog owners began purchasing organic kibble and sending their pups to daycare and on play dates. You’re familiar with the term “anthropomorphizing,” correct?

Nevertheless, your heart dog is that one dog you bond with so deeply you might be crazy enough to clone him. No, I’m kidding, that’s revolting. But honestly the feeling is hard to describe. Your heart dog is the dog who comes along once in a lifetime and grabs your heart so tightly he changes the way you live life. Sound dramatic? Maybe. Farfetched? Sure, but that’s probably because you’ve never had one.

Charlie came to me — or us I should say — in the summer of 2008. Matt and I were just married, and it was his idea to get a dog, but it was I who fell madly, co-dependently, and absurdly in love with this puppy, whose long ears lay symmetrically over both front paws while he slept at my feet all day long.

Crate training was a joke. Charlie was sleeping in our bed within a month of his arrival, despite the fact that I would end up sleep training the bejesus out of my young son a year later. Sad, I agree. Now 6 years old, my son occasionally accuses me of loving Charlie more than him. I don’t! Charlie did for me what Prozac does for depressed people. He kept me balanced, grounded, and happy.

It was unexplainable, really. Dime-store psychology might say the dog entered my life and fulfilled my need for unconditional love after a less-than-ideal childhood — and dog people might simply say dog love is just crazy good love!

Charlie ready to play. (Photo by Raygan Swan)

Charlie ready to play. (Photo by Raygan Swan)

Regardless, I know Charlie is my heart dog for a few reasons.

The first reason: My social life stopped after he moved in. Why go out and spend money on dinner and drinks when you could buy agility poles and an endless supply of Chuck-It balls? The second reason — the reason my husband sharply pointed out before I could comprehend my condition — is what he calls the “E.T. effect,” after the film’s characters who share a telepathic bond. When Charlie was down and out, I was unbearable to live with. Charlie’s status and well-being continues to determine my moods daily … mostly because he’s burdened with behavioral quirks and saddled with severe allergies. He’s a lot of work, but those who know better might say the same thing about me.

And if I didn’t know Charlie was my heart dog after eight years, the new Springer Spaniel puppy we brought into the fold last summer certainly eliminated any remaining doubt. Clyde, we call him, is the best-behaved, most beautiful, HEALTHY dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of parenting, and yet he’s still a distant second to my heart dog.

Clyde the Glide, dubbed so for his laid-back temperament, is a delightful dog, but he became the target of some unnecessary ribbing shortly after his arrival. Every day I’d look at Matt and say, “Do you love him yet? I don’t love him yet.” It was a joke — a sad, silly joke around our house. Anyone love Clyde yet? No. Charlie? Do you love Clyde?

I thought maybe I wasn’t a dog person after all. Perhaps I was just a Charlie person.

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Charlie, left, and Clyde. (Photo by Raygan Swan)

Now, don’t call the humane society just yet. Clyde will be a year old next month, and yes I love him. I love him so much, and I have big plans for him, but our relationship is different. When he arrived, I already had everything I wanted and needed. I’m the mother of a healthy 6-year-old boy, I’m deeply rooted in my marriage, my heart is full, and Charlie is still around occupying his significant portion.

That said, would Clyde be my heart dog if he had come first during a season where life was more about me and less about others? No way of knowing. My point is that I truly believe in the distinction — there is such a thing as a heart dog. It’s not just fanatical dog owners looking for a label that validates their choice to overindulge, cater to, or spoil their favorite pup.

It’s real, and the thought of losing this relationship makes me nervous and downright queasy. Oddly enough, around the same time I had learned the term “heart dog,” Charlie was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. We buried his brother Louie, who died from the same condition, last summer. Louie was my father-in-law’s heart dog.

I had hoped to watch Charlie go gray around the muzzle and become a lazy bear-rug, but no one knows how long he has. He’s not symptomatic yet, so for now he is living a happy and active life despite his enlarged heart and leaky mitral valve. The vet said, “Don’t tell him he’s sick, and he won’t know.”

I don’t. I just love him harder and kiss him more, and some days he has to lick the tears from my cheeks. So surely the fact that his heart could give out at any moment is one of many reasons I hold him so dear to mine. I love him. He’s my heart dog.

Do you have a heart dog? Tell us — and show us — in the comments.

Read more by Raygan Swan:

About the author: Raygan Swan is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom who loves to write about her adventures raising a young boy and one neurotic, pushy English Springer Spaniel under one roof. In sharing her anecdotes and experiences, Swan hopes to enlighten and educate families who strive for harmony among their two-legged and four-legged children. In addition, she likes to compete in agility trials with her springer as well as kayak and hike. She lives north of Indianapolis and can be found at facebook.com/rayganswan.