We're admitted dog lovers over here, only we're not insane about it. I mean, we don't feed them people food or dress them up or anything like that. But the Friends of Memphis Animal Services has a Facebook page where they regularly post pictures of cats and dogs available for adoption, and they hooked me. I saw a picture of a puppy's face that said to me, "I'm out here waiting for you."
My father's name was Sam, but that doesn't necessarily make me the "Son of Sam" unless I begin to listen to the canine voices in my head. So, I reposted the picture instead, with the suggestion that "someone needs to go out and grab this little girl up." Only, no one did. I followed the dog's progress for a couple of weeks, but there were still no takers. Melody and I already have two adopted dogs; only they adopted us. We didn't have to go anywhere or do anything. Each dog just wandered up and decided to stay, so we certainly weren't looking for another. But the days continued to pass with the pup still in the pound until we began to become concerned about the animal's well-being. We decided to drive out to the shelter and look at the dog with the understanding that if it were skittish or sick, we would leave it alone. Guess who has a new puppy.
The new shelter is clean and attractive, but when we approached the front desk and inquired about the dog, they didn't know what we were talking about. We were told by a stoic civil servant whose job reeked of political patronage that we needed to ask one of the volunteers about any particular dog whose photo appeared online. I turned in search of such a person and saw a large cage against the lobby wall with the floor coated in The Commercial Appeal. A sign on it read, "Pet of the day," and there was the puppy, looking into my eyes and telepathically transmitting, "So, you've finally come." I said to Melody, "This is our dog."
A volunteer spotted us ogling the dog and informed us that she happened to be on sale that day. When we carried the pup outside and placed her on the ground, she reacted as if she had never seen grass before. She was thin, but not malnourished, and had been spayed and given her first shots, only she was filthy from living in cages. The kindly woman volunteer said that if we agreed to adopt, she would give the dog a bath and a pill that kills all fleas immediately. Melody and I exchanged looks and said, "Get out the bath salts, this baby's going home with us."
When asked what kind of dogs I have, I usually say "a black one and a white one," since they are of indeterminate ancestry. Both males, the black dog, Steve, looks like a Lab/hound mix with a sway-back and a bum leg. Jack, the little one, resembles the love child of a rat terrier and a Chihuahua with a bad disposition. We named the new pup Nancy, after a dear friend, because they're both so sweet. Steve immediately claimed her as his girlfriend, which was just as well since Jack, the alpha with a little man complex, refused to look at her. Nancy stared disbelieving at all that backyard to wander, but she could still barely walk and walked as gingerly as a chicken on a hot-plate. After a pet store run, some puppy food, and a couple of chew toys, we sat back and watched her come alive.
Melody is the Dog Whisperer of this family and had the pup house-broken in a week. Since the puppy never suffered abuse, she fortunately doesn't have any emotional issues, unlike Steve, who bows up like a camel at the sight of a fly-swatter, or Jack, whose chronic licking has caused his paws to resemble stigmata. Nancy did have one bad habit, and I'll put this as delicately as possible. Because she was underfed at the shelter, she developed an untenable interest in the other dogs' leavings. Nobody wants a shit-eating dog. Melody solved the problem instantly and enterprisingly by sprinkling the poop with red-pepper flakes. Nancy is now back on her puppy-food diet.
It's been awhile since I raised a pup, and I had forgotten that the reality is far more taxing than the fantasy of doggie kisses and belly-rubs. Melody compared it to raising an infant: It is either asleep or needs constant attention. The rough play and growling noise of the pup playing with Steve is constant and nerve-racking, because you're never sure when it's getting serious. Jack, the little dog, keeps looking at me as if to ask, "What have you done? Everything was fine!" But after a week or so, everyone seemed to be adjusting well, and as soon as the puppy calms down in five years or so, we'll have a peaceful home once again. I should amend that last statement by saying everyone is adjusting well except me. It's because I had completely forgotten the teething phase, and although we got the puppy some twisted ropes, rubber balls, and squeaky toys, it's my right arm that looks like a Nylabone. I've been instructed to be more alpha with the dog and shout "no" and put her down when she starts biting my arms and hands, but she's so adorable that I'd just as soon go ahead and suffer. As for barely walking when she got here, you should see Nancy run now. I believe I might even have a Frisbee dog in a month or so. Melody and I agree, however, that perhaps it's better for older people to adopt older dogs.
Not everyone is emotionally equipped to care for a pet. It really depends on the human. The shelter mainly takes in three types of dogs: strays, unwanted litters, and animals whose owners have surrendered them. Every time a dog makes the news for being stuck in a pipe or rescued from any precarious situation, people's hearts are touched and they scramble to adopt that particular animal. The dogs at the shelter don't make the news, unless there's a personnel scandal involved. They're not pure-bred or show quality yet equally deserving of love and care. It requires patience, equanimity, and a combination of discipline and reward, rebuke, and praise. Did I mention love? If you can handle that, you'll be rewarded tenfold and discover that the love and loyalty of a dog can add a dimension to life that is immeasurable. I implore you to make the drive to the shelter. It's easy to find. Just tell one of the volunteers that you would like to see the pets available for adoption, and try not to have pre-conceptions. There is such a variety of handsome animals that you won't even have to worry about finding your dog — your dog will find you.
Randy Haspel writes the "Born-Again Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.