What the Dog Did
This is the first of two excerpts from the new book What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner, by Slate columnist Emily Yoffe.
Our beagle, Sasha, is adorable enough to stop traffic, but like a long-eared Marilyn Monroe, she appears to have permanent damage to her psyche from her traumatic early life. She had been a dead dog barking, hours away from a scheduled euthanasia at a West Virginia shelter, when she was saved by the beagle rescue organization we adopted her from. After months, we broke through her attitude of resigned terror, and a loveable, if skittish, pet emerged. But we seemed unable to fully convince her that "come" was not a synonym for "flee."
Then I got a pleading e-mail from Laura, the head of Beagle Rescue Education and Welfare (BREW), who had fixed us up with Sasha. She was begging for foster families to take in a particularly large crop of incompetent hunting beagles abandoned in the woods by their owners. I don't know why I did it, but I replied that I would try one. Within minutes Laura wrote back directing me to read the Boy's Town life story of Roscoe on BREW's Web site, and giving me directions to the veterinarian's office where he was boarded.
As I drove to get him, I assumed Roscoe's early traumas would leave him with an even more stunted personality and hard-to-train bladder than Sasha's. He had been found wandering in rural Virginia by a hunter who then placed him in a temporary home. When that family decided they couldn't care for him anymore, he was sent to a shelter, where a network of beagle watchers alerted BREW. The group brought him to their adoption event and he found a new owner. Shortly after adopting Roscoe, the new owner was hospitalized. From his hospital bed, the owner organized some friends to feed and walk Roscoe, but Roscoe was increasingly frightened by the series of strangers and started relieving himself in the house. The owner called BREW, which took him back and boarded him at a kennel. While there he developed kennel cough, so he was transferred to a veterinary hospital for treatment, where I was to pick him up.
When I first saw Roscoe he reminded me of a chimerical figure in Greek mythology, those part-lion, part-goat creatures. Roscoe had a small, brown beagle head, and a huge, white, hoglike body. It was as if he'd been sewn together and his collar hid the stitches. When I brought Roscoe home, Sasha was thrilled and gnawed on him, prompting both to chase each other around the house. After a few minutes of this, Roscoe came over in turn to me, my husband, and daughter, jumping up on us for a greeting. Sasha seemed confused and put out—why was her new friend paying attention to people? She came over and tried to egg on Roscoe to play, but he was too busy licking my husband.
We separated the animals and fed them. Sasha, as usual, bolted her food faster than the human retina could register. But Roscoe ate slowly, interrupting his meal several times to come over to each of us, thanking us for the marvelous victuals.
Later that night, my husband was on his usual evening guard duty—manning the television remote while prone on the couch—when Roscoe came bounding up, depositing himself with a thump on my husband's chest. Within minutes, Roscoe, who probably had never been groomed in his short, miserable life, had shed an alpaca sweater's worth of white hair on my husband's navy sweat shirt. He stuck his head into my husband's neck and licked it furiously.
Roscoe was an ample fellow and from my perspective on the other end of the couch, it seemed as if my husband was being given a hickey by someone the size of James Gandolfini. Then Roscoe fell asleep, head resting in my husband's armpit. My husband put his arm around Roscoe's midsection. They looked as if they were on their honeymoon. However, I had been on my husband's honeymoon, and during it he hadn't looked that much in love.
"How do you like Roscoe?" I asked.
"I've never been so happy," he replied, a slight catch in his voice.
During the day, walking the two dogs together made me feel the heartbreak of having a gorgeous child whom people fawned over and a homely one with a great personality whom everyone ignored. People would stop, lean down to pat Sasha, and say, "What a beautiful beagle," then look at Roscoe and ask, "What's that?"
Having Roscoe was both deflating and reassuring. Deflating because in one week we got further in training Roscoe than we had in all our time with Sasha. That's what made it reassuring. Despite the fact that most dog books blame dog problems on inept owners, Roscoe was proof that Sasha's deficiencies were not necessarily our fault. Roscoe did things unprecedented in our dog experience: He never had "accidents"; call out "Roscoe!" and he immediately ran to you.
Roscoe made a particular bond with my husband. When he came in the door at night, it was Roscoe who ran to greet him. While I was making dinner and my daughter was watching her television allotment, the two of them wrestled in the front hall. "I love you too, big boy, I love you too," my husband said with a laugh, finally getting the kind of attention and affection he had hoped a wife and child would provide.
Roscoe moved me in a way I found disturbing. In the evening, when my husband, Roscoe, and I were on the couch, if I got up for any reason, Roscoe leapt off my husband to follow me. He seemed to be saying, "Everything OK? Need some company?" Such behavior from another person would have you petitioning for a restraining order. But from Roscoe it felt like love. I had been led to believe love was based on knowing another deeply, and I was just the new warm body who fed Roscoe. It didn't matter, because he tripped the switch in my wiring reserved for dog love. I now understood what dog people were so gaga about.
For BREW's Web site I wrote a description of Roscoe that made him sound like a combination of Lassie and Isaac Newton. Laura told me that families were competing for the right to meet him. I arranged to have the first couple in line come to our house one evening. They were young and sweet, the wife three months pregnant. While some people get rid of the dog once the baby is on the way, there are others who can't wait for the offspring to finish gestating and need something to cuddle immediately. I went upstairs to get Roscoe.
They were sitting on the couch in the living room when we came down. I said, "Roscoe, come meet the people who would like you to be their dog." Roscoe, who had greeted all our visitors with an enthusiastic jump and lick, looked at them, narrowed his eyes, and growled.
"Roscoe, what are you doing?" I said, trying to bring him over to the couple. Roscoe dropped to his haunches and started barking. Then he threw his head back and bayed. This dog was a genius! He was saying to me, "I'm done with strangers."
The husband suggested that I get him some treats with which to entice Roscoe. I gave him a handful of dog food. Roscoe growled and snapped at his outstretched hand. I sat down next to Roscoe to calm him down and he practically knocked me over in his attempt to show that I was his woman.
I brought down Sasha, hoping she would distract Roscoe from his new enemies. She immediately ran into the husband's arms and started begging for the treats. He fed her and she excitedly licked him. The wife got down on the floor next to her husband and Sasha began licking her. They both laughed and remarked on how adorable and friendly Sasha was. Did a small voice inside me say, "They'd be so happy with Sasha and you'd be so happy with Roscoe"? Sure. But that's the same small voice that says to some CEOs, "The auditors will never catch on to this!"
After a few minutes Roscoe became intrigued and tentatively approached the couple. I praised him and he let them stroke him. In 10 minutes, he was alternating between their laps. The wife said, "I like him."
I talked to Laura that night and started making noises that we might want to adopt Roscoe ourselves. She begged me not to—she was desperate for good foster families. She promised to find us another wonderful foster right away. I asked my family what to do. I knew no other foster could be as good as Roscoe.
"Mom, we made an agreement," my then 7-year-old daughter said. "I think we have to let another family adopt Roscoe." I was stunned at her maturity. Then it occurred to me—she's jealous! Sasha was the adorable but incorrigible younger sister who was always getting in trouble. Roscoe was the brother who got endless praise and attention from the parents.
The next day I got an e-mail from Laura saying the couple wanted him. We made arrangements for them to pick Roscoe up the following Saturday. My husband couldn't stand it. He took our daughter shopping and left me to bid adieu.
When they arrived at the door Roscoe barked and growled, then he calmed and let them stroke him. I took a minute alone with him. "Goodbye, big boy. You will have a wonderful new family." I wondered why I was going through with this. Yes, I loved Sasha, but Roscoe was the first dog I'd ever really loved. The husband put a leash on Roscoe and they went down the front stairs. I watched through the window as they led him to their car and opened the crate in the back seat. When they tugged on the leash to try to get him to go in, Roscoe turned and quizzically looked up at our front door. I stopped myself from running down the steps and dragging him back. Roscoe got in the car.
That night, as my husband lay on the couch, bereft, Sasha came into the den and sat near his feet. "Come here, Sasha, come up and lay by me," my husband said, patting his chest. At the sound of the words, "Sasha" and "come," Sasha got up and ran from the room.