They found her in the back seat of a stranger’s car at the mall, wearing a tired red collar without a tag, a crumpled paper sack holding two cans of dog food next to her bushy black tail.
Whoever left her probably believed they were doing the best thing, that maybe the owner of a nice car would have the money to keep her and care for her. She was well groomed and well fed; her people had cared for her. Whatever it was that brought them to the point of parting with her — a divorce, a deployment, a lost job. They must have believed this was better than taking her to a shelter.
But the owner of the nice car didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t keep her, and she ended up at the shelter anyway, one of the several million homeless dogs that are killed in shelters every year, one of several thousand dogs that are killed in animal shelters each day. Just like those dogs, she was born, she played, she loved, and she bonded to someone before that day. When her people’s luck ran out, so did hers. Almost.
Someone must have seen something special in her brown eyes, in the way she basked in even the smallest of attention paid to her, the way she seemed to smile when spoken to in a soft voice. Someone noticed her behind the bars of the cage as they walked through the kennel, her quiet manner unlike the others barking and jumping. “This one can be saved,” they thought, “this one is adoptable.”
The animal rescue group took her from the shelter and brought her to a farm, to a foster family who would take care of her, be kind to her, and get to know her while the group tried to find her a forever home. The foster family didn’t name her, and she had no way of telling them her name. The tentativeness of her situation made her watchful and careful, on her best behavior so the awful loss would not happen again. She must have grieved for her people.
It happened one day that I had a chance encounter with the woman from the farm at the feed store. She was buying some sort of monstrous looking metal device for her sow, Oona. We got to talking as we stood in line, and I ended up following her back to her farm to see the sow which lived up to its description of being as large as a Volkswagen Beetle. Oona was as nasty as she was large, so one look over the rail of the pen was plenty enough pig.
As we walked around the farm, I noticed the black dog almost surgically attached to the woman’s leg. The dog had not left her side from the moment of our arrival and had, in fact, leaped a three foot fence to get to her.
I said “That dog is really attached to you.” And the woman told me what she knew of the dog’s story. I knelt down on the soft grass to pet her, and I could feel this dog’s big heart radiating under my hand. My own dog, BJ The Wonder Dog, lay in the cool shaded grass, waiting for me. I stood up, thanked the woman for allowing us to visit, and opened the back of my Explorer for BJ to hop in. He did.
And in less than a minute, the black dog with the soulful eyes looked up at the woman, and, having made her own decision about her fate, hopped up into the Explorer right next to BJ. I looked at the two smiling, happy dogs in my truck and then over at the woman.
“I guess she’s found her home,” she said, smiling.
“I guess she has,” I replied, closing the tailgate of the truck.
I had gone to see a pig and come away with a used dog.
Bailey melded into our lives as if she’d always been a part of us. She patiently raised a kitten, and she was a companion not only to me but to BJ as age wore him down. When his sight went, she would use her body to herd him from the yard to the porch steps, her nose nudging his legs up the steps to the front door. Her devotion to him was amazing to witness, and when it came time to let him go, she grieved with me.
For the five years I had her, I often silently thanked the people who gave her up. She embodied everything that is best in dogs: their inexhaustible capacity for forgiveness, for loyalty, for love without condition. I think they help bring out those qualities in us, too.
But there’s something extra special about shelter dogs. They teach us about gratitude. In the end, it’s hard to say who saved whose life.