Jess Tran and Her Rescue Dog Are Healing Together
The creative guru on taking her dog to therapy, finding community at the dog park, and the “spiritual journey” of pet parenthood.
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If there is one thing you need to know about creative guru Jess Tran, it’s that she leads with resolve. The Brooklynite (by way of Australia) doesn’t phone-in anything. A true multi-hyphenate, Tran works as a brand consultant, photographer, writer, and vintage-shopping entrepreneur. But perhaps her greatest achievement has been taming the beast that is her dog, Ghost. What was once a frustrating endeavor has transformed into a labor of love — one that brings her to tears. In wake of Mental Health Awareness Month, The Wildest asked Tran to share the story of how Ghost has singularly been the most mentally healing, character-building development in her life.
Why did you decide to adopt Ghost?
My parents are mad Asian, so their rule was: Anything that isn’t human isn’t allowed in the house. As soon as I became an adult in New York, I spent a few months looking for a dog. Every dog had a waitlist of, like, 15 people. I truly chose Ghost because she was beautiful. And she was friendly, but she ended up being a complete lunatic. We, my ex and I, ended up getting chosen [for her adoption] because we were the only ones that could make it work. I was way in over my head. She was fighting people, fighting dogs — super anxious. I definitely chose her with my eyes and not my brain.
It says a lot about you that you stuck with her.
There was a moment where I was on Reddit at 3am posting threads like, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore. I think I’m not the right fit for this dog. I don’t think this is good for the dog or for me.” Having support from people on Reddit reminded me that it does get better. They’d say, “Take a breath. It’s all good.” As with most things in life, that journey of training her and getting her to where she is now, forging that bond, was a somewhat spiritual journey, tied to self-growth and mental health.
Did you find a trainer?
No, I actually did it all myself because she wasn’t really good with other dogs. So much of her stuff was fear-based desensitization, and it’s so expensive to get a dog trainer. I just read books. I listened to podcasts. I watched documentaries. I practiced on her for years and years and years. We did it about 30 minutes a day for the first full year — everything from obedience training to desensitization.
What’s her personality like now?
Extremely neurotic, incredibly intelligent. On the flip side, she’s also deeply loyal. She will never run away from me. She’s incredibly attached. When you’re in with Ghost, you’re in for life. So she’s intense and decisive and intellectual, but also moody and lazy — kind of a grouchy little princess.
At what point did this become emotionally healing for you?
At one point, I was like, “I don’t really understand why people get rescue dogs.” I feel like I can’t do whatever I want. I can’t travel anywhere anymore. I can’t go out at night. This dog is making me cry every day. She’s peeing all over the place. She won’t play fetch. It felt like a really big disruption. But after a year, she really started to calm down, and we bonded with each other. I think that is one of the most beautiful things that will ever happen to me in my entire life.
How did you get the idea to take her to therapy with you?
It had gotten to the point where we were so in tune with each other. I can’t tell if this is something real, but my therapist is convinced that it’s real. She actually had seizures sometimes when I was talking about really intense things, like anger and trauma. It affects her! So I stopped taking her to therapy. I was going through various bouts of depression throughout the last six years, and she’d come up to me and lick my face when I was crying.
Do you try to take her everywhere with you?
I tend to like select environments where I know it’ll be calm enough for her. The weird thing is that she’s been at parties where there’s definitely music, and she doesn’t really notice it. I take her to my hair appointments every three weeks. I try to take her wherever I can, especially being alone now and the responsibility of walking a dog three times a day is kind of crazy.
You’ve written about how even going to a dog park can be healing.
In McCarren Park, there’s an 8am, kind of unofficial…everyone brings their dog and lets them off leash. I went to that park every morning for four years straight. I saw the same people every day. I am now friends with so many random families, people who are not in my demographic, because of that dog park. It gave me this connection to New York and this neighborhood that wasn’t ever possible for me. That was the most valuable thing that could have happened to me through the pandemic: I was actually part of a community.
You also mentioned that dogs can heal a relationship.
I think they can test a relationship. A dog is essentially another tension point. How do you communicate? How do you break down responsibility? For me, the dog represented a lot of questions I had around gender roles and how that would show up for us if we had an actual baby. For most couples I know who have adopted dogs together, the main two conflicts have been communication in terms of, “How do we parent this dog? How do we discipline them? How we make decisions about them?”
Are you now that person that tells everyone to get a dog?
Absolutely not. I think it depends on the person. But I would have never changed my decision, because she taught me more than any other tool in my life. And she’s given me more than any other tool in my life. However, I think it was kind of silly, honestly, for me to get a dog at that age, even in a partnership. I wasn’t being realistic about living in New York and being the age I was and wanting to do things.
Being a dog owner, for me, is one of the biggest honors, but it’s a responsibility I take so seriously. I’m going to tear-up now. When I first told my ex that he should take her, it wasn’t because I didn’t want her; it’s because I thought she could have a much better life. But I actually rescinded that and kept her because I love her so much. She’s a f*cking handful, but she’s so worth every single piece of work I put into her.
It is lovely that you just teared-up talking about her. That just says everything about you and everything about Ghost.
It’s overwhelming when you love anyone that much. They thrive on unconditional love, you know? I think that’s what I didn’t understand the first few years. Then I realized the best way to fast-track her growth and her maturity is to literally love on her as consistently and as much as I humanly can. I had a really intense childhood that was abusive and emotionally void. In some ways, her journey of becoming the dog she is has very much been aligned with my own journey. I think I found a dog that is exactly the same as me and has the exact same kind of anxiety and trauma background. And we’ve helped each other really move past and blossom out of that.
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Nisha Gopalan has been a writer/editor for The New York Times, New York magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and NYLON magazines. She currently resides in Los Angeles.