It was a subtle shift from, “I’m not ready for another dog,” to, “We’ll take him.”
On the drive to the dog shelter I stated out loud to JC what I had just confirmed via text to a friend: Not ready.
“We’re just going to have a look,” said JC.
We spent the afternoon with three different rescue German Shepherds. The first was Mel, a nine month old pup with all the classic GS looks—huge pointy ears, black saddle, light tan undercoat, giant paws.
“He’s a bit mouthy,” Diane, the shelter owner, said. “The family that surrendered him said he nipped at them when they put his food down. They have grand kids and didn’t want to take a chance. He’s only been here a week, but I haven’t seen it yet.”
She handed over the leash. “There’s a trail that goes up the hill there, take him for a walk.”
I wrapped Mel’s leash around my wrist and started for the dirt path. Chilly wind blew us forward and brown grass, stunted from the winter, crunched beneath our feet and paws.
“C’mon buddy,” I said as if we were already fast friends. His strong GS head looked back to the kennel as he strained to turn us round towards the pack he left behind. I tugged his leash and pushed on for the top of the hillside.
At the overlook I knelt down to pet Mel’s head, his neck, his back. He would not offer his belly and his mouth opened and closed in pursuit of a hand or a wrist. Once in a while he clamped down, not hard enough to break skin but enough to beg going home. What the hell am I doing here and who am I kidding anyway? I missed my old dog.
Mel lay on his side and pawed at us. We agreed he was just being playful, still very much a puppy. Mel was handsome with striking ears and brown eyes, everything I once knew. But I was unmoved.
“Should we turn around?” I was not asking.
Inside the kennels we lingered with Mel in his dog run. I chucked a couple of tennis balls which he chased at a moderate pace but failed to return. Mel did not seem interested in us and I was okay with that despite trying to convince myself otherwise. Here was this beautiful pup. Our adoption application had been approved. All I had to do was say, “We’ll take him,” and the process of bringing him home would begin. But the words were not there.
“Well?” Diane asked through the fence. Mel went over and lay down by her feet. “I’m safety,” she said. “He knows me now which is why I try to stay a bit clear so you can get to know them a little bit.”
I took a picture of Mel and texted it to my friend: This is Mel.
My friend responded: Hello Mel! He’s so beautiful. So so cute!
I wrote back: Mouthy. Very young. Kind of indifferent. But he’s only been here a week.
Ears! My friend wrote. And then inserted a giant red heart emoji. ❤.
“Mel is beautiful,” I said through the fence. “But, I’m just not sure.”
“You should meet Max and this other dog,” she replied. “They’re brothers from the same household. Surrendered a week ago. They have soft ears, so they don’t have all the traditional German Shepherd traits but they have a nice demeanor.” Soft ears when referring to a German Shepherd means that the ears are droopy and flop over, an ‘undesirable’ feature for a portion of GS enthusiasts. Some breeders strongly recommend that you do not breed a GS with soft ears.
My last GS was a rescue. He had huge pointy ears. I used to refer to them as satellite ears. I used to imagine he could tune into a far off frequency only audible to him. “Hey Ears, want to go outside?” The ears were a part of who he was. Just one of the many things that made him so beautiful, what endeared him. Over the years I grew to associate those ears with love. Those ears gave me comfort. Those ears were home.
“Sure,” I said.
Max was being walked on a leash by a volunteer. We left Mel and greeted them on the path.
I sent a photo to my friend: Max!
Hewo Max! I want them all… she wrote. What happened to his nose?
He’s been rubbing it on the kennel. Trying to get to his brother.
Max was mostly black with dark tan legs and underbelly. His ears bounced up and down when he walked. One ear drooped heavier than the other.
“He walks really well on a leash and loves to chase tennis balls,” the volunteer offered.
I moved my hand over the shiny fur on his head and rubbed a floppy ear between my fingers. “What a beautiful boy. Do you think the brothers will get adopted together?”
“It’s unlikely,” the volunteer said. “It’s rare for two dogs to get adopted together.”
“Would you like to meet the other one?”
We had driven almost 5.5 hours to visit this rescue group. It was a pilgrimage. A necessary adventure mostly to prove that someday the right dog would come along, that I was open to the idea and that a reputable amount of effort was being devoted to the cause, except that that time was simply not now. It was as if that by visiting other adoptable dogs, yet not taking them home, I was somehow still a good citizen while at the same time being mindful of my old dog’s memory and to the ten years that he was my companion. My guardian. My compatriot. My best friend. I was, and still am, loyal to all the gifts, known and unknown, that my old dog had bestowed upon my life.
Another round of potential adopters were beginning to appear on the kennel grounds. It was getting close to 2pm, JC and I had been there since noon. Diane suggested we wait in the office and she would bring the new dog to us. Inside her office I marveled at the awards and newspaper clippings collected on the paneled walls. Year upon year of accolades for her work with German Shepherds, her rescue, training and re-homing efforts. Her genuine love for the breed, for dogs. The piles of dog toys and bags of donated food whispered to my weathered soul. You are in the right place.
The door opened and the new dog trotted in. “This dog is a true sweetheart,” Diane said.
Outside the office window, cars were pulling into the parking lot, a truck idled by the house. A German Shepherd chorus filled the air; their full barks and howls soothed me. A volunteer knocked on the office door, “Diane, you have a delivery, the guy won’t get out of the truck.”
“If you don’t mind, just hang out here a bit with him,” she said. “I have a couple of deliveries coming that I need to sign for. I’ll be right back.”
The dog circled the room. JC held out his hand. The dog sniffed it and then gave a slight lick. I stood in the corner and watched.
“What a good boy,” JC said.
I bent down and ran my hand along the slick fur of his black saddle.
The dog turned and sat down in front of me. His eyes light brown, golden in color. Reddish tan fur highlighted the velvet black of his giant floppy ears and the expressive arch of his brows. Up until the day that my old dog died he would look up at me from a nap or the back seat when the car had come to a stop and it was by the arch of his brow and the deep softness in his dark brown eyes that I knew all was okay. That he and I were safe with one another. In that moment, when the looked up at me, I felt my old dog, I felt some sense of home again.
“Oh no,” I said to JC. “I think I’m done for.”
Days later JC and I joked about Diane’s brilliance. So, you’re not moved by throwing the ball for one of these beautiful animals or taking them on a walk through the woods? Let’s see about that. Let’s see what happens when I leave you in the office with one. “Oh, just wait here, I’ll be right back. Really. You don’t mind do you? Just keep an eye on him. He’s a good boy.”
In her office, surrounded by decades of memorabilia evidencing her devotion to the breed, to dogs, to animals—all those memories of beloved comrades long gone but not forgotten—well, a window wedged open in my heart.
And into it nuzzled a new dog.