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How My Dogs Helped Me Heal from Gun Violence

As written by AAPPSA Member Carol Ruth Dreiling:

On December 3, l975, while visiting my family over Thanksgiving in Blacksburg, Virginia, two crazed strangers broke into our home, killed my parents, and shot me three times.

My injuries included entrance and exit wounds to my shoulder, my finger, and my arm, and a bullet that landed in my abdomen. I suffered with migraines, severe abdominal cramps, oppressive body aches, and ongoing digestive issues. On my long road to recovery, I moved from shock and denial to depression and sobbing, from nightmares, loss, and devastation to rage and cold isolation.

I’d longed for my own dog for years. Now I needed a dog to help me heal. Less than two months after being shot, I found a Sheltie-Austrian Shepherd mix at the local shelter in Blacksburg, Virginia. I named her Ches. I chose Ches because of the four puppies in the cage, she looked right at me.

Ches became my reason to get up in the morning. I’d never had my own dog so I had a lot to learn. I found having a puppy meant:

-teaching her how to eat from a bowl,

-walking with her,

-planning for food and water,

-taking her to the vet for early shots, and

-training her to sit, walk on a lead, and ride in the car.

Focusing on Ches left me less time to feel the trauma that hit me erratically.

Walking played an especially key role in my relationship with Ches and proved very therapeutic. It allowed us to share time together, move with each other, and reap the benefits of being close to nature. Ches and I spent many hours walking in the neighborhood. Together, we visited the Duck Pond near Virginia Tech and hiked near the Cascades, stopping to enjoy waterfall views.

Ches was my dog, but my two younger brothers enjoyed her company, too. Paul, then 21, and John, then 19, attended Virginia Tech. Paul had been studying in his basement bedroom in our house the night of the shootings and escaped injury. In the midst of horrendous sudden deaths, Ches gave us life. After being housebroken, Ches slept with me. Having her next to me at night when it was dark and cold comforted me, especially when nightmares plagued my sleep.

After being released by doctors to work again, I began doing odd building jobs since I was trained as a builder. But there came a point when I couldn’t stay in Blacksburg any longer, so I moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I found a house in the country to rent where I couldn’t hear the sirens that reminded me of my trauma.

Ches became my everyday family. A friend brought his dog Molly, a German Shepherd-Collie mix, one day to see if we’d all get along. She became the third member of my family. Molly helped me feel safe again. She was very protective, and if she heard someone walking near my house at night, she barked at them. I decided to get dogs instead of a gun to protect myself, choosing a peaceful path rather than one that echoed the violence I’d experienced.

After moving to Asheville, I worked with after-school children and did woodworking jobs. But when my ongoing pain became too much, I went on a cross-country road trip with Ches and Molly. We drove the Southern route, crossing Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and California. We parked outside family or friends’ homes or in state parks or at rest stops along the way. Molly slept in the truck bed with me and Ches slept up front. With both dogs by my side, I felt safe everywhere we stopped. We trucked together for two months.

Ches sat up front with me throughout the trip. We took the Northern route back, stopping in Idaho, Minnesota, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. I drove miles and miles with nothing to catch my attention. Exhausted from being on the road so long and feeling somewhat suicidal, I almost wrecked the truck many times. But Ches sensed the danger and clawed me awake to keep us from crashing. She said with her claws, “Wake up, don’t kill us.” I believe dogs have a sixth sense and know when we need them.

After the road trip, friends in Asheville helped me find a tiny basement apartment near them with a fenced-in back yard. Since I couldn’t live with people at this point in my healing, my dogs continued to be my family. We spent hours and hours together—hanging out and walking in western North Carolina. Every Sunday I took Ches and Molly to an empty lot near a school to walk and run. Weekdays we walked in the neighborhood.

In l979 I bought an old 1920s house to fix up and fenced in the back yard for Molly and Ches. They spent days in the yard roaming around and evenings with me inside. They kept me company as I gardened the back corner of the yard.

At times, I still sobbed uncontrollably. Ches and Molly would lay on my feet and nudge me to pet them. They grounded and soothed me.

In winter, severe body aches hit me from the gunshot wounds. I put my bed in the den and kitchen area, where the woodstove was located. I spent many winter nights with one dog on either side of me, bringing me comfort while I watched television or read or wrote. The connection to my dogs helped me make sense of the trauma that changed my life forever. While it was gun violence that hit me, I believe dogs can help us heal from any tragedy that we encounter.

For 40 years, I’ve shared life with one or two dogs at a time. I’ve taken care of other people’s dogs as a professional pet sitter. The dog walks continue. I now live an active, connected life with some digestive issues due to the bullet wound to my abdomen. Spending time with the dogs in my life grounds me, helps me feel safe, and surrounds me with a soothing presence.