16 July 2010

New to the Family: 1. The Wrong Dog

Typical goofy photo of Babette, the wrong dog, 2008

In the last year, Jill Abramson has written a weekly series about sharing life with a new dog in "The Puppy Diaries" published in the NYT. This, in combination with a frustrating search for a new dog, has sparked this new series of blogs. 

There is no chance of me duplicating Abramson. She didn't have qualms about going to a breeder and although I'm not one to wax lyrical about the rarified world of the liberal east coast elite, her world is one without daily contingencies, including financial ones. My dog isn't going to be taken to dog-friendly swim club in Manhattan (for realz!), nor is he going to summer with Donald Trump in the Hamptons or on the Vineyard. My future dog's home will have more in common with home life of The Simpsons than the sort of patrician households one finds in Updike novels. 

The story begins with the loss of a noble beast in March of 2009. In the last year of her life, Babette's energy level took a dramatic dive, something we attributed to the ever accelerating pace with which ageing gains upon living begins after a certain age. She was still mobile and happy until one afternoon. Suddenly, she couldn't get up and screamed a human scream. I will never forget it. She drew her last breath surrounded by her family twenty-three hours later.

I feel cheated only having had six and a half years with Babette. When we got her, she was assessed by different organisations as being between the ages of 4 to 11. She was found by Toronto Animal Services where she caught and was treated for kennel cough. She had other health problems which weren't addressed because TAS is the city pound and it isn't part of their mandate to keep animals healthy. They assessed her at eight to eleven years old which might explain why no one would adopt her. The staff, who called her Tess, delayed her euthanasia because they liked her so much. Babette had this forlorn look on her face that could melt your heart. When my friend Ron who looked after Babette on occasion learned of her passing, it was with tearful eyes that he told me: "Being with her was like being in a Capra movie".

Perfecting the forlorn look

After four months, TAS saw no other option but to end her life, but before they did called around a few private pet charities in case any of them would have her. The woman at the Scarborough SPCA said yes right away. "Tess" must have been a sorry sight. Protruding eye cyst, she was rail thin. When the Scarborough vet went to sterilise her, he discovered severe internal infection. She also needed some teeth extracted. The vet didn't agree with the TAS's assessment (and her chances of adoption surely) and re-evaluated her age at four to five years old.

As she was recovering from her multiple surgeries, the staff rename her "Jessie" and that is when we walked in. Actually, when we came to adopt "Jessie", we were told that someone else had been approved to adopt her but had not returned to pick her up after the twenty-four hour cooling off period. We found her recuperating on the SPCA manager's chair, in that modest regal manner she had. I think those who knew Babette will agree that "modestly regal" describes her well.

I didn't much like her. I had spent all my life researching this perfect dog I would have one day and I wanted a small dog that didn't require too much exercise. That would suit my needs and lifestyle. Every book tells you not to follow your heart once you get to a shelter and go home with the dog that is wrong for you. So that's exactly what I did. I wasn't even in love with her at all. She looked weird. She was then and remained lanky. Looked more like a coyote than a dog. She had bandages everywhere which I suspected, and rightly so, foreshadowed thousands upon thousands of dollars on vet bills. She seemed aloof and, indeed, she never developed into a gregarious dog.

One factor weighed heavily in "Jessie's" favour: the hubby. The now ex-husband had to be cajoled, begged, and threatened into getting a dog (no jokes about the "ex" status and my manipulative ways please). He was hanging on by a thread and had to be dragged to shelters. When he just loved "Jessie" on sight, I saw my chance and took it. I knew she was the wrong dog, but she could turn out to be my only chance at a dog. My mother, God love her, certainly spoiled her only child to the point of damaging her, but she stood firm on dogs and pianos. We didn't have the room for either, she claimed.

The SPCA staff identifed her a husky mix and so did most of the lay citizenry. I would, however, except people who work with dogs to know the different between a husky and an Australian Shepherd. I expressed worry at her potential energy level. "But look at her, she's just sitting there". My eyes went back and forth between them, my mouth open in dismay. She's just had five surgeries and is probably still on pain killers (she was), so, yes, right now, she's just sitting there. I don't think that's a good predictor of the amount of exercise she will require.

(As it turns out she was a banshee outdoors — slept whenever indoors — we walk, ran, two to three hours a day. This is a success story in the sense that Babette forced me into a more active lifestyle but many other guardians wouldn't have wanted or been able to do that. This could have been a disaster. More on that in future posts.)

A rare moment of immobility for the cameras, Beaches 2002

Again, I was pretty sure the staff was taking me for a mug when they told me she'd lived another ten years. I hadn't seen that TAS sheet which later came with her file and which assessed her at eight to eleven, but still with her at five years-old, I thought fifteen years was a bit much for a dog this size.

And so we went through an bafflingly easy application, I don't remember having to show any documents. We waited for our twenty-four hours of cooling off and took her home.

I should note that I will forever be grateful to the Scarborough SPCA. They gave me my first dog and we had a wonderful life together. Thing is, I could have been anybody, a participant in dogfighting, someone who sells dogs to labs. Ok, with the price I paid, I can't imagine there would have been a profit to be made. I was told I would get many follow up calls but only got one call, one year on. I was asked how "Jessie" was doing and once I remembered they were talking about, I said she was fine. That was the end of the conversation.

I used to volunteer at the Montreal SPCA. They wanted to put me on the adoption desk but I refused because I knew I would be too stringent and allow very few dogs a chance at a good life. I don't know if it's just me but as a cat and dog adopter, the so-called application process has always seemed inadequate. The ex says I just come across as someone who would be a responsible guardian. How does one "come across" that way in a few seconds or minutes?

I understand that my concerns have to be weighed against the meagre resources shelters must have at their disposal and the psychological fall out of leaving a dog in a cage. And the chances that dog might wind up euthanised. As a volunteer, when a dog was no longer there, I never asked who adopted him or her. Although I never told this to my conscious, I knew they might not have been adopted at all. I noticed no other volunteers ever spoke of a specific dog not being there anymore. We spared ourselves happy stories of adoption to spare ourselves stories of the death chamber. The vets would take the dogs (and cats) at night without the rest of us knowing. I once read that vets have some of the highest suicide rates of any profession.

It is to avoid this dark side of shelters that workers and volunteers probably want to think the best of those who seek to adopt. Their faith in human goodness is greater than mine and, in the end, that is probably best for most dogs. 

In any case. the soon to be christened Babette joined our household and we would never be the same.

To be continued...

Next: bonding with a new dog and my experiences with shelters and breeders thus far.

*No kill shelters are another story but I don't approve of them for the usually stated reasons against them.


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