A Dog Is a Dog Is a Dog

For months now, I have been living in dog adoption hell. I sure hope I’m not going to be a permanent resident.
As anyone who has ever read more than two pieces of my work has probably noticed, I have kind of a dog fixation—which I guess made it all the worse this past Thanksgiving when I lost my remaining dog. Well, I didn’t miss him. I know where he is. He’s dead of a toxic overdose of ham.
Yes, you read correctly. My boy was killed by a house sitter who stupidly left about half a HoneyBaked Ham in dog-stealing proximity. Once you know that toxic levels of fat in a prepared ham can destroy the pancreas, liver, and kidneys of a seventy-five-pound dog, that ad featuring a smiling, tuxedoed O. J. Simpson holding up a giant silver serving tray of the stuff suddenly looks like a still from A Nightmare on Elm Street.

I guess holiday gluttony was one weakness that both my dogs had in common. A few years back, my older dog, Bob, stole and consumed a ten-pound frozen turkey. Luckily for him, turkey has very low-fat content, and the worst side effect he suffered was the short-term embarrassment of looking briefly like a medium-size sofa bed.
Still, I was not at all prepared for Stan’s death. He was in good health when I went away for Thanksgiving. And dead when I returned. It was the first time I had ever spent a minute in my house without him.
My life with Stan began when I realized that Bob didn’t bark when people came into my yard. Only squirrels. I took some comfort in the fact that I was covered if a psycho dressed in a squirrel suit broke into my house, but I decided to bring in a backup line of defense. So I went to the pound and, in about fifteen seconds, plucked Stan off death row. He was the shyest, saddest-looking dog in a giant cage full of future dead guys. He also had a pair of ears on him that could have carried him airborne.
I think I selected him so quickly because his passive-aggressive approach broadcast the phrase “Rescue Me” louder than the energetic, friendlier efforts of all his cellmates. I had not yet realized that I was using the same method to select dogs that I was using to selectmen—with some of the same problematic results. Eventually, Stan turned out to have uncontrollable homicidal urges toward others of his species. How often has a date of mine been ruined by much the same thing?

Stan followed me everywhere, seems to be operating with the mentality of someone who had either been abandoned or gotten badly lost and who was not going to make that mistake again. When I got into my pool to swim laps, he jumped in after me. From that point on, he never let me out of his sight if he could help it. Day or night, even when I went into the bathroom, I could always count on the fact that Stan would be standing somewhere nearby, staring at me as though he felt something good was going to happen. This was his trademark. It always made me feel guilty because, in most cases, I knew damn well that nothing particularly good had been planned.
And so I had to live with the constant knowledge that I was continually letting him down. If I reached for a Kleenex, Stan would jump to his feet, certain that this was the first move in a potentially thrilling chain of events. He had an abiding belief that every action in this world might eventually lead to food or ball. In fact, he made this so clear to me that a fair percentage of the time, I did try to follow up whatever I was doing with a little food or ball. Happily, he died without ever having learned the cruel truth that taking out the garbage or opening up the sock drawer does not necessarily signal any dog activity.
To his credit, Stan was an excellent ballplayer. Whereas Bob used to play “Catch the Ball and Eat It,” Stan preferred “Double Dog Ball,” in which two balls are put into play at all times, the one in the mouth being released at the same time that the one in hand hits the air. This game could go on indefinitely—in fact, the more indefinitely, the better. And because he was so enthusiastic in his playing, I generally chose to overlook the fact that he almost always took a dump on the dog ball field, during the third inning, with the ball still in his mouth. Anyone who has ever played this game will tell you that ordinarily, this is an automatic out.
Also, thanks to Stan, I developed certain confidence about my sloppy eating habits, secure in the knowledge that any food accidentally dropped onto the lower half of the room would instantaneously become his property. And because I was expected to give him a substantial portion of everything I was eating, I never really had to worry about consuming too many calories. Of course, this was often just one more way in which I was a source of disappointment to him since all he’d wind up with was a portion of some dumb salad. He’d eat it, but he wasn’t happy about it. I bet the day that HoneyBaked Ham turned up at my house must have seemed to him like some kind of answered prayer.

When he died, I sobbed for a couple of days; then, everyone advised me to get “out there” and find myself a new dog. On day one of my searches, I called a series of ads from the Los Angeles Times that turned out to have been placed by a variety of kind ladies who feel compelled to rescue strays and then to attempt to find people to adopt them. This sounded like some kind of scam to me until I visited the suburban residence of a fiftyish Japanese lady who had two dogs in her front yard, two dogs in her backyard, one in her garage, five in her house, and one in her station wagon. Since I had no automatic instinct about which of them to take, I decided not to rush things and left to think it over.
The next day on my way home from work, I stopped by the animal shelter nearest to my home and met dozens of other dogs, all cute. All potential mine.
Overwhelmed again, I headed home alone. In the days that followed, I repeated this behavior on a daily basis. Plus, I added a way to confuse myself even further—I began taking some of the candidates out to a special yard to see if we had any “chemistry.” That was when I learned that, though a dog may nuzzle you through the cage when he is released from a kennel situation, he can offer you, at best, the kind of behavior I used to get from my own dogs when they were finally released from the vet. They would rush right on past in a sort of dog tornado, ignoring me totally in a mad dash to get the hell out. As depressing as it always was to receive that treatment from a beloved family pet, to have a strange dog treat you that way is even more peculiar. Not only does no chemistry occur, but it is also hard not to worry that maybe this new dog hates your guts. Anyway, after these experiences, I decided to go home and think about it.
Then I paid a visit to something called the Pet Adoption Fund, in the San Fernando Valley, a large kennel facility where a lot of kind ladies board about 300 different dogs and cats that they have rescued. Walking past cage after cage of candidates, I felt like a member of the parole board meeting thousands of eligible prisoners. Dog after dog would scream to me:
“I’m a big, dumb guy. Take me home, and I’ll kiss you, then eat all your furniture.”
“I’m more sedate, but I’m kind of an older guy. I don’t know you, and I’m not sure I like you.”
“I love you. Here, watch me make this dog face. See? No one can resist it.”
They were all going a million miles an hour.
That was the day it occurred to me that what I was actually looking for, in their faces, was the face of my dog. I was looking for that familiar stare that already knew me, already knew how to live with me, and could come home and fit in and put things back the way they were. Which is why that was also the day I decided to knock off looking for a while. Because the reality is that there are millions of dogs who could be completely right for me. One thing you would have had to say about my two dogs was that they could easily be classified as “generic.”

But in the decades we spent together, they each became so completely lovable and unique that each was irreplaceable. And in a way, their very randomness makes the new selection process tougher. How in the world do I figure out which dog to save? I guess one day, I’ll just show up at one of these facilities and point and say, “That one.” And then I’ll have my new dog.
Ninety-eight percent of the dogs I meet are probably perfect. The whole key is that somehow I have to be ready.

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