I lost my first best friend, Alex, today. Alex was 15 and had been there for me through some of the biggest and lowest moments of my life. For at least two years, though, she had been struggling with arthritis in her back legs that progressively worsened. As of this morning, she could no longer lift herself up to walk around.

I never knew a dog could impact my life so deeply. We got Alex in May 2000 when I was 12 after my aunt Jan found her tied to a pole with no food in water in Houston. Aunt Jan brought her back to my grandpa’s house Memorial Day weekend when Mom and I were visiting. I begged and pleaded Mom for us to take her home. Finally, she agreed.

Alex quickly became by other half. She was there when I had few friends and through high school when I was too awkward and shy to talk to people to make friends. So many nights I spent in the backyard with Alex nearby tossing a tennis ball against the fence pretending to be the next star pitcher in the Major Leagues. Alex never missed an opportunity to steal the ball and run around the yard as I chased her demanding she give it back.

I’ll always remember walking home from school—or driving when that point came—and she’d meet me at the back gate looking through her peep hole, tail wagging, and eagerly jumping when I walked in to greet her. She would always run for her squeaky bone and make it squeak over and over again, as if it was her way to say, “Welcome home! Now play with me!” She was always such a happy dog who always knew how to brighten a day. She was there for me when I first asked a date to the high school golf banquet junior year, which I happened to do in the backyard of my house––she actually gave me a high-five after I told her the girl said yes; when I went through my first real break-up; and when my grandpa passed away shortly before high school graduation.

I’ll never forget the times in high school when I would skip class and hide in her doghouse––a huge, custom-built house that my grandpa made––while I waited for Mom to leave so I could get back inside and go to sleep. Alex would lie in front of the doghouse, almost as if she was protecting me from getting caught.

There was a time in her younger days when Mom and I could have sworn she learned to open the backyard gate so she could get out and run the neighborhood. That often led to hours of chasing her, yelling at her to stop, only to see her bolt into a neighbor’s yard or into a busy intersection, as we feared the worst. She always caved in and allowed us to catch her after she had enough.

I’ll never forget after I accepted my first full-time job I sat down with her on the deck in the backyard and talked to her about my fears of moving away and of starting my own life. She sat there patiently as I spoke, wagging her tail, and looking at me with her calm, brown eyes, as if to say, “It’s all going to be OK. I’ll take care of things at the house, you go on and experience new things.”

Though I moved away in 2010, there was one thing I could always count on when I returned: Alex standing at the back gate, looking through her peep hole, welcoming me home.