My lovely shepherd mix, ‘Bella’, had left us over six months earlier at the age of eight. Her illness progressed and we had to say good-bye. The hefty emotional toll numbed us for some time, but gradually I got the urge to start looking for an adoptable dog. After all, a dog trainer shouldn’t be without a dog for too long.
My husband was not keen on getting another dog, but I began to quietly look around. Volunteering at local shelters was a habit of mine, and I sought a high-drive, lean and leggy type that could be a real show-off for training demonstrations. Something fast and intense that would need exercise and a structured environment to thrive.
Then, the news broke. Michael Vick, then quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, was arrested for dog fighting. Not just dog fighting, but for running such a large operation on his Virginia property that the sheer acreage covered more ground than some Civil War battles, and for killing his unwanted dogs in hideous ways.
These news stories attracted comments from dog lovers that advocated creative and extreme forms of retaliation for the man who claimed these were “immature acts”. Dog lovers everywhere had that wild, thousand-yard stare, and cutting one off in the supermarket checkout line was instantly regrettable.
I wandered into our local Humane Society later that same week, where Vick’s arrest had everyone on edge. It was unusual to see so many puppies in the adoption room, and I eyed a fox-faced, dainty mix. But there was a new dog there, chesty as an Oktoberfest barmaid and clearly no puppy. You could serve dinner on his broad head. His white bib featured lopsided gray dapples, and he stamped his feet and smiled broadly when I walked in. From across the room, I could see he had big, round eyes, one partially blue, like an oversized, variegated marble. It did not take a breed expert to see he was some kind of ‘bully’ mix; a pit bull, bull terrier or American bulldog, and with a crazy eye to boot. This type of dog was in the spotlight, and not in a good way, because of the Vick case.
A shelter employee walked through and we chatted for a few. I assumed that people would line up to help this type of dog now, but the employee set me straight.
“Nobody is looking at him. Except, of course, the people that should not have him.”
To punctuate this, three young men strolled in, their pants belted across their crotches and tent-like shirts hanging to mid-thigh. As if auditioning for a Guy Ritchie movie, they sported chains, tattoos, shaved heads and one had an enormous gold marijuana leaf banging his chest from an oversized gold chain; perhaps a stoner’s ode to Flavor Flav. The employee rolled her eyes and hastily left. The dog danced and wagged at this intimidating group, and they cooed at him through the chain link of his run. The smaller dogs in the other runs sat back on their haunches and eyed these guys suspiciously, but not the big dog.
“He looks game!” one of them exclaimed. I turned on a big smile.
“Looking to adopt? Lots of great choices here.”
“Is he fixed?” asked Flavor Flav guy, looking me up and down.
“Of course,” I assured them. “The overpopulation of these breeds is what is killing them.” I was about to quote some statistics about pit bulls in shelters, but they walked away in disgust.
The employee came back. “Our standards for adopting these breeds are so strict, it will be nearly impossible to him to get out”.
I was acquainted with the interim shelter director, an affable and knowledgeable guy who was a valuable part of our Hurricane Katrina pet rescue team from two years earlier, when we all went to the Gulf coast and sweated like coal miners in 100 degree heat for a week. I complimented him on putting this breed of dog up for adoption, when many shelters would be reluctant to do so.
“Crazy story”, he said, leaning his large and muscular frame back in his chair. “Guy comes in to give him up, asks for the director, so they call me over. He drops at my feet, sobbing, and begs for the dog’s life. Tells me the dog is sweet, never abused, family pet, blah, blah. I assure him we will give him every chance, and he leaves. The dog is so upset that he escapes his run twice, and each time it takes us over an hour traipsing through the back forty to catch him.”
We discussed his chances for adoption in a room full of cute puppies and concluded he would be there awhile.
“This Vick thing doesn’t help either”, he said. “People assume he is a problem dog, so they pass him by.”
I offer to take the dog home for one night, train him, socialize him with neighbors, and write a story about him to put in the ‘featured dog of the day’ area.
“What’s his name?” I ask.
“Kilo. But we changed it to ‘Kudos’.”
‘Kudos’ rode home with me, calmly snuffling out the window. I called my husband with the plan, and his sigh was answer enough.
The dog really had his day at my house. He met neighbors, kids, a dog or two and took it all in stride, even posing for pictures. My plan was to show his ability to fit in with a loving family and all that entails. That night, he placed his massive head on my husband’s knee as his eyes drooped.
“You know”, Mark mused, “if I was looking for a dog, this would be the type of personality I would like”.
The door had cracked open, and ‘Kudos’ had wedged one paw in.
As promised, I took him back the next day armed with photos and a story in bold type. The staff put these on a large easel and featured ‘Kudos’ in the lobby for a week. I went back the next Saturday.
“Anyone looking at him?” The answer was negative. I informed my husband at home and got a thoughtful grunt. This went on for two more weeks and I saw the dog acquire some stress around his eyes and shed a few pounds. The director asked me to foster him again, and I agreed.
At home, the dog moved in as if it had been forever, and my husband began to pet his strong head when he thought I wasn’t looking. ‘Kudos’ wisely targeted Mark for cute displays of play and affection, and made us both smile. My wheels began to turn. I believed I could change people’s minds about these breeds because of my status as a dog trainer and good relations with news reporters. I began to throw these hints in Mark’s direction.
Three days later, Mark was taking a walk toward the beach and encountered our street’s sweet, elderly couple, the Wilson’s, moving slowly and carefully in the noon sun.
“Hey, we met your new dog!” the man told Mark. His wife beamed.
“Oh, no”, said Mark. “We’re just fostering him temporarily.”
After a short and awkward silence, the man straightened up a bit and cleared his throat.
“Mark, we may be of very advanced age, but we are not so old and decrepit that we don’t know that is your new dog.” Mrs. Wilson nodded and beamed.
Mark came into our house in a rush, slightly out of breath.
“Hey, the Wilson’s’ think ‘Kudos’ is our new dog!” he scoffed.
Another awkward silence. I willed my lip to tremble and eyes to mist.
I didn’t have to say a word.
“Oh, man.” Mark’s shoulders slumped.
“You won’t regret it!” I exclaimed. ‘Kudos’ wagged and danced and that was that.
I hurried back to the shelter and informed the director that I’d like to adopt ‘Kudos’. He gaped at me.
“You’re not pulling my leg?”
I laughed and assured him I was in my right mind. He flipped through the adoption papers and tossed about fifteen pages of releases, insurance forms, lengthy questionnaires and the like.
“Just sign and put your address here, I’ll fill in the rest.” Before I left, ten or twelve staff members came out to hug me, and then they hustled me out as if I might change my mind.
After much training and socializing, ‘Kudos’, renamed ‘Mac’ as befitting his manly countenance, became a model citizen, certified by the AKC and later becoming a TDI certified Therapy Dog. During visits to nursing homes, he rests his heavy head in the laps of wheelchair bound residents and stays that way as long as they wish it. So much for the intense ball of dynamite I had been seeking, but we’d soon find out that ‘Mac’ was fully capable of warp speed. More on his first days with me in my next post.