Monday, March 7, 2011

Dog Tales: The Homecoming

Friday is William’s thirteenth birthday—not that I know exactly when he was born. William was a stray, adopted from an animal shelter, but when our vet examined him, days after we'd become a pair in August 1999, she expressed her opinion that he was a year and a few months, so I assigned him the birthday of his predecessor, Niklaas, who I knew had been born on March 11. In the week preceding William’s birthday, as a tribute to him and because some of you have told me you enjoy William stories, I’m going to share some favorite anecdotes of our life together so far. 

I adopted William from a shelter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was there, a few weeks after my dog Niklaas died, on a weekend visit to a friend. On the evening I arrived, I recounted over dinner my sad tale of looking for love at the Columbia-Greene Humane Society. After a week of daily visits to the shelter, meeting dogs, walking them, playing with them, wanting to adopt all of them and none of them, but mostly weeping for Nick, I gave it up out of fear that dogs I'd met would start disappearing and I wouldn’t know what had happened to them. (Back then, the Columbia-Greene Humane Society was not yet a “no kill” shelter, or if it was, I didn't know it.)

After hearing my story, my friend declared that, before the weekend was out, I would have a new dog, and first thing the next morning, we went to the Lancaster County Humane League. The shelter has a very efficient design. Small dogs, puppies, and cats are housed in a room at the center of the building. Ranged around the perimeter of the building are quarters for medium and large dogs, each with an indoor space and access to an outdoor area. People wanting to adopt a dog circumnavigate the building to view the dogs who need homes.

On my first trip around, I saw nothing that tugged at my heart. There was a Golden Retriever, and my friend urged me to ask about her. I did and learned that she wouldn’t be available for almost a week and there was already a waiting list of more than twenty people wanting to adopt her. Desperate to find a new dog to love, I went around for a second time, and it was then that I saw a dog who'd been outside on my first go-round. He was black, long-legged, and gangling, with one ear that stood up straight and one that flopped over. Only his color and size made him similar to Niklaas, a purebred Belgian sheep dog (hence the Flemish spelling of his name), but when he looked at me, I saw my dear departed Nick in his eyes. It was love at first sight.

He wasn’t ready to be adopted. He wouldn't be available until the next day. After I was interviewed and judged to be a worthy adopter, and the dog and I spent time together under the watchful eye of a member of the shelter staff, my name went first on his dance card. The next afternoon, I could claim my new love.

I don’t remember how I spent the rest of Saturday--I think I may have visited Longwood Gardens—but at the appointed hour on Sunday, I was back at the shelter eager to take possession of my new companion, whom by that time I had named William. After I’d signed all the papers and paid the adoption fee, William and I piled into the back seat of my friend’s car together, like teenagers being chauffeured by a parent on their first date.

I don’t really recall how we spent the rest of Sunday. I remember worrying that, although the shelter assured me he was housebroken, William might soil the white carpet in my friend’s condo, and I remember sleeping at the edge of the pullout couch, with my hand on William who lay beside me--I on the bed, he on the floor.

On Monday morning, my friend headed off to work, and William and I, after taking a long walk around the neighborhood, got in our car for the six-hour journey back to Hudson. Halfway home, we took a break in a little National Park somewhere in Pennsylvania, where William got a walk, a snack and a drink, and a chance to relieve himself. When I was ready to go, William wasn’t keen to get back in the car, but after a little coaxing he did. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but that was my first clue that William had a troubling aversion to cars.

When we finally reached Hudson, there was no parking space right in front of my house, so I had to park a few doors down. As we walked up the street, William turned and tentatively approached the front door of our next-door neighbors’ house—a house I’d entered many times. He hesitated, appeared to reconsider, then made a beeline to the next house, and bounded up the steps to the front door.

We were home.

The adolescent William at home in Hudson

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