Thursday, October 01, 2009

National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month

This post is completely off topic from what I normally write, but it’s a subject that’s very close to my heart and really, sometimes I just need to write about something different.

October is National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, and adopted dogs is something I’m truly, truly passionate about, and with good reason, I’ve owned two dogs in my adult life and both have come from shelters. The truth is that there are so many amazing dogs out there, living in shelters and waiting for good, loving homes. There are puppies and adult dogs, dogs that are wonderful with children and dogs that need a little more care. There are big dogs and small dogs and yes, there are even purebreds. I can’t imagine why anyone would need to go to a breeder (unless you were planning to breed or show a dog or needed a specific type of dog for a specific reason, like sled dog racing, for example). For those of us who simply want a companion to romp with, pet, kiss and love a shelter dog is the perfect choice.

In March of 1997 I received what was easily the greatest birthday gift I will ever receive. Jacky gave me a “gift certificate” to go to the shelter and pick out my own dog. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but fear of responsibility had held me back. Finally I had no excuses. The minute I walked into the kennels at the ASPCA in Manhattan I knew I had found the dog for me. Jacky and others repeatedly asked if I was sure, but I am convinced to this day that Sadie (named Babs by the shelter) was there waiting for me. She was an eight-month-old pit bull mix with issues. Boy did she have issues. She was terrified of going outside and had never lived anywhere but the shelter, she needed to be housebroken and didn’t know how to walk up and down stairs. I didn’t care. The minute I laid eyes on her I knew she was mine, and I think she knew it too. Sadie was not an easy dog, as many of my friends and my family will be happy to tell you. I had to teach her to use the stairs (I lived on the third floor of a brownstone) and spent hours just sitting on my Brooklyn stoop so she could get used to the big, scary outdoors. Most upsetting though were her people issues. Except for a select few, she was terrified of many and most people, and because of that Sadie and I had a lot of work to do and together we worked daily to ease her anxieties and make her one of the best trained dogs in Prospect Park. She loved to romp with other dogs and slowly her people issues ebbed. She was never 100% comfortable around new people or strangers, but quickly morphed into the perfect family dog, growing to love infants, toddlers and even a few of us adults. I could easily fill page after page telling you how wonderful Sadie was and how much she meant to me, but I think all pet lovers out there get the idea. When Sadie succumbed to cancer last September I truly knew heartbreak and even still I miss her daily. But time moved on and it wasn’t long before we knew that it was time for a new dog. Everyone still missed Sadie, but we needed another four-legged, shedding animal in the house.

So in January of this year we started the search for what would inevitably be the family dog. In doing so we knew only two things about our future dog, and that’s that he would come from a shelter and that he would be a pit bull or pit bull mix. For those who don’t know dogs, hearing that someone would choose a pit bull as a family dog might seem nuts, but those who know the breed will understand that this is one of the sweetest, most loving dogs you’ll ever know. Have you ever met a 50-pound lap dog? That’s a pit bull. Sadie was part pit, and probably because of that it’s a breed we are naturally attracted to. On top of that though, we feel some sort of strange obligation to pit bulls. We’re experienced pit bull owners who know how to have a firm hand with a dog. Labs don’t wait in a shelter long, pit bulls do.

In starting our search we discovered Rawhide Rescue, and after talking to the director we knew this was the organization we wanted to adopt from. They shelter a lot of pit bulls and are very choosy about who takes a dog home. They are serious about finding good homes and really, truly love their dogs. After two trips to their dog adoption days and some trial walks with a couple of dogs we found Riggins (Angus while he was in the shelter). Sadie was my dog, Riggins is truly the family dog. We joke that in many ways he’s the opposite of Sadie. While she loved dogs and feared people, Riggins fears dogs and loves all people. In fact, just recently I saw a miniature dachshund send Riggins, my 45-pound pit bull, scurrying in fear with one bark. Riggins was picked up off the streets when he was about five months old. No one knows his exact age or what put him on the streets. I suspect, based on some behaviors and fears he has, that he was once a family dog that was dumped. Scheduled to be euthanized, Riggins was rescued and taken in by Rawhide, where he lived for a little more than a year. I learned that when Riggins was first picked up they had serious concerns that he wouldn’t be adoptable. They couldn’t get him to look people in the eye and he was far too skittish. After some time working with him though, they were able to bring out his sweet and loving nature. It’s hard to believe that people questioned whether Riggins would be adoptable. His favorite place is curled in a ball in my lap or playing fetch for hours. He makes a retriever look lazy and has become the perfect companion to a three-year-old. Poor Riggins, once a street dog, is now subject to wearing headbands, chasing Matchbox cars, and sleeping with a little boy’s head on his belly.

I can’t imagine a home without a dog and I can’t imagine a dog that doesn’t come from the shelter. Sure my dogs have issues. All dogs have issues. I’ve met perfectly bred dogs with as many or more issues than my mixed-breed, big-headed, shelter dogs. Part of being a dog owner is knowing and loving your dog, issues and all. So if you are even considering getting a dog anytime soon, I would urge you to please look into a local animal shelter before heading out to the breeder. If my stories tell even half the tale, there is the perfect dog for you just waiting for a home. If you don’t know where the shelter is do a quick search on Petfinder, or just search to look at all the loving animals that need homes.

Sadie and Riggins will thank you.