A few months ago, Mike decides that we need another dog. We lost our beloved girl, Misty, in 2013, and he misses the energy of a house with two dogs. His first thought is of a puppy but after some discussion, we both agree that an older dog from a shelter will be the way to go. We want to provide a home for a dog in need. Also, our aging boy, Moose, is beginning to act like a grumpy old man and I know that a puppy in his face all day will drive the poor guy batshit crazy.
Then I stall. As much as I want to help a homeless dog, I do not want to adopt just yet. I want to make Moose’s remaining years as happy and peaceful for him as possible. I can see how much he relishes being an only dog. After Misty passed, he flourished. No more jealousy or anxiety. No more vying for attention and horning in when Misty was getting a few pats on the head. He is now doted on like a king, constantly on the receiving end of belly rubs, baby talk, and even some philosophical conversations about sticks and rubber balls. I will also admit that I like our routine, our morning quiet time and gentle walks. Moose is my best buddy and I don’t want him to ever feel insecure about that. I worry that a new dog will be disruptive and cause anxiety – for both of us.
I cannot stall forever, though. Mike comes home every night from work with tales of puppies he has met and rescue dogs he has seen being taken on their walks as he drove by the shelter.
“I saw a gorgeous Husky today,” he says. “We should look that one up online.”
“OK, after dinner,” I reply, hoping he will forget about it, knowing he won’t.
After dinner, he plops down in his easy chair and chirps, “So, can we look up that Husky?”
Private eye roll. Silent sigh.
I know Mike and his modus operandi. When he wants something, he will keep at it, wearing me down until I get so tired of talking about it, I give in. So, instead of listening to what could be weeks of “Can we? Can we? Huh? Huh?” I look up the pup on pasidaho.org.
I am prepared to be stoic.
The catalog of animals in the shelter is heartbreakingly large. Rows of snapshots captioned with names and breeds greet me as I click the Available for Adoption link. There’s Roscoe and Snoopy, Shep, and Sable. A lot of Australian shepherd mixes, a lot of American Pit Bull terriers (perhaps the most misrepresented and misunderstood breed on the planet). Then there’s Paisley. Listed as an Alaskan Husky mix, she is 2 years old. There is no photo, but Mike is sure she’s the one he saw. He brightens. She is still there, still available.
When I realize that I’ve been cooing over photos and clicking on faces to find more about every dog for twenty minutes, I close the page and divert Mike’s attention to something on TV. I must be strong.
That Saturday, Mike has an idea.
“Let’s go to a movie,” he says.
“Sounds great!” I respond, wondering at his sudden desire to do something outside the house.
It becomes clear as he adds, “And we can stop in at the shelter to look at that Husky.”
At the Shelter
We walk into the shelter not knowing what to expect. It’s near closing time, but the ladies behind the counter smile and welcome us in. The place is clean; the reception area is open and inviting. A large counter wraps around the right side of the room while two hallways lead to animal areas. There are socialization rooms with large windows. Inside one room, a Bernese Mountain Dog lies exhausted. The sign on the window reads, “Maya, Pending Adoption.” We give a little cheer and hello to Maya as we pass by on our way to the kennels.
Apart from the barks and yips coming from the kennels, the place reminds me of an elementary school. The kennels are divided into wards of about eight kennels each. For each ward, there is a door leading to the front of the kennels and another door for staff that leads to the back. Each ward has a sign listing the names of the dogs in big, brightly printed cartoon-y letters, notes on special restrictions or dietary needs, and lots of colorful paper stars and cut-outs. Each ward has some type of handwritten note like, “Ward 3 ROCKS!” It is this kind of touch that reassures me; these dogs are loved.
The animals are excited. It’s Saturday and they’ve had lots of visitors, lots of strangers coming by to “ooh” and “ah” at them, call them by their shelter name, and tell them how sweet they are. Each person who approaches could mean a release from their kennel, a chance to sniff at things, go outside, be a dog. They are yipping and barking for attention in a cacophonous uproar. I take my time with each. I read the shelter name on their kennel placard and I talk to every one. Mike goes ahead to search the wards for Paisley. I’m still in Ward 2 when Mike finds his Husky in Ward 4.
I admit, she’s a charmer. She’s leaning up against the bars of the kennel and soaking in the attention. I rub the side of her face through the bars. I stop and look at the gentleman of a yellow lab in the kennel next to Paisley’s. He is standing patiently, silently, with a drooling smile. His name is Rocky, and I am instantly in love with him, too.
“Hello, Rocky,” I say, “aren’t you the prettiest boy?”
A caterwauling erupts from Paisley’s kennel. “Not him, you idiots!” she is saying, “Me! Me, me, ME!!!”
Little do I know, this will be a theme. Little Miss Paisley is used to attention.
The Adoption Process
Three days later, we are back at the shelter, Adoption Application in hand. We do a meet and greet in one of the socialization rooms to make sure it’s a good fit for both dog and human, and we are impressed with Paisley’s training, manners, and how relaxed she appears to be. She is excited and intrigued, but mellow. She is smart, charming, and likeable. Mike asks what I think, what I want to do. He is leaving the decision to me but I can see his desire written on his face. He wants this dog. He is already picturing his life and hers intertwined. If she truly is as mellow as she appears, I convince myself that Moose will be OK. I will be OK. Words come out of my mouth, “Let’s do it.”
The process itself is simple. The dog is returned to the kennel while the paperwork is processed. The adoption agent at the front counter reviews the application, types information into the computer, prints out adoption paperwork for signatures, collects the fee, explains the package (complimentary vet visit, micro-chipping, etc.) and then makes an announcement over the paging system:
“May we please have Paisley to the front desk area? Paisley to the front desk, please.
She is going HOME!”
I choke up and tears moisten my eyes. Home. We are taking a very sweet girl home, giving a creature in need the chance for a happy life outside of a cage. But I am still thinking of Rocky, and Roscoe, of Scooby, and the others who remain. I am happy to be taking this girl, but I’m heartbroken for the ones I leave behind.
I cannot think about that now. I am about to have my hands very, very full.
The First Night
Crazy, pure and simple. When we first bring home our little bundle of energy, we know enough to introduce her to Moose on neutral territory, so we plan to have their meet and greet outside. It is already dark, but I recognize the black silhouette of our old, black, sugar-lipped Flat-Coat Retriever trotting out to greet us at the car. He is hungry. We are late for his dinner. He sniffs the new arrival and then looks at me as if to say, “OK, that’s over, now let’s go inside and eat!!” Little does he know that this white and silver thing is not staying outside and, more importantly, not going away.
After Moose eats, I take him for a walk while Mike helps the new girl acclimate. He walks her around the outside of the barn, gives her the grand tour, shows her where the food and water are, where she should do her business, and all the things you do to make someone feel welcome, belly rubs included (if that’s your thing). However, her excitement will not be contained. As soon as she has sniffed every room, she sprints the length of the barn until Mike and I are dizzy. She bounds. She leaps. She is drunk on freedom. Attempts to calm her are met with biting and obstinate refusal to listen. She is a wild woman.
“Did we just make a terrible mistake?” Mike asks as the dog pees on the rug and then proceeds to test her dominance over Moose by lunging at his face with shiny white fangs.
Perhaps we have made a mistake, but we have to give her a chance and remember that this is a new place, new routine, and new everything for her. I’d probably be acting a little nutty, too. Channeling Cesar Millan, I pretend to be “calm but assertive” although fear and – I admit – some regret well up inside of me like water coming to a rolling boil. Indeed, what have we done? Are we ready for this? Are we being fair to her? To Moose?
“What shall we call her? Do you want to stick with Paisley?” I ask Mike.
“How about Luna?” he responds, adding, “Short for Lunatic.”
“Perfect,” I agree. Her crazy behavior coupled with her moon-like coloring make the name stick. I also note that we may have been courting lunacy ourselves when we agreed to adopt a Husky.
That night, we walk her outside four times to help her get used to peeing outside. We play, help her and Moose get used to each other, and play some more. She pees again, inside. I write a haiku about it:
Day One, a haiku inspired by Luna:
Dog is not house-trained.
Changed socks four times in three hours.
Slippers are a must.
Neither Mike nor I sleep much, although when she senses it is bedtime, Luna crawls onto her bed and promptly goes to sleep. She is exhausted, as are we. Unfortunately, she does not sleep through the night. Sometime around two a.m., she poops in the barn.
The Painful Adjustment
I feel sick. I lose seven pounds in three days due to worry and upset about the upheaval at home. I’m worried about Moose and what we’ve done to his world. My old routines are obliterated as everything revolves around Luna. As Luna’s true personality unfolds, we see her manipulative nature and her obstinate refusal to listen and obey simple commands. She is fast and curious. She can snatch food off the counter in 0.002 seconds and have it eaten in half that time. She is an escape artist. She chases everything that moves. She still poops in the barn.
The next two weeks are chaotic as we all adjust to new routines and new issues. We build a 900-square-foot playpen. We put up barricades to prevent her from pooping in the barn. We walk and run her multiple times a day. Moose endures countless challenges and attacks. On several occasions, I am tempted to pack up Luna and drive her back to the shelter, convinced she must be in a one-dog family. I will put up with many things but attacking Moose is not one of them. Mike takes a “dogs will be dogs” approach and does not support taking her back, so I grit my teeth. I cry a lot. Moose looks at me with betrayal in his eyes, a look that says, “What have I done to deserve this? Can you please make it stop?” I apologize to him, and cry some more.
The Settling Dust
I continue to open my heart and home to Luna; I know this painful adjustment period is not her fault and she deserves our love, affection, and discipline. As the dust settles and we spend more time training and teaching her what we expect, she calms. She responds, sometimes. She stops attacking Moose (corrective action cures her of that) but she continues to be a bully and demand her way. Fortunately, Moose finds his voice again and lets her know when she’s pushing her luck.
Our home is now her home, and her classroom. We are teaching her the standards – sit, stay, come, lay down – and the living-in-the-country classics like “no chase” and “stay close.” Sometimes she listens, sometimes she literally digs her back legs into the dirt and adamantly refuses to move. We’re working on that.
As the days creep into weeks and Luna embeds herself into the fabric of our family, we know that the lady at the shelter was right: Luna has come home.
* * *
I write this little memoir to give anyone considering adoption an idea of how easy it is – and how hard it is. Perhaps my situation is unique but I imagine that there are many people out there who fantasize about opening up their home to a Luna or a Rocky or a Scooby, and perhaps have not considered what happens after you get your new family member home, how things you’d never think would be a problem suddenly are (e.g. Luna still poops in the barn!).
However, despite the challenges and difficulties, adopting a pet is one of life’s great rewards. Reaching into your heart and finding there the capacity to open it further to a creature in need of love and support is an act of compassion that will leave you marked forever.
From this experience, here are my lessons learned and what others might expect:
At the Shelter:
- Noise. Dogs will be clamoring for attention. There will be lots of barking, yipping, and yapping. Brace yourself!
- Stressed, scared, and/or excited dogs. Many will still be in the “What the hell is happening?” phase. Patience is key.
- Your heart will be stolen. How can you look into those beautiful eyes and come away with your heart intact?
- Meet & greet time may not be warm and fuzzy. Don’t expect the dog to be as into you and as devoted to your affection as it was when you came face to face through kennel bars. First, the dog will be too excited about getting out of its kennel to pay you much attention, unless you come bearing treats. There are plenty of things to sniff and, once they’ve sniffed you, you’re like furniture. Second, you are a stranger, not (yet) part of their family. They’ve probably had a lot of strangers come by every day since they’ve been at the shelter; they’re pretty drained.
- Meet & greet time with your dog may not be all that telling. Sheltered dogs may not be that into your dog, either, for the same reason they’re not that into you (yet). I took Moose to a meet and greet at the Priest River Animal Shelter and neither Moose nor his prospective house-mate did more than shrug at each other before heading off to sniff different things. Meet and greets are important, though, because even though you may not be able to determine if your dogs will be buddies, you will be able to determine right away if they’re going to be mortal enemies. Note, if you sense the dogs will not get along, I do not advocate the “dogs will be dogs” approach. That’s setting up everybody for some stressful situations and setting yourself up for a closer relationship with your veterinarian.
- Caring, supportive staff. Shelters are mostly volunteer organizations which means the staff are there for the love of animals. And, let’s face it, animal people are the best.
- Things get better, incrementally. Luna is curled up on her bed near my feet. We have had her for 19 days. She still tests our patience every day but she’s settling in and her energy is more and more often that of a calm, submissive, lovely dog. The good days now outnumber the challenging ones. But, well, with dogs – let’s face it – they’re all good days.
- Training, training, training. Dogs need time to adjust to their new environment, the new routines and new expectations. The only way they can be expected to know our expectations is to spend time training and teaching. Fortunately, dogs are exceptionally quick and agile learners. Giving Luna a chance to learn our routines and expectations helped her know how to behave. Does that mean she listens? Ha, no. She is a Husky, after all.
- And, last but not least: true love.