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Several years ago my husband and I did something singularly unwise: Promised our kids, via some combination of Santa Claus and the ancient Hanukkah miracle, that we would acquire a dog in the coming calendar year.
It seemed a simple task: Rescue dogs were all the rage, so we’d find a sad, furry friend in need of a home. But we had conditions, which became complications. We needed a dog who was hypoallergenic (for my benefit), didn’t require too much exercise (modest-sized yard), and was small (little house, a son who was skittish about big dogs). What followed was many months of hope and disappointment.
We started off strong, when my husband spotted Maurice, a 3-year-old Yorkie, on a breed-specific rescue website attached to the interspecies meat market that is Petfinder.com. Maurice was living in Massachusetts with a foster family. I want to say he wore an ascot around his neck in his glamour shot, but I might be remembering wrong.
What I do remember clearly was the application. Maurice was in the custody of a volunteer rescue organization — people who dedicated their time to the general welfare of Yorkshire terriers — and like many rescue groups, it had instituted an arduous system of vetting. Just to get an audience with a dog required filling out a multi-page form involving detailed descriptions of our living arrangements, questions that clearly had right and wrong answers (“How long will you leave the dog alone?”), and references from multiple character witnesses. The subtext was that the ideal dog owner is a single person with no job who is willing to spend every waking moment in service to his pet.
Somehow, though, we were cleared for a home visit, so we prepared. We straightened up the house, wiped down surfaces, and tried to comport ourselves just right: friendly but cool, casual, and fun, the suburban family of any dog’s dreams.
Maurice arrived at his appointed time, accompanied by a woman who was his caretaker. He weighed maybe 3 pounds, but he stepped haughtily into the foyer, glanced at my then-6-year-old son, and growled. He did one circuit through the house and settled on the living room floor. We tried to play with him. He seemed unimpressed.
“Want to look at the yard?” my husband asked the chaperone. We escorted Maurice outside. He barked at our chickens. (Yes, we have chickens. They’re fun, but they’re not dogs.) “We’re going to finish the fence,” my husband said, “so we can let him out in the yard to play.”
“Not alone,” Maurice’s chaperone said, aghast. She left with the dog a few minutes later.
“We’ll call you,” she said. She never did.
It was the first and last home visit I allowed. All of us endure judgment from neighbors and Facebook friends and middle school classmates. Our family wasn’t going to take it from a dog or his self-appointed protector. We’d go to shelters instead, and meet our family dog on neutral territory.
So began the trail of dashed hopes. Weekend after weekend, we’d visit shelters. Sometimes, the kennels were filled entirely with pit bulls, which, no matter what you think of them, were simply too big for us. Timing was a challenge: At one popular shelter, we were told to come at rush hour on a Friday because the most desirable new dogs were gone by Saturday morning. Hypoallergenic dogs were rare, and when we did find one, inevitably it had been adopted the day before.
We found a dog that looked promising on a shelter website, and I called before I’d read the fine print: She disliked men, so should ideally go home with a lesbian couple or — I swear, it said this — a straight woman who would never have a boyfriend. The next day, I got a voice mail from the shelter: They had found a home for Shirley “with a woman who hates men as much as she does.”
Two years passed, during which we acquired a cat. (It is much easier to walk out of a shelter with a cat than with a dog.) We’d occasionally wander into mall pet stores, where I’d explain about puppy mills, and my daughter would respond that buying a dog would technically be “rescuing” him from a cruel and uncaring system.
Finally, late last spring, we met a friend’s dog, a Shih-Tzu/poodle mix who was small, didn’t shed, got tired after three laps around the house, and came from a breeder a half-hour away. We put our names on a list, called repeatedly to check on the status of a pregnant dog, paid a less-exorbitant-than-some fee, and came home with a bona fide puppy.
Kody weighs 12 pounds and has curly black hair and a slight Napoleon complex. I have not sneezed once in his presence. He is a champion at potty training and chasing stuffed animals. He has a working relationship with the chickens and the cat. He is not without flaws, but he isn’t haughty.
As a new dog owner, I find myself surveying the canine population the way you scan the highway for makes and models right after you buy a car. When I compliment a pup, the owner will sometimes offer, “He’s a rescue,” with an air of self-satisfaction that comes from knowing one has followed the rules.
I nod and then go home to my perfectly imperfect dog — who was definitely worth the wait.