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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Making The Connection

I have loved dogs for many, many years, despite being terrified of them at one point in my childhood. All of my dogs have been adopted from animal shelters, rescues or the streets. So I don't understand why I have a problem with 'the adoption thing.' Let me explain.

One recent weekend, my daughter wanted to stop by a large dog adoption event in which several rescue groups and shelters were participating. We weren't there to adopt, just to visit. The dogs were housed in pens under a large white tent in the parking lot of a local PetSmart store. As we walked by the pens, my heart was broken by the sight of so many homeless and unwanted dogs. It was all I could do to keep the tears at bay.

Little puppies crawled over each other. Chihuahuas ran excitedly to the front of their pen, wearing little 'Adopt Me' bandanas. Other dogs wagged their tails and sought even the briefest bit of attention. A black-and-tan coonhound bayed mournfully. Some dogs, either tired or depressed, slept curled up in the back of their pens.

I am bothered by the whole looking-for-a-new-dog process. I haven't always felt this way, so I don't know what has changed. But walking up and down the aisles, seeing so many dogs hoping to be chosen and taken home, not only breaks my heart, but it also bothers me on a deeper level. I feel as if I'm on a car lot, browsing the cars to see which model and color I want. But these are not cars; they are living, breathing, feeling animals. And depending on where they are, they may face death if someone doesn't adopt them within a certain amount of time.

Don't get me wrong. For me, adoption is the only way to get a dog. I would never consider going to a pet shop (where the dogs typically come from mass-production puppy mills) or spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a dog 'with papers.' So I will always get dogs from a rescue or animal shelter. But something about the process makes me uncomfortable.

Maybe it's the helpless feeling that comes from knowing that I can save only a handful of dogs during my lifetime, and that when I decide to add a dog to our family, I will adopt just one despite so many in need. Maybe it's the realization that the dogs I don't choose face an uncertain future. Maybe it's the unspoken judging of the animals that bothers me. "Too big." "Too young." "I don't care for that breed of dog."

Then, of course, there is the search for that intangible, unexplainable feeling of connection when I do see a dog that calls to me.

I love golden retrievers, but my heart dog was a 25-pound Jack Russell terrier/cattle dog I named Jackson. He was stubborn, difficult to house train and sometimes grumpy, but he still holds a special place in my heart.

What is that undefined something that causes person and dog to connect? I can understand when someone is looking over a litter of puppies and one pup consistently goes to the person, or curls up on someone's lap. In that case, the puppy chooses the person. But choosing a dog at an animal shelter is so different. There is little interaction between person and dog. What causes them to connect? It isn't just breed preference or size or age or color of the dog, although those may be factors. I generally don't care whether I adopt a male or a female dog, and color really isn't an issue, either.

What is this connection and where does it come from? It cannot be explained. And it cannot be forced, I know that. It's either there, or it isn't there. This feeling has generally been clear whenever I adopted a dog. When I recently went to see a Jack Russell terrier available for adoption, I felt no connection, despite the fact that this dog was the 'right' breed, size, age and gender. With two female dogs at home, I felt that if I ever decided to add another dog, a male would be the right choice. I put a lot of thought into whether or not to adopt this dog, but the connection just was not there.

I guess this is one of those things I never will be able to explain. I will continue to adopt dogs as I can, because I know there will always be dogs that will connect with me. In the meantime, I will just have to deal with the uncomfortable feeling of judging and passing over many dogs as I search for just the right one.