The morning after Anne Abel’s dog, Mattie, was killed by a UPS truck, she got a call from a local dog rescuer. Abel, who struggles with depression, had told a mutual acquaintance that she couldn’t fathom a dog-less existence and wanted to adopt immediately. The rescuer introduced Abel and her family to Milo. The sweet, mellow pooch at the shelter seemed like a perfect addition to the household.
He wasn’t. Once Milo arrived at Abel’s house, he was aggressive and frightening. Mattie had been perfectly behaved. Now Abel had a dog who barked incessantly at other dogs, humped and jumped visitors, and, worst of all, bit two of Abel’s sons. Later, the family learned that Milo had been adopted and returned several times.
Abel wanted to return Milo, too, but she couldn’t. As a child of abuse, Abel knew how it felt to be unwanted. “Milo did not ask to be born,” Abel says. “No one had ever taken the time to try to civilize him. As much as I did not want to do this, as much as I did not know how to do this, I just could not toss this living creature back into a cage.”
In Mattie, Milo, and Me a memoir (She Writes Press, April), Abel tells the inspiring story of how she rehabilitated Milo—and how this work helped her heal from her own difficult past. Abel got the idea for the book in 2019, after she won a storytelling competition, the Moth StorySLAM in New York City, with a hilarious and heartfelt tale about working with Milo at a training school called What A Good Dog! At subsequent StorySLAMs, people recognized Abel and asked her about Milo. “Everyone was heartened that I had taken a reject dog that no one wanted and had devoted myself to socializing him and eventually falling in love with him,” she says. “They also wanted to know if he frightened me and how I overcame that.”
A freelance writer who has written profiles for publications that include Lilith, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philadelphia Weekly, Abel realized she had more to say about Milo and what rehabilitating him has taught her. “Writing a book required me to dig deeper and deeper,” she says.
Milo demanded that, too. Abel adopted him to distract herself from the pain of losing Mattie, but she quickly found that Milo distracted her from deeper struggles, too, namely, the depression that resulted from her difficult upbringing. “When I was with Milo—which was pretty much all the time—I did not have much time to think about anything but keeping him as under control as I could,” she says. “Milo kept me in the present.”
She also learned to appreciate Milo’s individuality—something Abel’s parents had tried to drum out of her. She had dedicated herself to encouraging her sons to find their passions and be the people they wanted to be, and she realized she needed to do the same for Milo. Mattie had only wanted to hang out with the family, loving and being loved. Milo needed more. “He was a high-energy, athletic, curious dog who needed time each day to run in the woods, chasing and jumping and hunting,” Abel says.
Most of all, working with Milo taught Abel that love takes many different forms. Mattie, the perfectly behaved pooch, had been easy to love. Milo was not. “There were times early in our relationship that I felt that I hated him, and I told him that,” she says.
The love grew as they bonded, spending time together nearly every hour of every day. The gift of that relationship extended in both directions. “Sometimes taking care of yourself means overextending yourself to take care of somebody else—not as a martyr, but because you care so much about the welfare of the other living being that you get joy and a sense of fulfillment from helping them,” Abel says. “I came to love Milo because he was Milo... and he was mine.”