I got married. I bought a house. I was finally a grown up. I only needed a dog.
The Philadelphia SPCA was a bleak place. The cacophony of barking dogs was deafening and the smell reminded me of childhood field trips to the hippo pool at the Baltimore zoo.
My eye was on shepherd mixes (the most likely shelter dog type in those days). The first dog we asked to meet only responded to my husband and I couldn’t coax him to my side. I knew this wasn’t the dog we should bring home with us. And I felt like I was signing his death warrant. I probably was.
Feeling overwhelmed by the stressed-out adult dogs, we made our way to the puppy room. I found a pair of sisters whose brother had already been adopted. Their cage tag said they were shepherd mixes.
I had done some reading and tried to test the puppies for temperament. The roly poly one was perfect. She approached me in a friendly way. Roly Poly didn’t startle easily when I made a noise and was the right mix of cautious and curious.
Skinny Mini, her sister, had some issues. When Roly Poly approached me, Skinny Mini would yip and drive her off. Skinny Mini looked nervously around her at every strange sound. She didn’t seem quite comfortable in her own skin.
Obviously, we should adopt Roly Poly. My husband had another idea. “I hate to break up the set. Let’s take two.” So much for all my book learning–I agreed. I’m very impressionable.
We named Skinny Mini “Agatha.” and Roly Poly became “Christie” (we had been watching a lot of Mystery on PBS that year).
Our years together were tumultuous. Agatha’s neuroses shaped the relationship and I just didn’t know enough to work with her.
Housebreaking was never 100% reliable and with two dogs, it was hard to know which little present was left by whom.
Sometimes Agatha and Christie were the best of friends, for good or ill. Some of the things they did together:
- chased each other down the long halls and slid on the carpet runners at the end
- howled for fifteen minutes every time we left the house (I still wonder if that’s what caused my neighbors to first try crack)
- destroyed not one but two very expensive couches.
But the worst thing they did together was fight–nasty, loud, vicious fights that sometimes drew blood.
We hoped they would settle down as they grew older. Instead, they grew worse.
At thirteen, Christie developed Cushing’s disease and eventually started having seizures. As she came out of the seizure, Christie would walk stiff-legged and dazed over to Agatha. Incapable of reading Agatha’s warning signals, Christie wouldn’t back off. Soon we’d have a whirling scene of teeth and fur and blood.
I’ll never forget rushing Agatha outside to the porch while I sat with Christie trying to find her injuries. My husband arrived home to find me sobbing and covered in blood. We spent the last few months of Christie’s life keeping her strategically separated from Agatha.
When Christie died, Agatha seemed puzzled that we came home from the vet’s office alone. But I took out her leash and Agatha and I went for a walk. I was so glad to still have her–my little neurotic dog.
Agatha blossomed on her own. I knew by now it would be unwise to bring a new dog into the life of my fourteen year old. Agatha made it clear from the beginning that she wanted to be an only dog but I wasn’t able to hear her.
Agatha lived to sixteen years old. Despite being arthritic, nearly blind, and completely deaf, Agatha’s last years as an only dog were happy ones. She lost all signs of her previous neuroses and settled into her own skin in a way she never had before.
I still regret that Christie didn’t get the same chance at happiness.
If I knew then what I know now, I would not have hesitated to find a new, happy home for Christie. She would have been easy to place. She was lovable and sweet. I think she would have loved having another dog to play with. Christie enjoyed chasing the big dogs at the dog park (but at 35 pounds, she was so far behind the Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Vizslas, I don’t think they knew she was chasing them).
I’ve read some pretty contentious comments on dog blogs that treat “forever home” as a war cry. I disagree. I believe we need to love our dogs to seek out what’s truly best for them. Not what we think is best for ourselves.
I wished I had been able to love Christie enough to do what was right for her.