“Why would you take the chance on an unknown type at a shelter when you can get just what you want from a breeder or a rescue organization?” she asked.
“The same reason I’m having this sushi with you, my love, instead of some perfectly-bred finishing school graduate,” I responded. “I like surprises, and discovering where they lead.”
When I was a very young child, my family went through two Labradors. The first was stolen, and the second given away after he nipped a neighborhood child. Whatever feelings these losses caused were so early that I have no memory of them. But I’ve learned since, when we don’t fully experience a painful event, life will give us the opportunity again later.
When I was about nine, we headed for the first time to a shelter outside of Kansas City. I was drawn to the hyperactive puppies, but my father chose a calmer Labrador mix. We would later learn that Char’s calmness was due to lousy health; once one condition was cured, another would show up. Not unlike me at the time.
Nevertheless, he proved loyal and fun, and a cozy companion, until the day his fenced dog run was empty.
He had no monetary value; no one would have come into a suburban yard to steal him. The likely solution appeared later, when a neighboring family discovered that their unpleasant but responsible housekeeper had a hobby of nocturnally stealing flowers from yards in the area. Not to keep – she’d swipe them and then just lose them somewhere. True kleptomania. And one other thing she’d loved, besides flowers, was Char.
Her employers had instantly fired her, and none of us heard from her again. So we never were to know if she actually did take Char or if he was even alive.
Soon, we headed back to the shelter, and this time picked an active, driven puppy – a German Shepherd mix – who the aide told us was intelligent, as shown by the way he pawed and whined to us, but then backed up cautiously when his cage door was opened. Wolfgang proved absolutely that. Strong, cunning, and protective, no thief was going to sneak him away.
And as Char’s weakness had fit my childhood health issues, Wolfgang was the perfect match for my pubescent development. We became that cliché of boy-and-his-dog, every possible hour together, idolizing each other, sneaking out late and daring cigarettes, being guys.
Until one horrific morning, when I tried to break him of his overprotective dislike of our kind postman. Gripping his leash, I brought them together to make friends. In a flash, Wolf jerked his head back out of his collar, and lunged at Andy. I screamed and grabbed him, but he’d gotten a bite in.
Calmly and simply, my father grimaced, “Well, we’ve got to get rid of him.” Within hours, I was reaching through bars to scratch his chin one last time. All that he’d built in me, or helped build, was more than gone and there was now energies to repress and avoid. I absorbed fully the lessons I’d been taught for years: Play by the rules. Have no ego. Stay weak. And so survive.
Two months later, back at the shelter, I calmly walked directly to the cage where we’d found Wolf. A homely, smaller mutt, kind of like the pooch in the Our Gang movies, whined and pawed at the gate. The caretaker opened the door, and the puppy backed up. I smiled, “It’s just like Wolfgang. This is the one.”
But Ygor was nothing like Wolfgang. Neurotic, dumb, frightened, and without an aggressive molecule in his body, he was everything I magnetized to. With a lifelong belief in his unlovableness, he would greet attention and affection with such excitement he’d lose control of his bladder and squirt on the ground – or on expensive shoes.
He was also the kindest being I ever met. My family, which had loved Wolf’s nobility and beauty, did their best to “tolerate” Ygor, realizing that if they gave him away, the odds of their youngest retaining any shred of sanity would disappear.
By a seeming mix of good and bad karma, Ygor became the first dog we ever lost naturally. After 18 years, and blind, deaf, and semi-continent, he expired in my parents’ garage. When my phone, across the country, rang at 4:30 a.m., I didn’t need to be told why.
A couple of years later, I headed to a local shelter myself, and found another puppy. Not sickly, not overly aggressive, and with self-esteem. The puppy I was now ready for, who would fill my life with lessons I regret not having known in those earlier dog days.
Through the years, four shelter mutts have changed my life. Each clarified a time, a period for me. One might argue that purebred, expensive dogs could have created the same effects, but I doubt it.
None of these – Char, Wolfgang, Ygor, or Shirelle – ever revealed their full breeding. Each had strengths (Char’s cheery warmth, Wolfgang’s power, Ygor’s heart, Shirelle’s brilliant soul) and weaknesses (Char’s illness, Wolfgang’s fierceness, Ygor’s neuroses, Shirelle’s propensity to cancer). We could never have known these qualities at first. Instead, these beings illuminated and changed our lives by just being what they were, as individuals.
If you want to guard a junkyard, sure, get yourself a German Shepherd and you’ll do fine. The reason one buys a particular breed, after all, is that there’s an assumed guarantee. No one buys a Volvo wagon for the same reason they’d choose a Corvette or Escalade. And Golden Retrievers will be friendly, Bloodhounds great trackers, and Poodles smart.
Whereas adopting a shelter dog carries a bit more of the feel of those arcade games where you put the money in and rotate the handles till the mini-jaws pick out a doll, a jawbreaker, a pocketknife, or nothing at all.
Except, of course, there is one guarantee: no dog has ever, ever been nothing.
Douglas Green is a psychotherapist and writer. His book, “The Teachings of Shirelle: Life Lessons from a Divine Knucklehead,” will be released in November. Learn more at www.cavalleriapress.com.