Can you ever give away a dog you love?
So I called the only person I knew who would completely understand: my sister. "Of course I understand that this is unbearable for you," she said. Yet as a veteran dog rescuer, she also understood the animal nature of dogs. "He'll be happier. He'll adapt. And he'll be close enough so that you and Paula can watch and make sure." The family I was describing was every dog rescuer's dream, she pointed out: somebody at home almost all the time, everyone eager for a dog, young kids with energy, always somebody to play with and cuddle.
"He's had a great life with you," she told me. "But if he can't get what he wants with you and you can't get what you want with him, it's OK to let him go."
I asked Hank if he would be willing to have Homer stay there for a few days; if it went well, I said, we could talk about extending the visit further. They'd all love it, he said. I decided to drop Homer off, then take the other two dogs upstate. If things worked out, I would bring Homer up at Christmastime so our family could say its proper farewells. If things didn't, I'd drive down in a few days and take Homer back. We agreed that Paula would come by to check on things, and that Hank or Sharon and I would talk regularly, as long as necessary for us all to feel at ease and reach a mutual decision.
The next morning, Homer hopped into bed and snuggled with me more affectionately than I could remember. We went for a long walk together before sunrise.
Then I left him in the backyard with Orson and Rose and took his crate to Max's house down the street, along with a carton of bones, treats, and food. Inside the house, I silently reassembled the crate, lined with his favorite sheepskin and quilt. Then I put Homer on a leash, and Paula and I walked him to what might be his new home. When I handed the leash to Sharon, Homer looked at me nervously; he started to follow me out, then stopped, restrained by the leash. Walking home, I could hear him barking all the way down the block.
That night, on my late-evening walk with Orson and Rose, I saw a dog on a leash coming around the corner. Rose went wild, and Orson began thumping his tail. It was Homer. The sight of somebody else walking my dog, a creature I had loved for several years but had failed, struck deep and hard.
"Is it OK?" yelled Sharon, trying to be sensitive.
"Sure," I said.
Homer came running over to us, tail wagging, excited and confused. "Goodbye, boy," I said, at first walking past him, then turning back to lean down, stroke his head, and kiss him on the nose. He seemed anxious and bewildered, started to follow me, yelped in alarm when Sharon drew him away. His yelps sliced through me like bullets. I turned away and kept walking, feeling as if I'd left a part of myself behind. And of course, I had.
The next morning, we returned to Bedlam Farm.
Two months later, Homer came up for Christmas week with Paula. I didn't think this sort of reunion was something we should do too often. Homer had earned his new life, and returning to ours had to be confusing and difficult for him. Dogs are not like people; they don't miss what they've left behind. They figure out the new rules, check out the food and the folks, and set out to do what they do best—adapt.
Jon Katz’s latest book, Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die, was published by Random House last October. You can visit him at www.bedlamfarm.com and http://www.facebook.com/BedlamFarm or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty; photograph of Homer and Orson © James Lattanzio/Villard.