Lifers, Part 3: Sweetpea: Love at Last

Home free!

Home free!

“You’re not going to believe who adopted Sweetpea,” Becky, Northside Animal Shelter’s adoption supervisor, said to me. “Look at these pictures.”

I took the iPad from her and swiped through the photos, hardly able to believe what I was seeing. There was Sweetpea, the wildest dog in the shelter, a spring-loaded large Lab/pit mix who jumped and barked and pulled mercilessly on the leash. The photos showed her in one of the meet-and-greet rooms with a frail-looking elderly lady. The woman was elegant with gray hair neatly styled and the attire of a well-to-do matron: shocking-pink tailored jacket, chunky string of pearls against a black shell top, crisp white pants, black patent leather shoes.

I scrolled through the pictures, with Becky looking over my shoulder and commenting. “They just fell in love,” she said. “Look at the way they’re looking at each other.” Sweetpea had her face tilted up to the lady’s and their eyes were locked in apparently rapt communication.

“And look at these,” Becky said. She swiped through a sequence that showed the lady sitting on the tiled ledge that formed the seat in the visiting room. Sweetpea was beside her, lying full length on the ledge with her black head on the woman’s white pants, fast asleep, in frame after frame. The woman’s ringed hand, the knuckles swollen with arthritis and the nails beautifully manicured, rested protectively on the dog’s side.

“She could have slept like that all afternoon,” Becky said.

I was full of questions. Sweetpea was one of the longest residents at the shelter, one of the sad group I had nicknamed “the Lifers.” Volunteers and staff had worked with her and an outside dog-trainer had even been hired, all in an attempt to help her learn manners that would make her more adoptable. Sadly I had seen no change as a result of all these efforts.

“Can that fragile lady handle her?” I asked. “Won’t Sweetpea knock her over and break her hip?”

Becky was convinced that there was nothing to handle. With this woman, she assured me, Sweetpea was a different dog, calm and gentle.

“But what about walking her?”

“She won’t need to. She has a fenced yard.”

I pondered all this. “Here I had been thinking,” I said, “that the only hope for this dog was some young, strong guy who would wear her out with running for miles beside his bicycle, and train her like a drill sergeant.”

“I thought the same thing,” Becky said. And then she added, “She’ll be going home tomorrow.”

This was Friday, my last shift at the shelter for the week. Before I left the main building to go back to the wards to walk dogs, I went to say good-bye to Sweetpea. She sprang up when she saw me and as usual barked and lunged at the glass door of her kennel, and kibble from her overturned bowl skittered out under the gap beneath the door.

“It’s okay, girl,” I told her. “I see now, you just needed love, and to feel safe. Glad nobody relied on me to decide what was best for you.”

I reflected that I never would have dreamed of introducing this dog to that woman, and if the lady had insisted, having perhaps seen and liked Sweetpea’s profile on the shelter’s website, I might have discouraged her. Thus, though with the best intentions, I could have obstructed one of those serendipitous matches we all hoped for, that this dog had waited so long for. (That it was a happy adoption was confirmed a few weeks later, when I saw on the bulletin board near the break room a photo of Sweetpea cuddling on a couch with a young girl; the note pinned below the picture said, “She’s settling in so beautifully. Here she is with my granddaughter. We all just love her.”)

The realizations about the limitations of my understanding were coming hard and fast, just like the barking and bashing on the other side of the glass.

“You be happy in your new home,” I told Sweetpea. Then I turned away and went off to learn from my four-legged teachers what dogs so often know better than we humans: that nothing — not age or health or status or behavior or past rejections — matters when love is real.

Next: Book Review: Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey

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