There have been times over the last decade when I was convinced I'd never be stable enough to take care of myself, let alone anyone else. I traveled, adapted to a career abroad in Seoul, met my boyfriend, and lost myself to a years-long episode of crushing depression and agoraphobia in a foreign country. I moved to Manhattan in copious amounts of debt (a byproduct of depression-related compulsive shopping), and entered into a new career in media. I broke up with my boyfriend, lost my apartment in a fire, got back together with my boyfriend, and moved to Brooklyn like everyone else. I also started the process of getting my mental health together, which is still an ongoing challenge.
Throughout all of this, there was one thing that's remained in the back of my mind. It's something I've never stopped wanting, a longing that's lasted across time and space and several failed attempts at forming a yoga habit: A dog. Actually, not just a dog, The Dog: The good boy or girl that would act as my ultimate companion and unwavering support system through all of life's twists and turns, of which I felt I had far too many.
At certain points (particularly the lowest), I knew I couldn't realistically care for said dog, no matter how badly I wanted one. Sure, a dog may have helped me emotionally, but when I could barely get up to shower — well, let's just say that it felt like too much pressure to put on both of us. So up until this year, I managed to let the practical part of my brain call the shots. I wanted to be healthy, happy, and static enough to bring a dog home —to give a dog the glorious, loving, spoiled-rotten-but-highly-regimented life I think all dogs deserve. Part of that meant rescuing a dog from a shelter. I'd read enough stories about the horrors of puppy mills to steer clear of pet stores, and I didn't care enough about having a particular type of dog to consider buying from a breeder. The idea of purchasing a dog was never on the table for me — I know there are so many dogs in shelters who already need homes.
I was drawn to adopting an adult dog, particularly one with "issues."
According to the ASPCA, around 3.2 million shelter animals are adopted each year, and half of those animals are dogs. New York City alone has countless rescue organizations and shelters, including New York City Animal Care Centers, North Shore Animal League America, Wise Animal Rescue, NYC Second Chance Rescue and Animal Haven to name a few. Sometimes, a shelter or rescue has a dog under its care for less than 24 hours before it finds its forever home, only to have its spot filled by another one (or three) the next day. To meet the need, shelters often work together: Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS) of New York, for example, is a pet adoption center with many locations nationwide, all of which work with their local city shelters to support and house animals until they're permanently adopted.
Considering the sheer volume of shelters, rescues, and dogs, I thought adopting one would be simple, and I began my search with a pretty specific set of parameters. I would look for a dog with "issues," the kind that didn't just need a home, but needed help, no matter what problems it had. It felt something I'd easily succeed at — after all, needing help and feeling like there was no one there that could do the job was something I could relate to. Once this dog was mine, I imagined myself sitting in the park, surrounded by a pack of what a friend has ungraciously referred to as the "f*cked-up looking dogs you love so much," all of them hobbling and crawling into my lap to give me kisses of gratitude while a melancholic Sarah Mclachlan song played in the background. As silly as it might sound, I wanted to be the answer to all a dog's problems.
Of course, there was another human to consider here: My boyfriend. When I first expressed my desire to find an older, hard-to-place dog, he was skeptical but supportive, perhaps seeing the challenges we'd encounter before I did. He was there during my own period of depression and emotional instability, and he'd become very acquainted with a particular feeling of powerlessness, the one that emotionally consumes you when you co-habitate with someone that needs the kind of help you don't know how to give. Granted, the stakes are slightly lower when the one that needs saving has four legs instead of two, but he approached the situation with an understandable level of caution. Still, I think he saw how committed I was to the task at hand and went along with it, though he made it very clear that there would be no dog in our home that he didn't fully approve of. I agreed — secretly assuming that I'd figure out a way to have the last word.
I saw myself as someone who had lived a human version of what dogs like Benji had been through.
With that, we were off. We first found Benji, an adorable terrier mix that was brought to New York by a rescue organization after being found in an empty home in Texas — apparently, his owners had been deported and had to leave him behind. We applied confidently, but after the interview, we were denied: Benji had hardcore abandonment issues and "needed special care."
I was incensed. After all, I saw myself as someone who had lived a human version of what dogs like Benji had been through. Like them, I'd felt alone, utterly wronged and abused, afraid of the outside world and unable to control my bad habits. I never sh*t on the floor out of panic, but I had a very keen awareness of what it was like to be discovered, alone in a room, covered in your own filth. The idea that someone would assume I couldn't give him special care was outrageous to me, as I felt I'd earned the title of most special carer of them all.
I dug my heels into the idea of finding a dog to save, meeting a motley crew of surrendered, neglected, unhealthy, wonderful animals in the process. There was Tugboat, an obese and blind elderly pug — she was shaped like a loaf of bread and had to be carried down the stairs, and "preferred to only be carried upright." Then there was Eva, the eight-year-old unspayed mutt who'd been passed from her original owner to a friend when he moved. The "friend" kept her cooped up in a bedroom all day, only to get pissed and surrender her to the shelter when the dog started chewing furniture. There was Hunnie, the four-year-old honey-brown pitbull mix that I found on Urgent Pets on Death Row, a list generated by an all-volunteer, 501c3 charity in New York City that shares detailed information on animals that are at-risk of being put to sleep if they are not adopted. I spent days tracking her down, only to learn that she'd been put on the list because she'd bitten her previous owner. And who could forget Diva, the three-year-old pitbull mix with a strange skin condition who had never been potty-trained?
Each of these dogs were near-misses for us — sometimes it was because of our timing, sometimes because we'd get nervous at the last minute, and sometimes because the shelter or rescue felt we weren't quite the right people for the job. After each of these experiences, I was heartbroken, having convinced myself that this dog would be The Dog, unable to imagine life without an animal that I barely knew.
It wasn't until I met Ruthie that I understood that I was essentially orchestrating my own heartbreak, dooming myself from the start.
Ruthie is a bulldog mix with a snub nose and lovely, large ears, up for adoption at Best Friends Animal Society. The day that I saw her picture online, I traveled across town with that familiar feeling rising from the pit of my stomach: This dog would be The Dog. The first time I saw Ruthie in person, she was outside with a volunteer. I assume they were out for a walk, but no walking was actually occurring. Instead, Ruthie had planted her fat butt on the pavement, refusing to move despite the volunteer's encouragements. She was absolutely massive, so low to the ground that she appeared in the form of a recumbent tree trunk covered in fur.
If I'd managed to lift myself out of the lowest depths imaginable, why couldn't I find a dog for whom to return the favor?
When I went to a private room to meet her, the same stubbornness I'd seen on the sidewalk showed up again. Ruthie refused to interact with me or pay attention to my calls of affection, try as I might to earn them. Instead, she maintained a steely, intense focus on a bowl of food that was sitting on the other side of the room's glass door. I later learned that Ruthie had been at this adoption center before — six months earlier and 30 pounds lighter. She was adopted by a family that had overfed her before bringing her back to the shelter when they had to move overseas. As a result, the volunteers explained, Ruthie had some major resource guarding issues, acting out when anyone tried to touch her food, her treats, and even her toys. Resource guarding is relatively normal behavior in dogs who have experienced change and uncertainty — but still, dealing with it can be tough, particularly with dogs as big and challenging as Ruthie.
My boyfriend was immediately hesitant about bringing Ruthie home. How could we, a pair of brand new dog owners with zero experience and a 800-square foot apartment, contend with an 80-pound beast that simultaneously needed to lose weight but also snapped at anyone who went near her food? His argument made sense, but all I could focus on was that we were losing our chance, yet again, to save The Dog. I told him that we'd figure it out, that it would be fine, that I also struggle with my weight, and valiantly protect my dinner, and have reacted with bitter rage when someone demanded I do something I didn't want to do. How dare he judge either of us for our problems? I felt as stubborn as the dog in that moment. I was ready to leave with Ruthie that very day.
My desire to act as a savior to a dog wasn't based in my actual ability to do so — in fact, the urge only went so far as meeting a dog to save.
The very lovely and wise volunteer I worked with suggest I sleep on it. We went home, leaving Ruthie and my mission to save her behind.
That night, thinking back on all the dogs we'd met that I didn't, or couldn't, save — and why I was trying to save them in the first place — I lost it. I'd seen so many dogs in cages, toured so many shelters and rescue facilities, convinced myself so many times that the dog I was petting was the one I'd take home, the creature that would benefit from all the lessons I felt I'd learned about self-care and compassion. Now, I was sitting on my couch dogless and more confused about the process than ever. If I wanted to "save" a dog, why did I feel so ill-equipped to do so? If I'd managed to lift myself out of the lowest depths imaginable, why couldn't I find a dog for whom to return the favor? And most importantly, if I brought home a dog with serious issues, issues that I had no experience with how to address, was that really saving the dog at all?
Splashing my face with cold water and wiping away my tears, something hit me. It was the first time my naive brain had considered that just because a dog needs saving doesn't mean you are its savior, simply by the dint of your existence. It doesn't work like that for people, so why would it work that way for dogs? For years, I blamed my boyfriend for not liberating me from my emotional and mental distress, my anger, my overwhelming sorrow. Despite his love and loyalty, he actually wasn't equipped to save me, and my reliance on him to do so only drove us apart. My desire to act as a savior to a dog wasn't based in my actual ability to do so — in fact, the urge only went so far as meeting a dog to save. Beyond that, I had no idea what the f*ck I was doing.
The good news is, there are plenty of people out there who do, people whose experience and resources make them perfectly suited to help troubled dogs in need. A week after our application was denied, Benji was happily adopted — presumably by someone with an open schedule. Tugboat went to an owner who previously cared for a disabled pug that had recently passed away. Eva was moved from a city shelter to a rescue, which put her in a better position to be fostered by someone who'd give her the attention she deserved. Hunnie was adopted by an older couple who, from the looks of their adoption photo on the shelter's social media page, looked absolutely thrilled to have her. Diva is currently in foster care, which means she has a comfy home to sleep in until she finds her forever family. And Ruthie, for all of her quirks and troubles, is still at the BFAS adoption center, beloved by a squad of volunteers who spend their days helping her with her resource guarding issues. I'm confident she'll find a loving home — even if that home isn't with me.
After the Ruthie experience, I put the idea of adopting into the back of my mind. The right dog would come along eventually, and even if it didn't, perhaps I wasn't ready for it anyways.
A few weeks later, I visited the North Shore Animal League America in Port Washington, New York, to interview the staff for a story on adopting a dog from their facility. Though everyone warned me that I'd come home with a dog, I was convinced that I'd leave the shelter alone: North Shore has far more puppies than adult dogs, and I never wanted a puppy to begin with. I spent the day there, and towards the end of the afternoon, a staff member asked me if I wanted to have a look around. She led me down a hallway, and as we passed by a door, I caught a glimpse of something with scruffy white fur that I felt drawn to — not because of its emotional back story, but simply because I thought it seemed nice. I asked to backtrack and see whatever it was I'd spotted.
Paul didn't need to be saved like so many other dogs do, but he did need someone to clean up his pee and teach him where the correct bathroom was.
That something was Paul, a five-month-old mystery mutt who probably has some wire terrier in him and may also be, judging by the circumference of his paws, part wolfhound. He didn't have any strange medical maladies, wasn't abandoned on the side of the road, didn't get surrendered by his previous owners under dramatic circumstances: He was a regular, inexperienced dog without a clear backstory or human, and I was regular, inexperienced human with a backstory that had, eventually, given me the strength and energy to care for a dog.
I called my boyfriend up to Port Washington to come meet him. He sounded hesitant on the phone, but as soon as he saw Paul, he lowered his hackles, seemingly relieved by the fact that there was no insidious, dark issue to discover. He was smitten with him right away, declaring him "better than any dog here," despite having met none of them. We took Paul home that day.
At the time I started writing this essay, Paul was lying at the foot of our bed, slowly and indulgently gnawing on what my boyfriend and I refer to as his Nasty Bone. It's one of those white ones that gets softer and more congealed as the dog chews, until it resembles a piece of overworked Juicy Fruit. Paul's Nasty Bone hit that stage a few days ago, but he loves it so much we can't bear to take it away. Instead, we watch lovingly as he lies on our expensive sheets, gumming the wet, osseous matter in a state of pure bliss.
At some point, Paul lost himself in the pleasure of it all and began to pee. I shouted, having no idea what to do or how to stop him, and by the look on his face, he had no idea what he was doing or how to stop. Our synchronicity in that moment affirmed that we were a good match. Paul didn't need to be saved like so many other dogs do, but he did need someone to clean up his pee and teach him where the correct bathroom was. I got up and grabbed the paper towels, stripped the bed, and did exactly that. Eventually, we settled back into bed together, without the disgusting bone. Paul looked happy, and for the first time in a long time, I could relate.