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.

Black Dog

Black Dog


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.

White Dog, November 2010

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.

White Dog

White Dog

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.

In my office

In my office

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.

Speaking of manners

Speaking of 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.

Black Dog hanging out in the back yard

Black Dog hanging out in the back yard

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.

Black Dog and White Dog

Black Dog and White Dog

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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16 Responses

  1. Gracie says:

    For some reason I thought this was going to have a sad ending. So glad Black Dog worked out. (My white bear and brown bear send you happy woofs of congratulations.)

  2. Special k says:

    Dr. K, Fenway, Comiskey, and I understand.

  3. Susan says:

    Welcome to your new family, Black Dog! You picked a great one 🙂

  4. Maryellen says:

    Was there really any question? Black dog had you from the first lick. You don’t post pictures like that of a dog you’re not going to keep. Yes, your yin and yang dogs are smarter than you.

  5. Brian says:

    Now this is how you weave a story. I was like Gracie, thought it was going to have a sad ending. I hope you have many years of joy with the pups!

  6. Jennifer McKelvey says:

    The first sentence made my heart sink! Been following your dog adventures through Facebook & was crossing my fingers it worked out! So glad to hear black dog has marked his spot in the Willis Family.

    It’s kind of like when you say you want another child. People say, “Are you crazy”, then finally understand when they see you with that child that they saw as maybe another burden in your life as opposed to the joy they’re sure to bring.

    Here’s to many sloppy kisses, afternoons of fetch, and unconditional love.

  7. Lori Ann Christina aka IG says:

    Congratulations and thank you for adopting a rescue. Since Black Friday I’ve been spending my time away from the felt volunteering in animal rescue. And if you see my facebook posts you probably know that. Did you know that Black dogs and cats are most likely to be put down in shelters and are often overlooked?

    I have a pure bred Maine Coon (the only cat I ever obtained from a breeder after my first Maine Coon who I rescued as a senior passed away) and a rescue kitty. Cant say i would never pass on a purebred Maine Coon again but any new acquistions will be rescues/shelter cats and dogs.

    Your older dog may now teach the younger one a thing or two. That’s how things work out in a pack. One thing I have learned about animals, they are like people. Some animals prefer their own company vs the two legged kind. Others are people oriented. Some prefer one family member over another. Best to not expect much from them and to enjoy them for what and who they are.

  8. AgSweep says:

    Mick (my rescue dog) who’s laying at my feet, and I, am glad to hear Black Dog has found a wonderful new home. Mick, who is part Chesapeake Bay retriever and Chocolate Lab says that you should buy stock in Penn, the tennis ball maker but for inside the house he likes racquetballs.

  9. April Henry says:

    Now I get it! I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Maybe I missed a post somewhere along the way. I can tell that Black dog makes you all very happy and fits in perfectly. I completely understand! Best wishes for a home filled with craziness, wild times, and lots of love and licks!

  10. KenP says:

    Lab #1 from a breeder. To say he loved the water is a huge understatement. This one is #4 and is limping around toward the tale end of life. She’s Clancy IV and she a great friend that will be missed all too soon. She too was a rescue dog.

    Young Labs are chewers of the first order. My first was the worst. They are also huge and perminent children with a zest for life that can keep you going.

    It is a great breed and they are the penultimate friend. They aren’t an apartment dog. They need space and exercise. And, like that first picture shows, they can look into your soul.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    I totally understand. Congratulations on your new family member!

  12. Gracie cried while reading this. LOL!

  13. Grange95 says:

    I don’t think breeder v. rescue, or one v. two dogs, or purebred v. mutt matters. Each dog had its own personality, much like kids. All you can do is try to give them a loving environment where they are happy. And Casa del Willis is a pretty swanky resort for both White Dog & Black Dog.

    Best wishes for a happy extended family!

  14. Asian Bobby says:

    We’re on Brown Dog #2. Shortly after our 1st Choc Lab was hit by a car, my wife was the one who surprisingly wanted to get another right away. Both were adopted, although from Humane Societies. I know where they’re coming from, but all of the Rescue Group paperwork/screening was a huge turn-off. Our other dog is a Dachshund that we got from a breeder. He can often be found vigorously humping Cocoa. She endures it with commendable tolerance (sound familiar to anyone?) while giving me a look that says, “you’ve got to be kidding me…”

  15. Lucie says:

    I have a fawn terrier mix who jumped into my brother’s truck just before a hurricane. He already had two dogs – his Cur and his wife’s Jack Russell. I had an older chihuahua. Rode out the hurricane with the “Little Girl Dog” with her head on my lap (brother didn’t want to name her for fear of becoming attached). Long story short, she’s now 11, Little Girl is her name, and she was Scooter’s best friend. Now she just tolerates Kristoff (rhymes with pissed off, but we just call him Kris), our little chihuahua-ish terrier (with possible other DNA in the mix, who knows or cares?) for whom we paid a whole 40 bucks. Life is good with two doggies in the mix.