Animal Instinct

When our dogs died, my husband and I longed for a new pet to fill the void.

I always thought it was wrong to return a dog. I looked down on friends who gave dogs back to breeders or shelters or re-homed them on Craigslist when the initial excitement wore off and the work of caring for the pet began. You don’t treat an animal like a defective toaster, I thought, swapping it for a new one.

My dogs are my kids. They got me through a divorce, one sleeping in my bed, her head on my ex-husband’s pillow, the other protecting me, growling when strangers came to the door. Their sloppy kisses eased my loneliness.

My new husband, Steve, and I spent our early dates hiking with our dogs. I knew he was the one when he kneeled on a trail on a warm October day and filled his cupped hand with water not only for his dog but also for mine.

Eventually our three dogs died, leaving us with their half-full medicine bottles, gnawed bones, and empty pet beds. Without a dog to walk, we rarely saw the seasons or our neighbors. Their love had been abundant and uncomplicated. Its absence left a chasm.

When it came time to look for a new dog, Steve and I ran into trouble. The last time I adopted a dog it took me a day to find one. The last time Steve adopted a dog, he spent a year looking. On numerous trips to the shelter, we couldn’t agree. I liked a boxer named Shalom. We were Jewish; it was kismet! But Steve didn’t bond with him. He refused to meet any toy dogs and preferred a female.

Returning home from the shelter each time, I couldn’t hide my anger and disappointment. I resented Steve for being too particular. He accused me of not being particular enough.

While we were looking, we adopted a cat, Arie. Left anonymously in the shelter’s “night box,” she was 9 pounds of white silk, with pink ears. She kneaded our chests when we held her, hoping for milk. We fell hard—but still longed for a dog.

I monitored the animals on the shelter’s website obsessively, keeping the site open and refreshing it every five minutes, looking for a dog that met Steve’s criteria. As soon as Cowgirl’s picture went up, I called and paid $20 by credit card to put her on hold. We rushed down to see her.

Seventeen pounds and white, with paws the size of walnuts, she was the kind of dog who would get adopted fast. She hid behind a shelter volunteer, but we weren’t bothered by her shyness. If anything, it reassured us she wouldn’t pose a threat to Arie.

I watched Steve as closely as I did the dog. He sat down on the grass next to Cowgirl and rubbed her belly. I could tell he liked her.

At our request, the shelter did a “cat test,” observing how Cowgirl reacted when she encountered a feline in a carrier. “She passed,” they said when Cowgirl ignored it.

The shelter said she was a cattle dog mix. Molly, one of the dogs we had lost, had been a cattle dog mix, sweet and smart and a great friend to Flora, our cat that had also died. Cowgirl didn’t look anything like Molly or a cattle dog. She looked like a Jack Russell terrier, with tan markings on her face and black “mascara” around her eyes. A Jack Russell would be a terrible dog to bring home to a cat because they are bred to chase foxes and other burrowing animals.

A voice inside me insisted she wasn’t the one, but I refused to listen. I was tired of looking for a dog and the tension it created between Steve and me. I was desperate to re-experience the bond I had with our other dogs. We filled out the adoption paperwork. It was a Tuesday.

We hung a tag engraved with her name and our phone number from her collar, and stocked up on Costco-size bags of treats. We were in for the long haul.

The minute we entered our house, the shy girl from the shelter disappeared. We had been advised to keep Cowgirl on a long tether or behind an oversize baby gate at first, to give the animals time to adjust and to keep Arie safe while they did. Each time she saw Arie, Cowgirl hurled herself at the gate, barking and whining. She strained at the end of the tether, testing its limits.

We learned what shelter professionals already know: The cat test doesn’t work. The cat selected by the shelter is unafraid of dogs and is restrained in a carrier. Bringing a dog home to an uncaged cat is a different matter.

Arie was so frightened by Cowgirl’s lunges—and shocked to find herself prey in her own home, I imagine—she stopped using her litter box, pooping instead on the basement carpet.

After two days, we called the shelter director for advice. “You might not be the right home for Cowgirl,” she said. I was taken aback. We were calling for help getting Cowgirl settled. We hadn’t considered bringing her back. We weren’t the kind of people who returned a dog. If I was sure of anything, it was that. Besides, I had broadcast pictures of her on Facebook and beyond. We had spooned at night—briefly, when she wasn’t curled in a tight ball on the opposite corner of the bed, as far from me as she could get.

The director transferred us to a behaviorist who advised bringing both animals into the same room several times a day under close supervision and giving them treats. Cowgirl was to be rewarded only when she was calm. “They could become the best of friends,” she assured us.

Steve and I followed the behaviorist’s advice, but we didn’t see a change. A trainer we trusted gave us a grim assessment. “It could take six months to teach Cowgirl not to go after Arie. Even then, you’ll want to muzzle the dog just to be safe. You may never trust her completely.”

After five days, we were worn down. Even I had to admit we weren’t creating the loving family I had envisioned. Confined, Cowgirl was miserable, barely moving except when Arie came into view. Arie spent most of the time in the basement, out of Cowgirl’s reach.

That Saturday, we returned Cowgirl. It turned out we were the kind of people who brought back a dog. Cowgirl bounded through the shelter doors, and a volunteer took her to a kennel. She never once looked back at us.

Standing at the desk where people surrender animals, I hoped no one recognized me. I couldn’t wait to return to the anonymity of my car. I wept, before making the decision and after. I worried I had failed Cowgirl.  I mourned the bond I had hoped for with her. Cowgirl’s tag still lies in my dresser drawer, alongside the tags of the animals we had lost.

Months went by before we visited the shelter again. I no longer believed a new dog would fill the void left by the old ones. I had learned what it meant to bring home the wrong dog.

Eventually we adopted Rosie, who had lived on a South Dakota reservation. A 1-year-old mutt, she was 57 pounds with reddish-tan fur, a charcoal muzzle, and ears like a bat’s wings. Both Steve and I were drawn to her.

It’s taken months to house-train her. Still a puppy, she chews everything, including the midcentury modern love seat in my home office and a cable remote. (Maybe she doesn’t like our choice of shows.) Arie munches Rosie’s giant ears and bats her large nose. When Arie commandeers Rosie’s bed, Rosie lies alongside her on the floor.

For a time I thought doing right by Arie meant doing wrong by Cowgirl, but ultimately I realized we did right by Cowgirl, too, giving her the chance to find a home that was a better fit, one in which she needn’t be restrained. The decision was obvious once I focused on Cowgirl’s needs instead of my own.

Within 48 hours of returning her, she was adopted by a family without a cat.

R.L. Maizes lives in Colorado and is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Illustration by WACSO

Originally Published March 2016