As a young child, I was strange. This may or may not come as a surprise. Adulthood has not made me less strange; it has simply made me more able to fight (some of) my weirdo tendencies, and more able to hide the fact that I am a total weirdo. More often than not I preferred the company of animals to that of other children when I was little. Even as a child, I had little use for children. I found it difficult to communicate with them, and especially challenging to bend them to my will. So any time I could sneak away from the neighborhood kids and hide out by myself like a bizarre little recluse talking nonstop to whatever mammal I could wrangle into my presence, that is precisely what I did. Most of the time it did not matter whether the mammal in question was alive or dead. We’ll get to that.
Our family has had dogs in one capacity or another for as long as I can remember. We had a huge black Lab named Trapper who lived mostly outside, a fact that I find appalling as an adult – dogs are not outside creatures. They are social animals whose driving desire in life is to be with their pack, you, their human family. This is something about which I feel very, very strongly, but I will refrain from ranting for now. My dad loves Beagles, and I remember at least one moronic Beagle dog in my very early days in Decatur, before my parents divorced. Sheba was her name, and she was sweet but dumb, as Beagles are wont to be. Some people would have you believe that Beagles are not intelligent, but those people are wrong. Although I just referred to them as dumb, do not be fooled into thinking that Beagle dogs are stupid. On the contrary, they are generally fairly smart, they just choose to completely disregard their own intelligence in favor of acting like complete fucking idiots. This makes them dumb. I have grown to conclude that there is something special about the Beagle Brain, some sort of unique wiring that lends itself to a profound idiocy that cannot be found in any other breed of dog. The brain of a Labrador Retriever is not dissimilar to that of a Beagle in that there seems to be some sort of unusual behavior in their neurological pathways that causes them to forget everything the have ever known or learned in the face of an enticing smell or any sort of movement by an unidentified animal/person/object/limb blowing in the breeze. The difference between a Lab and a Beagle is that the former lives to please its master, while the latter lives to serve its own broken brain.
When I decided to adopt a dog almost exactly six years ago, my one stipulation was that I did not want a Beagle. Under no circumstances would I adopt a Beagle. Out of the question. When I went to the shelter about an hour away from where my fiance and I lived, I knew that I wanted a German Shepherd mix. He and I were not in total agreement on this decision. We already had a six month old German Shorthaired Pointer, but our ideas about how to raise a dog and for what purpose were vastly different. He intended to make her into a hunting dog. As such, she was not to be a “pet” in the same way that most dogs are pets. Although we engaged in exhaustive discussions on the subject, I never fully grasped exactly what that meant. What was very evident, though, was that she was his dog. She loved me, but she thought the sun rose and set on him, and when there is a bond like that between a dog and its master, all other bonds pale in comparison.
Having had my own sweet girl Sugar put to sleep three years prior, I felt ready to take on the task of raising my own puppy again. My aunt and uncle had owned a string of German Shepherds and Shepherd mixes throughout my life, and Sugar had been a Shepherd mutt. They are a breed that I love, primarily because they are intelligent and obedient without being overly needy. Another fundamental element of the Labrador Brain and most similar breeds, including Pointers, is The Neediness. Good God in heaven, The Neediness. Dogs who whine all the time are not and will never be my cup of tea. I can.not.stand. a whining dog. This probably has something to do with my stimulation and sensory issues, the fact that it is disruptive to have some creature plaintively carrying on about the unfairness of life without the benefit of language. Obviously I am going to make an amazing mother when the time comes. German Shepherds bark at perceived threats, and they will whine, but my experience with them has been that the noise they make is negligible in comparison to other breeds. So I set about finding a German Shepherd mix to adopt.
When I arrived at the shelter, I walked up and down the Females side. In addition to having a certain breed in mind, I knew I did not want a male. Boy dogs are also not my thing. They pee on everything, they’re less cuddly, you can’t smack their fat puppy tummies in quite the same way as a girl dog because of the whole penis-having situation. There were several elderly dogs, lots of one-to-two-year-olds. While I was not looking for a brand new puppy necessarily, I also did not want an older dog or even a dog who was beyond six months of age. I anticipated it would be challenging to have two puppies in the house, and I knew that I wanted a dog who was young enough that she hadn’t developed a litany of bad habits or baggage. The shelter was a cacophony of barking and whining and the sound of chain link crate doors rattling. There are people in the world who go to animal shelters simply to “visit the animals” or “just to look”. Both of these are concepts that are completely beyond my comprehension. While I believe there is an argument that having people to interact with might be good for the animals’ well-being, to walk into a shelter with no intention of actually taking home one of the animals who is utterly desperate to have you take them home seems cruel. Not to mention the heartache and guilt that I would carry around for the rest of my natural life for not having taken them ALL home with me.
The girl who was assisting me was just slightly older than high school age, and I envied her in some ways. I often lament the reality that I didn’t pursue something related to animals as a profession, either becoming a veterinarian or a zookeeper or a professional snuggler of penguins and puppies. At the time, I was in college studying Psychology, and managing a bar where I was able to both put what I had learned at school to use and make all sorts of psychological observations. Bartenders and therapists are not so far removed from one another. While I was generally happy with the path I had chosen, I felt a nagging sense of being remiss in my life choices, as I often do when I contemplate that there are people in the world whose sole responsibility in their profession is to help animals in one way or another. Helper Girl wore khaki pants and a polo and she was no-nonsense, bossing me around liberally, even if I was a head taller and several years older than her. She briskly walked off to attend to important shelter business as I made my first trek down the Female aisle.
The concrete floor was damp with small pools collecting in some spots, remnants of routine cleanings of all the individual kennels. On either side of me was a row of kennels separated from one another by cinder block walls painted a soft yellow that was likely meant to be calming. The dirt and grime inherent in a shelter atmosphere dulled the original buttery yellow into a bleak, sallow noncolor somewhere between taupe and ivory. The doors to the kennels were solid on the bottom three feet, a flimsy tin-like metal. The top portion of the doors was made of chain-link and the doors towered seven feet high. On my first pass, I was unimpressed. Helper Girl appeared out of nowhere just as I was emerging from the aisle and hurriedly asked if I’d found anyone I was ready to take home. When it was clear that I was uncertain, she herded me directly into the Puppies Lounge, the special room where young puppies are housed. She had a German Shepherd mix in mind for me, and pulled the sleeping baby girl from her little crate. We went into the visiting room, but she was terrified. She clung to me, the way very young puppies often do. She was fuzzy and brindle and very sweet. Her paws suggested that she was going to be a bigger dog, which was what I wanted.
Making decisions isn’t my sharpest skill. In fact, sometimes decision-making is so taxing because there are so many choices that I take a stress nap to avoid it. Or I avoid it by diving head first into an embarrassingly large plate of food or container of ice cream or whiskey-infused cocktail. This is not my favorite attribute about myself. Research suggests that we are overwhelmed as a culture because choice has gotten out of control in our modern world, as has stimulation. Whether my crippling indecision is a byproduct of too many choices or faulty wiring, it is a skill that I continually try to hone. At this phase in my life, my awareness of my issues with indecision was primordial, and I mostly knew only that I grew uncomfortable in certain situations. I had stopped leaving carts in grocery stores for the most part by then, but making a decision about what dog to commit to for the next decade or so of my life felt big.
Before committing, I opted to take one more pass through the row of kennels just to make sure. On this pass, I saw a fuzzy little black-and-tan sweet old thing that I had previously missed. Although the dogs around her barked and wailed and whined, she was silent. She stared up at me, curious but calm. She had no name. I stared back at her and I knew that I had to at least spend some one-on-one with her just to see if we might hit it off. Helper Girl deposited us into a visitation room and I sat on the floor trying to engage this puppy whose primary focus was clearly the whereabouts of Helper Girl. The nameless puppy ultimately came around somewhat, though her interactions with me were still somewhat distracted. After we put her away and I visited the brindle again and snuggled her for a while, we headed up front where I could sign paperwork if I had made a decision.
For some reason, even though the brindle baby seemed to need me more, I opted for the nameless and quiet black-and-tan. They would send her to be spayed and I could pick her up at the vet in a few days. I walked out with a leash and food and instructions that appeared to have been composed on a typewriter and then reproduced through copies of copies of copies. They were vague and rooted in common sense, but I devoured them anyway. We had a low-key weekend as we often did, and on Sunday night the nasty monster that is Congratulations! You made a choice but it was probably the wrong one! open-palm slapped me in the temple and I spent over an hour crying at the terrifying possibility that I had chosen to rescue the wrong dog and my eternal soul was surely going to burn for this. My fiance spent Sunday night consoling me while trying to wrap his brain around the prospect of marrying such an unstable weirdo.
My mom was slated to go with me to the vet to pick up my new bundle of joy, and we laughed and talked on the hour-and-a-half drive. It was not often that my mom did this sort of thing with me, especially by this time of her life, and I reveled in the rare opportunity to spend time with her doing something out of the ordinary. The plan was for me to hold the pup on my lap while Mama drove us home. What I hadn’t noticed in my rushed whirlwind of five minutes with my new baby before Helper Girl had moved us along was that my nameless puppy was super skinny. Also, she smelled like the wet sludge in the bottom of a dumpster after a heavy rain, but not right afterward, more like when a midsummer sun has had the opportunity to braise it for a few days, but there was such a volume that it didn’t fully dry up. She smelled like decaying, rotten ass. And I had to hold her on my lap for the next hour and a half. Mom and I decided immediately that we would stop at the decent sized town twenty-five miles into the trip and pick up something with which to clean the abhorrent stench off this little mutt.
We got to town, and I took the newly christened Josie into PetSmart where I bought a couple of treats and a giant tub of doggy baby wipes, and we went into the bathroom so I could scrub her down at least enough to keep our gag reflexes in check for the rest of the trip. I handed her a bone to chew while I cleaned her up, and it was then that something else I hadn’t picked up about her came to light: she was extremely aggressive with food/treats. Kneeling on a cold and filthy tile floor in a pet store bathroom stall in a city where I didn’t live trying to eradicate the vile stank from this emaciated puppy who was trying to eat my fingers off every time I came near her brought racing to the surface every fear I had about having made the wrong decision.
What have I done?
I sat back on my heels for a minute, completely overwhelmed. Can I take her back? Surely they’ll take her back. I mean, I’ll eat the couple hundred dollars, but that’s fine, no big deal, it’ll be fine, they’ll hate me and I’ll probably be banned from adopting another dog ever again in the whole world. I’ll probably be registered as a deplorable jerkface in some database like the sex offenders registry or something. That’s fine. Possibilities flooded my brain, all of my hairs stood on end with anxiety, as Josie leaned her scrawny puppy body against the tile wall gnaw-gnaw-gnawing on her bone. Suddenly some instinct of assertiveness from my childhood of handling myself around ornery horses kicked in, along with the realization that she weighed a massive seventeen pounds and I was a grownass adult and I was going to take control of this motherloving situation. So I grabbed that bone, and when she snarled and her sharp little puppy teeth came at me, I grabbed her tiny snout and looked her directly in the eyes and seethed, NO! Then I held her foul little body against my thighs while I scoured her with more than half the container of puppy baby wipes.
When we got in the car my mom noted that now she smelled a little like baby-powder-scented feces, but that at least the drive wasn’t that much longer. Tired by this point, our conversation had waned and we listened to the radio quietly. Mom kept looking over at me. She would look at the dog, look at me, back at the road. Dog, me, road. Dog, me, road. Dog, me, road.
What’s the deal, woman? I asked
Ahem. My mom often cleared her throat to buy a second or two before saying something to me that she knew I didn’t want to hear. I hate to say this… She trailed off.
What? I was worried that maybe she noticed some defect I hadn’t seen, or that based on the happenings in the pet store bathroom she thought my brand new puppy was irretrievably aggressive.
Well. She cleared her throat again. Her head’s shaped an awful lot like a Beagle’s.
And my mom was right. Josie’s head was shaped an awful lot like a Beagle’s head because she is a Beagle. A mix albeit, but a Beagle nonetheless. She is also German Shepherd, so I sort of got what I had set out for, which I think is typical of life. We get some variation of what we thought we wanted. Ending up with her was exemplary of how imperative it is to never say never.
You’ll never adopt a Beagle? God asked, rhetorically.
Interesting. I bet you will. And I bet she will steal your heart and you will love her more than you thought you could love, especially in the face of tragedy and loss and heartbreak that threatens to render you bent and bitter. And I bet you’ll come to rely on her for solace and friendship and comfort, and I bet she’ll become one of the best dogs anyone has ever had. And she’ll be a lesson in loving unconditionally, even or perhaps especially when the object of your love pushes you to what feels like the very end of your sanity, when that love feels more like a grinding toil than a rewarding endeavor. She will be maddening and frustrating and still she will add value to your existence that you cannot even fathom, that you will continue to discover years after she has left your life. She will be – at times – the only thing that compels you to arduously drag yourself out of bed and choose to keep putting one foot in front of the other for one more day. She will be one of the greatest loves of your life.