My life has always been more complete when I had a furry friend by my side. From the time I was 4 years old I picked out my first dog from a litter of Shetland sheepdogs. Actually Duke, as he would be named, picked me. He was a brown-and-white fluffball with both a blue and brown eye and he looked right at me, came over and cuddled on my lap.
From that moment on, Duke was my constant companion and my best friend for the next nine years. As a military kid who moved every three years and had to start over and make new friends, having Duke was my saving grace. I did not realize at the time, but he gave me confidence when I needed it most, because no matter where we were going or where were living, he comforted me, played with me and did everything I asked of him. I trained him to do the most amazing tricks.
He was smart and sweet and had that instinct that most dogs do — he could read people and knew what they needed. When I would cry he would jump up and lick my tears. When I danced, he would put his paws on me to dance with me. And when friends jokingly threatened to toss me in our pool, Duke barked and ran to save me. I was 13 years old when Duke died, and I still remember that being one of the worst days of my young life.
As most kids learn to deal with loss and heartbreak when losing a pet, I learned too how devastating it could feel. But I knew there would be other doggie “soulmates” who I would love just as much and who would have a profound impact on my life. My family then adopted a rescue golden retriever pup in Miami named Niña (meaning little girl in Spanish), who again I picked out at a Humane Society shelter.
I was already in college, but I spent my summers training Niña, swimming with her in the lake and taking her on runs. She was a huge comfort to my family during the aftermath of losing our house to Hurricane Andrew. Niña was a beautiful soul and she too gave me the most incredible years of loyalty and unconditional love. When I would come home from college for breaks, she was always the most excited to see me. Losing Niña would also come too soon, and it was again more heartbreak because she was such a member of our family.
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I had longed for another dog, but with a busy life, a challenging job and young kids that opportunity wouldn’t come again until 2012. While my boys were already of the age that they started asking for a dog, we had cats (also rescues) and I was concerned about how the cats would react. Then, as fate would have it, I met Zara. Again, I felt like she chose me. She was a rescue dog at North Shore Animal League in Long Island, New York, and happened to be on the TODAY Show one day for a pet segment. She was there with another dog, who seemed nervous and was yapping constantly. Zara was calm and sweet, licking me and pawing at my hand for me to pay attention to her.
I was told she was about a year old. She was the most beautiful dog I had ever seen; a blond and brown border collie mix with caramel eyes and the sweetest disposition. It was love at first sight I think for the both of us. The people at North Shore told me Zara had been brought up North from a kill shelter in Georgia, which broke my heart even more to think who could possibly give up such an incredible animal. I knew she was meant to be a part of my family and immediately called home. My husband was a little hesitant at first, but once he saw the video I sent him of her, he was convinced she belonged with us. The day we picked her up at the shelter was almost as joyous as the days I brought home my boys from the hospital. Josh was 9 years old and Luke was 4, and Zara became the instant third member of our family.
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As Zara and the boys continue to grow, I see how much confidence she has also given them as well as a sense of empathy and love for all living creatures. Zara sleeps by Josh’s side every night and is happiest when she is walking the boys to and from the school bus. She has gone everywhere with us and has helped ease their fears during our recent transition of moving to California from Hoboken, New Jersey. When we moved out to California, we drove cross country with Zara because we did not want to have to fly her as we thought it would be too stressful.
She is such a great traveler and would just lay next to the boys in the back seat waiting for the next stop and adventure. The other day, while Luke was sitting on the couch petting Zara, who was sandwiched in between us, he turned to me and said, “Mom, Zara completed our family.” I could not agree more. They say most rescues never forget and are so grateful to be rescued. I believe that wholeheartedly … but more than anything, we are so grateful she rescued us in her own way.
Natalie Morales is the host of Access on NBC