I don’t remember when I went from being scared of dogs to loving them. As a young child, I preferred my pet parakeet, Perry. He knew his own name, gave me kisses, rode around on my shoulder, and said “Birds can’t talk.” (Really.) A fear of dogs developed seemingly out of nowhere. By age 9, on a family trip to Finland, I cowered when a Newfoundland tied up at a gas station barked from across the street, and clung to the wall in the airport stairwell when I passed a drug-sniffing Labrador. The fear eased over time, and eventually I met the first dog I remember truly loving: my dad’s 2-year-old rescued Sheltie named Keksi (Finnish for “biscuit”).
In 2010 Keksi turned 12, and in the intervening years I had become obsessed. I took every opportunity to dog sit for friends, old and new. I met my dear friend Anne when she friended me on Facebook after a grad school Halloween party and I immediately began commenting on photos of her adopted dachshund, Coco, saying I would dog sit. My mom started sending me cards that had dogs on them and got me a magnet for my fridge, a Dachshund puppy to remind me that one day I’d have my own Coco (named Tallulah, obviously, but more on that below).
Adopting a dog was all I could think about. I wanted to extend my animal activism by giving a forever home to a shelter dog, and I also wanted a friend. For my birthday, my mom and I drove to the local shelter to make a donation and walk some pups. I hoped to make the dogs’ days a little brighter, and mine as well. I didn’t know how difficult it would be to walk away from all those barks, crossing my fingers that the little furry souls
would be rescued by caring families very soon.
I ached for a dog, and talked about it constantly. I finally had the time and resources to properly care for a dog and we had a whole house (with a fenced in yard!) for the first time in my life. The conditions seemed ideal. My step dad Dan, a former caretaker of many Dalmatians, liked the idea of having a dog around the house again. My mom worried about the shedding, the noise, and the poop. I promised I would be responsible for everything. Even the poop.
I visited the Adoptable Dogs webpage so often I’m sure I caused a spike in the shelter’s web stats. I fell in love with adoptable friends as fast as they came in…and got adopted by someone else. I was especially on the lookout for smaller, female dogs. I wanted a dog like Keksi or Coco, small enough to make traveling easier, quiet and sweet. I wanted my Tallulah. My mom made a deal with me: we could think about it in November, after I flew back to New York to defend my thesis.
On October 26, 2010, two days before my flight, I came downstairs in the morning to find my mom browsing the shelter website. There were a few dogs listed, including Denny, a 2-year-old black lab mix with a big smile. He was described as energetic, and needing 2-3 walks per day. He loved his ball and could sit and shake. He needed a stable home with lots of opportunity for exercise. Lots. My mom said she liked him and had said so the day before. It surprised me; a Lab is a big dog, something neither of us really wanted. He was so different than the Platonic image of “my dog” that I didn’t consider him for a second. I continued to whine (yes, I’m sure I whined at age 25! I wanted a dog that badly) and my mom suggested I go out to the shelter since I had the afternoon off. Just visit, pet, and walk some dogs, and in a few weeks we can start looking more seriously. Get some puppy love for the day, get through the very important week, and then we can think about it.
At the shelter, I filled out the necessary forms to look at the dogs (I’ll admit I told them I was thinking about adopting). Loud, deep barks echoed behind the door to the kennels. In the long, concrete block dog room, I only saw two dogs available to adopt, a small black puppy with floppy ear and white paws, and Denny, from the website. He was the one making all the noise. I flinched at his yelps, and went back out front to ask the volunteer if I could look at the puppy. “She’s a stray,” she said, “and she just came in yesterday. We have to wait a week to see if anyone claims her before she can go up for adoption.” I was disappointed, and really didn’t want to consider Denny. He was so loud. But – and everything hinges on this – I asked to see him anyway so he could have a walk and some one-on-one human companionship.
The volunteer put Denny “on hold” until closing at 4, and later that afternoon, after a lot of frantic calling, Dan and I were back at the shelter, taking Denny for another (much calmer) walk, and calling my mom for final permission. She will never let me live down my famous words upon petting that thick Lab fur and looking at my hand: “He barely sheds!” Those words will continue to haunt us all as we vacuum the house and think, didn’t we just do this yesterday?
While we waited, the shelter manager told us Denny’s story. As a puppy, he’d been chained up in his yard most of the time and was given up he was “a bad dog,” getting into mischief whenever he was let in the house. His second family chained him as well, and the full grown 60 lb. dog, not knowing what to do with himself, would jump his chain, get out of the yard, and run around the town and along the highway. When someone found him, it took hours for his family to return the calls. They never looked for him. Finally, they gave him up. The shelter manager told us Denny wouldn’t look us in the eye, was antsy and wild, because he had never bonded with a human, even though he’d had two families. We later found out my mom’s hair stylist had once let him into her salon and given him water. This is not the saddest story to be told about shelter pets, but almost three years on the other side of the adoption, thinking what might have happened to my best friend feels personal, crushing, and hopeless. I will never forget Dan telling the shelter manager that we’d take him, and knowing that everything had changed.
Of course, we weren’t planning on getting a dog that day! It was excruciating to leave him there overnight. We headed to Target and the local pet store for a shopping spree I’ll never forget. My heart was bursting with joy and love at saving an animal that, little did I know, would save me. I picked out a collar and leash, a harness, food and water dishes, a bed, and a crate. And, a new name.
Denny, almost three years later, now goes by Jasper (Jas, Jazz-man, J.J., the Jasperwocky, Pookie, Snuggle Bear, etc.). Now I must reveal the depth of my dog obsession: the name was pulled from a list of potential dogs names I’d kept for years on my computer, including Tallulah. Jasper is the name of the black cocker spaniel in Daphne DuMaurier’s book Rebecca and the Hitchcock film of the same name, which had been my favorite movie since I was a pre-teen. Jasper is also the name of one of my favorite young students from Germany, as well as a beautiful mineral that occurs naturally in northern Michigan, where we lived. It was perfect.
After Jasper’s first (infuriating) walk in our neighborhood, I snuck him down into my basement room so we wouldn’t disturb the cleaning lady, whose job was about to get furry. I showed him his bed and blanket, in which he had no interest, and allowed him to hop up on my bed with me. For a minute, I wondered what I had done. Jasper was so different than I imagined. He was not the Tallulah I had dreamed about, a dainty lady friend I could carry when I needed, though I have since carried him rather a lot – sometimes a muddy dog needs to get through a clean house to the bathtub. He was a true boy, all snips and snails and a big otter tail. He was boisterous, energetic, and loud, a spinning top. He seemed like he belonged with someone in an L.L. Bean catalog who would put on flannel and boots and take him bounding through marshes and rivers.
Looking back, it’s hard to remember Jasper not being a seamless part of our lives, but there was so much to learn. Walks were a nightmare for a long time, even with the harness. Boy, is he strong! (A Gentle Leader and adding running to his routine finally made the most difference). It took us a few months of periodic vomiting to find a food that worked well for him. He bolted out the front door many times (and once came back when we enticed him with a walk. I never claimed he was smart). We learned the hard way, what seemed like a hundred times, to keep food put well away or on top of the fridge. Especially sweets. He lusted after our parakeet Perky and banged on his crate in the middle of the night. But he also loved us and wanted to be near us. One paw up on the chair always turned into a snuggle session with a 60 lb. lap dog before you knew what had happened. He got dirty, he got sick, he got limber tail and ticks, he jumped on people, he barked himself silly, and it was not easy. But it felt easy, because love is easy.
I walked him at 5am in the bitter Michigan winters before student teaching every single day. In the darkness I felt as an adult moving back in with her parents, Jasper was the light that got me to explore new and old places, get outside, and make new friends. He became what I needed: another being to put above myself, a source of unending love and loyalty who waited outside the bathroom while I showered and pawed at my bedroom door when I went downstairs, for even just ten minutes, reminding me that what I did mattered and I had made a difference. I saved him, and he saved me. We saved us.
Megan Eaton lives in Brooklyn and dreams of owning a home with a big yard full of rescued shelter dogs. She is thrilled to be writing for Mighty Mutts. Don’t shop, adopt!