Ode to Black Dog
There’s this black dog in my house. Let’s call her Black Dog. She’s been here for two weeks, and I just told my wife to say her goodbyes.
I absorbed my old dog’s death under 108° sun in the back parking lot of Las Vegas’ Rio Hotel and Casino. I sat down against a wall and cried on desert-hot cement.
When Scoop died in July 2010, I was halfway across the country working at the World Series of Poker. My wife held the 13-pound mutt as she died. It ended more than a decade of living with the first pet we had as a couple. Scoop (named by a newsroom, in case you were wondering) pre-dated our children, our marriage, and our move to South Carolina.
Scoop wasn’t a good dog, and few people outside of our family liked her very much. She was terrible with kids–and, frankly, most adults–but we loved her. She brought joy to our life, and losing that joy made us sad.
It made me even sadder that, because we had a one-year-old in the house, we couldn’t have another dog like Scoop. It just wasn’t going to happen.
That is how I justified one of the bigger mistakes I’ve made in the past few years.
There was never any question we would have another dog. The only question was how we were going to get the perfect dog for our family. Weeks of research, countless conversations, and more than a few late night sessions on Animal Planet led us to the conclusion we had to have a Labrador Retriever, America’s most popular dog. Everyone we talked to said Labs are perfect for families, smart, and great around children.
And so we set out to find the perfect dog. We scoured the web. We found White Dog in a neighboring county.
Yes, at a breeder.
Listen, I’m not going to pretend we hadn’t heard all the arguments. I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t aware of overpopulation, purebred medical problems, and the countless and senseless instances of euthanasia because of overcrowded shelters. Deep down, I knew all that.
But the argument at our house went like this: “We have kids. We have to be careful. We have to know what we’re getting.”
And somehow we made ourselves believe the only way to find the perfect dog was to buy one.
Yes, from a breeder.
Sometime around the very moment the check cleared, we made a fairly startling discovery: White Dog was not the perfect dog, and she was not bringing joy to our life.
Here’s the thing. White Dog is a purebred Lab we’ve had now for two and half years. She’s never shown a single sign of aggression. She’s smart—too smart—and she is now a permanent part of our family.
But for the first year of her life, White Dog was the world’s worst Labrador Retriever. She was seemingly immune to training. She ate everything in sight. She refused to walk on a leash. She destroyed major parts of both our old house and new house. All told, between what we paid for her, her healthcare, her training, and extensive repairs, White Dog ended up costing us thousands of dollars. Indeed, it was far from perfect. There was no joy.
That finally changed when we met a guy named Jeff Jones, a confirmed miracle-worker who can train the toughest of dogs. Jeff is the lead trainer at Upstate Dog Training, a company I will recommend to anyone with a dog.
Beyond the necessary training White Dog got, the training facility also offered daycare where White Dog could play with other dogs. It was around that time we learned something.
See, old Scoop didn’t like animals any more than she liked most people. We got used to simply keeping her away from her fellow canines. But White Dog? Nothing makes her happier than running with another dog. She is never better behaved than she is when she’s had a day to play.
So, while she finally started bringing joy to our lives, it seemed her biggest joys came when she was up the road running with the other daycare dogs.
In short, it felt like we were still doing it wrong.
I’m sure there is probably a place for breeders in the world, and I don’t like to judge, but there was no chance I was buying another dog from a breeder ever again. It wasn’t necessarily that buying a dog from a breeder had made our dog any worse. The point was, it hadn’t done anything to make the dog better. We had fooled ourselves into thinking we were getting a sure thing. It was as naive as we’ve been in a very long time. Even if our bad experience was completely unique to us, it didn’t change the fact that buying a dog bred for the purpose of selling it just didn’t jibe with what I came to feel was the right thing to do.
But, get this: I wanted another Lab.
Up until the past year, I thought the process of rescuing a dog was little more than going down to the Humane Society, picking out a mutt that looked right, and rolling the dice. Even recently, my frame of reference for modern so-called rescue groups was a fairly unflattering article in Slate. I wasn’t optimistic, and when I got in touch with a group called Lowcountry Lab Rescue, I was harboring some fairly serious bias. When I had to fill out a long application and submit references, my attitude was poor.
And yet, I continued to look at the dogs the group had available. My wife and I would talk in the evenings about what sort of dog might fit in our house: another girl dog, maybe a little past the puppy stage, maybe one that was black, because we’d heard about “black dog bias,” and even if it was an urban myth, we still dug black dogs.
Finally, a few weeks ago, we saw a picture of a black, one-year-old Lab mix on the Lowcountry Lab Rescue site. A few days later, the dog’s foster dropped her off to hang out with us. It was a two-week trial period to see if the dog fit in with our family, was good around White Dog, and had good manners.
Our friends and family—some more politely than others—issued their concern. How, they wondered, could we possibly consider having a second dog when White Dog had been such trouble for us? How could two busy parents—one of whom travels a great deal—tend to two mischievous boys and the rest of our lives if we added a second dog to it?
Or, as one friend put it: “Are you insane?”
I asked myself the same question over the past two weeks. Every time my wife brought up the “Do we or don’t we” question, I said we’d make our decision when the two-week trial period was up.
Along the way, I discovered a lot of things. Most notably, I learned that the Lowcountry Lab Rescue people are fantastic and doing some important work. I discovered that a one-year-old dog is infinitely easier to welcome into one’s home than a puppy. Finally, I watched White Dog chase Black Dog around the yard. I watched the kids chase the dogs. I watched my wife curl up with Black Dog. I discovered that Black Dog might just be bringing a new joy to our home.
And so tonight I told my wife to say her goodbyes to Black Dog. Why? Well, I was just curious to see if she was in all the way. I wanted to see that flicker in her eye that said, “You’re not getting rid of this dog.” I wanted to know she wanted to keep Black Dog as much as I did.
And she does.
So, yes. We’re insane. No, we don’t really expect our friends to understand. And yes, we now have two dogs…and a little bit more joy in our home.