A Very Special Dog

I saw them come in the front door of the shelter where I volunteer – a skinny older woman, maybe 50, with lank blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Her companion was a younger woman, dark hair, maybe early twenties, also in jeans, her sweatshirt bearing the logo of the local community college.

“We’re here to see Zeke,” the older woman said to the front door greeter.

I was instantly alert. Zeke was an 85 pound black Lab, a gorgeous dog, perfect in every way. Yes, he had heartworm, for which the shelter was treating him, and yes, when he had come in a few weeks ago, captured as a stray by one of our animal control officers, his right eye was so damaged it had to be removed. The fur around the missing eye had been shaved, the paler circle highlighting the wound which had been stitched shut with purple thread.

But he was a dream. When I had walked him he ambled along with the leash slack, pausing to pee and poop for so long that it was clear he’d been holding it, evidence that he was probably housebroken. The only difficulty was that, not yet used to his missing eye, he kept veering to the right, bumping into my legs.

The shelter’s executive director, Kerry McBride, loves Labs (she has a huge brown one, Buster), and was fostering Zeke while he recovered from his injury and illness. She said he was ideal: housetrained, as I had suspected; friendly with people and great with Buster.

And now, here were these two women, wanting to see him. I admit that I looked at them with keen appraisal. This dog had been through so much and was so exceptional that I felt only the perfect adopters would do. Like, maybe, the Queen, the Pope or the President – as an old friend used to playfully describe the caliber of guests worthy of a particularly fancy meal I had made.

I introduced myself to the women as a volunteer, and offered to get Zeke for them. He was spending the day in Kerry’s office. They seemed excited as I showed them into a meet and greet room.

Kerry looked up when I went to her door. Zeke was lying on the big red dog bed with Buster. I told her about the two prospective adopters.

“Are they okay?” She looked apprehensive.

“I don’t know anything. I just met them.” How to say it without sounding snobbish? “But they look – pretty ordinary.”

“I’ll want to talk to them,” she said. “This is a very special dog.”

I took Zeke and led him into the room where the two women were waiting.

When the older woman saw him, with his purple-stitched eye cavity, her face crumpled and she began to cry. “Oh, God love him,” she said. “The poor baby.”

I tried to reassure her. “He’ll be okay. He’s getting good care here.”

The young woman reached out for Zeke and he went to be patted. The older woman took a tissue from her purse (tacky purple vinyl with a frayed strap, I noticed) and dried her eyes. When she had composed herself, she asked, “Do you think they can lower his adoption fee?”

I bristled a little at that, but punted the question. “That’s something you can ask the adoption counselor,” I said. “I’ll leave you to get acquainted.”

Outside the room I ran into Fiona, the head of adoptions. “What do you think?” she asked in her lilting Scottish accent.

“I don’t know. They asked about discounting his adoption fee.”

She shook her head. “We’re not going to bargain for this dog. He deserves people who are willing and able to give him the best.”

It would be up to her to ask the hard questions and approve or deny the adoption. Glad not to have that responsibility myself, I went back to the office area. I was working on color posters that we put on every kennel gate to present each dog in his or her best light and attract adopters. Coincidentally the pet profile next on my list was Zeke’s; it had a big picture of him lying on the red bed in Kerry’s office.

A short time later, Kerry came over to the desk where I was working. “I just went to talk to the people looking at Zeke,” she said. “They’re a mother and daughter. I couldn’t get much from them.” She shook her head, her expression frustrated. “I asked them if they’d had big dogs before and they said yes. That was all, nothing more. I asked the daughter – because that’s who would have Zeke; she has her own place and is going to school – ‘Where would Zeke stay during the day while you’re in classes?’ She said, ‘In my apartment.’ When I asked her how long she was away on a typical day, she said, ‘All day, but I’d come home for lunch.’”

This job can make you cynical. We see so many people unprepared for the responsibility of caring for a dog; they’ll promise a daily walk, no unsupervised hours alone outside, a secure fenced yard, lots of quality time, and so on and so on. And then the dog gets picked up running stray, or returned to the shelter. Would a nineteen year old college student really come home every day at lunch to take Zeke out? Would she get up in the morning in time to give him a good walk? How about evenings – would she put him before her social life? Thinking about myself at her age, I had my doubts.

Kerry went on, “What I really wanted to hear was, ‘We had our wonderful dog for 15 years and when he died we endowed a major veterinary clinic in his name.’” We both laughed at that.

Then I said, “I guess we could tell the daughter, ‘It sounds like your life right now might not be set up to deal with the needs of a dog like Zeke, with his heartworm and his eye. And his size, and need for exercise.’”

She nodded. “Fiona’s talking to them right now.” She went back to her office.

About half an hour later, Kerry reappeared. “It’s going to work out,” she said, smiling broadly. “They’re great. The mother has a big Lab, too, and can take Zeke on days when the daughter is extra busy. They really seem to love him.”

“I’m so glad!” I said. I took the color poster of Zeke that I had just printed out. “I bet they’d like to have this.” I brought it out to the lobby where the women were sitting on a bench, Zeke leaning against their legs. When I gave the poster to the mother – since the daughter was holding Zeke’s leash with one hand and patting him with her other – she exclaimed with delight, “Oh, it’s precious! We’ll frame it.”

Fiona was at the front desk entering their information into the computer. I gave her the poster to put in their adoption packet.

“They’re going to be fine,” she whispered. “They love him. My first impression of them was wrong.”

“Mine, too,” I admitted, and we were both quiet for a moment. I thought that maybe, like me, she was feeling humbled by how close we had come to making a mistake that could have hurt this dog’s chances for happiness.

The women were beaming as they got their photo taken with Zeke. He was hugged and kissed by multiple staff members and volunteers. At last he left the building, walking between mother and daughter, every now and then veering slightly to the right to bump into the daughter’s legs. She smiled and reached down a hand to pat and guide him.

I had assumed – maybe we all had — that the ideal adopter for Zeke would be exemplary in every way, educated, successful, maybe exuding an aura of affluence that would assure us all that Zeke would want for nothing and, as Kerry joked, would have a vet clinic endowed in his memory on some day in the hopefully distant future.

But the best predictor of a good home, I reminded myself, is love. And on that count, it seemed that the Queen, the Pope or the President couldn’t have offered more than these two women.

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