04/01/2014 10:33 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

Get Your Dog a Pet!

We adopted our family dog, Amaretto, at the moment I needed her most. I was an isolated middle school girl. She was a rescue dog -- part Chow Chow, part German Shepherd, part Golden Retriever -- who arrived at our local shelter barefoot and pregnant from Tucson. We quickly became best friends, and she shepherded me through the nights when all I could do was hold her and cry, and the days when I felt too weak to walk her, even just around the block.

Fast forward ten years, and Amaretto is still my best bud, only I'm happier and healthier, because even law school is better than middle school. I call home from law school and hear the bad news: Amaretto can't walk. Why? We don't know.

Fast forward two months, and I'm home from school for the weekend, mostly to see her, but yes, I suppose to say hi to my family as well. Amaretto is still limping -- she cannot climb one step, cannot play tug-a-war, cannot even walk from one room to another. She has been examined by veterinarians and specialists and doggie acupuncturists. Her fluffy limbs have been shaved for IVs and x-rays and CT scans. The worst is when I look into her eyes: it's as though she's begging me for help. But I don't know how to help her. No one knows what is truly wrong. Just as no one knew what was wrong with me, ten years ago. No one except Amaretto.

I rack my brain for solutions and shamefully avoid her because just looking at her makes my heart break, makes me feel as though I am failing this beautiful being who has always been my soft shelter. I demand answers, but my parents, who have been taking her to all these appointments while I've been learning torts and contracts and civil procedure... they too are at a loss. The doctors say to give it time, and vitamins. I think, if I were the one in pain, time and vitamins would not be an adequate plan. I am watching my dog die a little each day, and she's doing it in the noble, loving way she does everything. She does not demand attention, nor does she whimper. She doesn't even beg for extra scraps of steak from the table, and we all feel so sorry for her that we'd probably each give her our entire flank just to see her smile with those pearly canines.

I know I can't fix her leg, but I wonder how I can fix the rest. And then it occurs to me: when I was broken inside, what fixed me was her. Caring for another creature that loved me unconditionally, that encouraged me to be my most active and loving self, but never chastised me when I couldn't muster the strength. Amaretto fixed me.

So then I realize: I need to get Amaretto an Amaretto! We think about adopting another dog, but decide that this would probably make Amaretto feel even worse -- as though we were replacing her with a new dog that, unlike her, could still move. So I clearly explain to my parents that our pet dog needs... a pet.

I Google "pet for my pet." The only memorable search result is for"specialists for those who want to demonstrate a long-term commitment to their pet." Not quite what I'm looking for. But after a few hours I determine that tortoises are fairly smart (they can learn to come when called!) and easy to care for. My father and I drive to Petsmart, and we pick up a tortoise. We drive to Target and pick up a big, clear plastic box so Amaretto can observe it. And then we introduce the tortoise to the dog.

Amaretto loves the tortoise. Her tail wags for the first time in months. She smiles. She licks the box a lot, leading us to wonder if she loves the tortoise because she wants to eat the tortoise. Day after day, when Amaretto wakes up in the morning, her mission is clear: to watch the tortoise, especially when it is munching on lettuce. Amaretto has a purpose again, a purpose we name Tortellini.

Fast forward to now. It's been two months, and Amaretto still loves Tortellini. She guards that tortoise for hours, gazing at it with her ears perked -- we call it Tortoise TV. Amaretto's mysterious inability to walk is no more. She's not as strong as she used to be, but she's mobile and interested and almost back to her old self. None of the specialists have a good explanation for her new leash on life. I'm not claiming that the tortoise was the trick, but I'm not claiming that it wasn't.

Life is short, even in dog years. I don't know how much longer I have with Amaretto. And according to Petsmart, this tortoise will probably outlive us all. But for today, we're all ok. I have Amaretto and Amaretto has Tortellini and tomorrow, we'll get up, and I'll watch my pet and she'll watch hers. Then maybe we'll take a walk.