Monday, July 10, 2006

In praise of second hand dogs

Or, in this case, third-hand dogs.

That beauty you see up there is Emma.

She was originally a stray, found in Maine at about six months old, severely underweight. She would, the shelter thought, eventually be 50 or 60 pounds. (oops!) She was adopted by a lovely young family - we'll call them the Millers, though that's not their name - who already had one big dog, a 100 lb. shepherd/chow mix.

Fast forward three years. She's grown a lot, and the Millers have had a young son, one with a mix of complicated medical problems which require essentially the whole family to move into the hospital for weeks at a time. Emma's left alone too much and the Millers, who love her, decide to find a family that can spend more time with her.

Enter us.

My husband didn't grow up with pets. (He's from China; they don't do that.) Years ago, as a clueless but enthusiastic young family, we adopted a puppy. When we had a toddler. The day after we moved into our new house. It wasn't smart. He was, I believe, the best-natured dog in the world; he'd let kids do literally anything to him. And he would have burst his bladder rather than have an accident in the house. But that was pretty much the extent of his training; we had neither the time nor the skill to do more, and he thought "come" was the name of that great game where he ran headlong down the street while his family chased him.

My husband, Matt, never really recovered from having his house and clothes puppy-wrecked. "No more dogs," he said.

Fast forward a few years. If there was ever a little boy in the world who wanted, and needed, a dog, it was our youngest. All of the kids worked on Matt. Helen Brenna, bless her, let us dogsit her dog Ebby, AKA the best dog in the world, for a week, and he allowed as how she was pretty fun to have around.

This winter was a difficult for one for us. Our oldest two children were battling serious illnesses. We needed something to cheer us up. An adult dog, I told my husband. It could work. The kids would love it.

I found an ad for Emma by sheerest chance, and something about it struck me. We went to visit. Too big, I thought immediately. (She was 98 pounds.) But she barely barked when we came to the door, and when I sat down on the floor, she flopped right down next to me and stayed there. She was obviously mostly black lab; what else was anyone's guess, though Newfoundland, Rottweiller, and German Shepherd seem to be the most frequent. (The vet merely shrugged at my question and said: "well, certainly nothing ugly!")

Okay, my husband said. She doesn't jump, and she doesn't chew, so this could work. We had to go through a couple of interviews, two home visits to get her. There were other families interested. But there was a connection between us and the Millers; we both understood what it was like to have gravely ill children, and his father had fought lymphoma ten years ago, as one of our sons was doing.

So Emma came to live with us in March, and she's been the brightest spot in a very long winter. It is so much EASIER than a puppy! She's not perfect, of course. She hadn't much practice on a leash, and we're still working on that. "Come," which she responds to 90% of the time, gets quickly ignored if there's a duck or deer in her sights.

But those are minor points in what has been a truly wonderful experience.

She curled up with my son when his treatments made him feel crappy. She chases away the nightmares that plague my youngest. She is mellow in the house but thrilled when it's walk time - if we're not speedy enough getting ready, she tries to put the leash on herself.

We live in a great walking area, threaded with miles of paths that wind through forest and meadows, alone wetlands and small lakes. We rarely used them. I diligently avoid cardio of any kind.

But Emma and I walk every morning. It's become my sanity; it gets me out there, in the fresh air, and moving. I'm enjoying watching the land change, the flowers that seem to bloom and disappear overnight. We've seen a bald eagle, a wild turkey, more deer than I can count. Once, the frogs were so loud in the marsh you had to shout to be heard. Emma's lost ten pounds with the additional exercise. I, who have walked 95% of those miles with her, have not lost an ounce. But I've gained a lot.

Once, on a particularly gorgeous evening, my husband and I and our youngest were walking down by the lake, watching Emma paddle after a tennis ball. "You know," my husband said, "if we hadn't gotten Emma, we wouldn't be out here. We'd be home, with the kid in the basement playing games, and you and I in separate rooms trying to get some work or other done.

"She's the best thing we ever did."

He insists, despite our son's teasing, that he doesn't love Emma. He just likes her a lot. But when he doesn't think anybody's listening, he calls her "honey."


Helen Brenna said...

Well, Susie, sounds to me like Ebby's got some competition for that "Best dog in the World" title!

I'm so glad you found Emma and she found you. And if you ever need me to reciprocate on dog sitting ... wait a minute ... 3 dogs and 3 cats? Oh, what the heck! Call me.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Susie, I love your dog story! We had to put our 13-yr-old Cisco down recently, and it was so hard. Clyde says "no more dogs." When we were first married, dogs in the house was definitely one of our differences. It was not done in his world then--certainly cultural but also a matter of having no room. I soon won out, and we've had dogs in the house. But Cisco was THE one. I've carefully suggested maybe not a puppy, but an adult dog might be a consideration??? So far I'm getting the deaf ear. But Emma's story makes it so tempting!

Helen Brenna said...

Hey, Kathy, wanna borrow Ebby?

anne frasier said...

what a wonderful story, susan.
thanks so much for sharing it.

Susan Kay Law said...

I remember Cisco! I'm very sorry. But thirteen good years is a lot; we'll be lucky to get her so far.

My husband now goes: "why would anyone ever get a puppy, when you can get a grown up dog like this?"


Anne McAllister said...

Susie, aren't dogs like Emma wonderful? We have had several -- including the trio we have now. But our first, lobbied for when our youngest was 11, was absolutely God's gift to our family. And one night after we'd had AJ for several months, our youngest came into our room and said, "See, I told you a dog would improve the quality of life around here!"

Betina Krahn said...

Wow, what a story, Susie! Makes me want to go straight out and find another dog... which would probably cause my family to start committment proceedings. And how wonderful to know that adopting an adult dog can be so rewarding. I've always expected to start with a puppy, but now I'm reconsidering. Thanks and best wishes to you and your family!