At first light we slowly made our way to the beach, and Dante the Staffordshire Bull Terrier discovered the ocean.
I cannot be certain he’d ever spied a real body of water before in his life. Twenty days earlier, Dante had been found blithely wandering on a rural road far inland. Now, as a Day One adoptee, thrust onto the beachfront stage of the bustling, dog-dense city of Vancouver, his new life lay before him—and never more evidently than at the moment he willed us forward in a frantic beeline to the waiting tide.
A rising, keening moan—the first proper noise I’d heard him emit—and a barely contained full-body jig told the whole story: Dante was born to swim. I watched from behind as he halted our march, shifting his weight cautiously, side to side, building to a slow rocking motion. Abruptly, Dante’s shocked excitement overtook him. He emptied himself, his delight collecting as a hot deposit in the morning sand. Think Columbus in the Americas. Think the moon landing. Think the Marines on Iwo Jima—a flag-planting moment. He came. He saw. He messed himself.
Some parents have A+ kiddies. I have a new dog. This account of Dante and our first thirty days together is just what you’d expect of an adoption story: at heart it’s a love story. But it’s a love seasoned with learning, patience, and the humbling realization that, beaches notwithstanding, I have a great deal more to learn than my dog does. The reward? I earn the right to keep on learning some more. But this is a welcome kind of humbling—and I hope there’s no end to it.
Sometimes, you come to a change; at other times, change comes to you. I am a bachelor in my late twenties. After leaving a heady job the year before, I’d begun to settle into that predictable fugue of the self-employed: my life was suddenly my own again, but what was my life? From changing perspectives on life and career to some truly comic romantic misfirings, I felt overdrawn.
In the same period, dogs entered my life. A lifelong cat lover, I’d never had much time or patience for the canine crowd. But when a dear friend took me out with her pack of dogs, I came away a little smitten. (Maybe you know the feeling.) I learned about breeds and temperaments. I watched in quiet wonderment. Although the friendship faded, the lasting impressions did not. My interest was piqued and I began to glean more from friends and from books. I consulted The Monks of New Skete’s classic primer, The Art of Raising a Puppy. Then I resolved to take my pursuit one step further, to an adoption search, to see just how seriously I felt.
My search for a suitable companion began online. A friend recommended This free online service connects interested adopters with an immense network of North American shelters and rescue organizations, presenting in one database a veritable ark—over 100,000 prospects at any given time—of dogs, cats and other pets. According to recent figures in The Christian Science Monitor, Petfinder’s network of 6,000 related organizations has to date managed to “re-home” over a million animals. Most powerfully, Petfinder allows visitors to search using an exhaustive list of criteria (breed, sex, age and appearance being just the tip of the iceberg), and spurs would-be adopters with email alerts when new furry candidates matching their preferences appear in local shelters.
The first thing an animal lover realizes about Petfinder is that this is The Real Online Dating. Forget all those internet matchmaking services, bloated with posturing and puffed-up dating CVs. I quickly found my pet-longing stoked by the profiles, even if the write-ups seemed breezily reminiscent of their human equivalents. Dante’s listing concluded with the promise-cum-threat (naturally in the first person), “I may rush up and kiss you!” (Translation: Don’t fret when he jumps up on you.) Cruising Petfinder, it turns out, is not so different from reading tea leaves in the personals. The promise of romance and companionship is thick, but the reality may prove elusive. The dog photos are uniformly alluring, and the descriptions always upbeat, your heartstrings being plucked with discomfiting regularity.
After carefully browsing and refining my search over many weeks, I started to visit some of these comely pick-up artists. Shelter visits are, of course, a stark contrast to the gloss of Petfinder “shopping,” and a necessary next step in steeling one’s resolve. The sheer need and reality of these animals’ situation hits any visitor. It also becomes clear all that an adoptive parent will never know about the pet’s history—was she loved and lost, or abused and neglected? Certainties are few and far between. It’s an important recognition: pet ownership is ultimately about responsibility, not entitlement.
My heart crept up my throat the day I saw the newest tenant of the Coquitlam SPCA, a cheerful-looking, one- to two-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier. After my first visit, while I still felt a little unsure, I procured a crate, bed, food, dishes, toys, leash and martingale collar. It felt like an elopement.
My second visit to see the dog, who I’d already come to call Dante, was my last. He had spent two weeks in the SPCA shelter. After a brief interview, the just-neutered young charge, awkwardly sporting his post-op cone, was passed into my hands. We drove back to Vancouver, both wondering where we were headed.
Dante is a dark, rich brindle colour, with a white patch rising between his considerable jowls. He has the typical compact athletic build, goofy loping gait, wide-set eyes and bulky skull of a bulldog breed. His face is capped by a court jester’s crown, one ear ever flopping limply forward. He has a quiet, well-mannered mien, an eager tongue and tail, but leaves all his best rhetorical work to his piquant, dark, hazel-framed eyes.
We lived in a curious state the first week, like restless roommates. I was the picture of overzealous. I didn’t stray much from my apartment for work, and left him only during strategically brief outings. We restricted outdoor excursions in my busy neighbourhood to early mornings and late evenings.
For his part, Dante spent a lot of time quietly observing me observing him. He wrestled with my habitually sleepless evenings, trying comically for a while to ape my insomnia. He housetrained me, not vice versa, making polite indications when it was time. I was the more tentative one; for his part, he never let me out of his sight. I marked off mental calendars, clocking time and activities with meticulous detail. I spent watchful hours studying him in sleep, wondering how he’d be received by my dog-trendy neighbourhood. I did everything but start a college fund.
As it turned out, the public reception was warm and immediate. Despite his breed’s somewhat formidable appearance—forty pounds of concentrated muscle had bodybuilders worriedly scooping their girlfriends’ lap dogs up from the sidewalk—Dante was an amiable charmer. During his first vet visit, an assistant rushed out her dog to be Dante’s “first.” His noncommittal sniff seemed to disappoint.
The veterinarian, following a methodical inspection punctuated by deep groans of appraisal, reiterated the history I’d just related. “Dante was found wandering a country road. No identification, no tags.
“Dante is a purebred Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
“Do you realize, young man, that you’ve won the lottery?”
Even if I hadn’t, the general public knew it. Dante’s street charisma seemed effortless. He would pause with deliberate aplomb at the feet of beautiful women who would ordinarily have sent me into a panic. More often than not, they would crouch and coo. As the purring and gawking females queued up, and as boutiques, coffee bars and wine shops began to lure him in from the curb, it dawned on me that Dante was far more adept at swimming social waters than I. Actually, he is a superior swimmer, period. Just what I needed from a dog: an inferiority complex.
Dante’s romantic leanings aside, I learned quickly that love is spelled
f-e-t-c-h. Dante showed little interest in other dogs, but revealed a fanatical penchant for playing with me. His “ball drive,” as trainers refer to it, is a thrumming, near-constant presence, indoors and out. Fortunately for the longevity of my pitching arm, he took to jogging just as swiftly.
When Dante was not focused squarely on play, however, new behaviours emerged. He exhibited some leash training, but also a free acknowledgement of his sheer power. But pulling was a minor concern compared to the intense interest Dante began to take in everyone else’s toys (soccer balls, volleyballs, other dogs’ playthings—you name it). His ball obsession led to many colourful incidents, occasionally concluding in teary-eyed children or me proffering my billfold to cover replacement costs.
Dante also discovered his voice the day we first visited a dog park. It turns out that the meek, silent dog of our first weeks together is capable of a very deep, resonant basso. Some might call his bark head-turning. And he did not discover its Off switch, that day at the park, until we returned home.
The picture of Dante which began to emerge was of two very different dogs. Outdoors, Dante was a strutting, willful athlete with a casual indifference to dogs, but a pronounced—and regrettable, let me tell you—fixation on fetching women. He was starting to show broader signs of social maladjustment, too. For example, he’d overwhelm other dogs’ sociable approaches with his barking. Indoors, Dante was a craven pup uncertain from hour to hour that his new “father” would stick around. He was by turns mild and neurotically watchful, forever proffering bones, balls and other toys. And then there were the shoes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Reconciling the two Dantes proved difficult math. I sought out training referrals. Fortunately, after an interminable line-up of cartoon disciplinarians, walking food dispensers, and holistic canine-communers, I happened upon a local advocacy group devoted to the idiosyncrasies of Dante’s breed group. HugABully Rescue provides responsible homes, dedicated education and support in aid of these commonly misunderstood dogs. Dante and I have now embarked on a closely tailored journey for training and managing our own expectations of one another, and Dante’s behaviour has brightened dramatically.
Dante is eyeing me a little differently these days, like we’ve eased into something more settled. It turns out that Dante has some learning to do, too. Like about my insomnia. He often contemplates me from across the room, balled up on one of his nocturnal perches, like he’s quietly composing a character study of his own. It’s a look I get most often when I return from an extended spell at the office.
It’s become our hallmark routine. I walk into the apartment. Dante comes clapping out, waving his paws at me in his funny distracted dance. We greet for a few moments, then I move past him to the bedroom. There at his bed I will spy how, once again, he’s neatly secreted a pair of my shoes beneath his blanket. (Sometimes it’s my cellphone.) And as I pick up and inspect the shoes, which are never chewed, each time feeling a wondering regard and a foolish grin for this little guy who feels so much that he’d steal my stuff if it’d keep me nearer, I turn back and see him cowering ever so slightly, a petty criminal caught red-handed. His dark eyes will lower slightly, shift to the ground, and often, his whole body will follow, sinking to the floor in meek apology. But the whole works is shot through with affection. After an impish glance away, he’ll theatrically haul himself toward me, front claws hooking into the carpet, hind legs dragging uselessly behind. He’ll tilt his face to meet my gaze, head bobbling there until our faces meet in embrace.
We’re past our first month now, and with Dante I’m still a boy over the moon. I don’t need to check the calendar to mark down dates on this honeymoon. It’s like the old guy sang. I already know each day around here is Valentine’s Day.