We weren’t expecting to get a dog that day.
Sure, we were looking for a dog to bring home. But we had just gone through a demoralizing process with another dog agency. A Duke friend of mine, a wonderfully generous person, was fostering a dog who had just delivered a litter of puppies. We went to visit the puppies (and my old friend), and we were thinking we would adopt one to join Murphy, our aging wolf-like dog who had shaken off a stroke and come back to be almost as spry as she had been before.
That agency had other ideas. When they found out we were expecting a baby, they made a couple of comments about families ignoring dogs once they had babies, and we never heard from them again.
We were a little miffed, to put it mildly. We love dogs. Let me state again: We looooooove dogs. We doted on Murphy even as she shook us awake with her panting during thunderstorms and occasionally destroyed things in our absence. We (OK, mostly I) have to restrain ourselves when we pass dogs in the street. There are some dog owners I don’t recognize without their dogs because my eyes go straight to the dog. People at our elementary school call me “The Dog Whisperer,” in part because my bond with one of the local dogs proved vital when that dog slipped his leash and was running around in traffic until I got into a crouch, called him over and gently slipped my hand onto his collar.
So who the hell were those people to think we would just ignore a dog when a baby came into the house?
That experience was still fresh in our minds when we went to a local pet store that was hosting dogs from a different dog agency. We looked at a few ads and decided to check out a little black-and-white dog named Pepsi. Maybe we would express interest and go through an approval process.
Pepsi, as it turned out, was a biter. “Hi, I’m happy to see you paying attention to me! I’m going to gnaw on your hand for a little while.” We weren’t going to ignore a dog because we had a baby, but we also weren’t so delusional that we thought it’d be a good idea to bring home a dog that might greet a newborn as a chew toy. Pepsi surely went home with one of the other families happily playing with him and perhaps getting a few Band-Aids.
As we walked around, I noticed a little solid black dog sniffing my leg out of the corner of my eye. I looked down, and he retreated back a little. A boy, maybe 12 years old, was holding his leash. “This is Walker,” he said. “He’s a little shy. He’s 1 or 2 years old.”
I crouched down to meet him. He was indeed a little shy. Not like Maya, whom we got from the same rescue agency (Lost Dog and Cat) 11 years later. They told us Maya was good with other dogs but took a while to warm up to people. Then Maya slapped me in the face with her tongue a few times. She has since greeted most people who walk into our house the same way, especially if they’re related to us. (We now think dogs — Maya, at least — can sense that someone’s family.)
They said he was part Lab. I think they say that about all dogs. I guess he was, though his stance was more like that of a pit bull. You wouldn’t say he looks unusual — no weird folds in his skin or unique colors — but you don’t see many dogs quite like him.
We brought Murphy over to meet “Walker.” Murphy didn’t pay much attention. She was the belle of the ball, going around and accepting compliments like Miss Piggy on the new Muppets show. But neither did either dog seem uneasy around the other.
We stopped for a minute. “Should we?” we asked each other. This dog wasn’t leaping out at us, but maybe that was a good thing. A nice calm dog for a young family? This was starting to make sense.
“What do we need to do to adopt him?” we asked, still wary from our last experience.
“It’ll be $200,” they said.
We hadn’t even thought to bring a checkbook. I drove to a nearby ATM and withdrew $200.
On the way out, we thought about names. When we got Maya, we had already been thinking about names, and we wanted to honor someone from Saturday Night Live. (Yes, she’s named after Maya Rudolph.) We needed to make a quick decision, and we weren’t keeping “Walker.” We figured we could choose someone from the Washington Capitals, but the team was in a state of flux at the moment. “Olie,” for Olaf Kolzig, just didn’t seem to work. No one’s going to name a dog “Bondra.” We had enough foresight not to go with some derivative of “Jagr.”
“What about Teddy?” I said.
Yes, after Ted Leonsis, the charismatic team owner who was bringing the franchise out of the doldrums. We were content to pay homage to him. And “Teddy” just seemed to fit.
It was a snap decision to adopt him that day. As snap decisions go, it’s hard to imagine any better than that.
We worried at first. He was more energetic than we thought when we got him home. “Crazy Crack Dog” became his unofficial nickname. Twice, he got out through our back gate. One of those times, I had to reach through some sharp thorns to catch him in the woods. I wish someone had a picture of me walking out of the woods, carrying this athletic 40ish-pound dog with blood (mine, not his) running down my arms.
He wasn’t the smartest dog. Murphy could play hide-and-seek or a good game of catch, using her neck muscles to fling a stuffed toy at you when it was time to engage. Teddy never figured out toys and sometimes had a knack for being the wrong place — say, in front of a door that was about to open.
But when we brought our baby boy home a few months later, we soon realized what we had in Teddy …
The best family dog you could imagine.
I was still working in an office in those days. I would come home and hear growling from upstairs in our old townhouse. When I went up to our room, I would find my baby and wife sitting comfortably. Teddy had interposed himself between them and the bedroom door. He would only let his guard down when he was convinced it was me.
The boys could do no wrong as far as he was concerned. He would lie down at a baby’s feet while the baby kicked. Didn’t matter. He was as protective and loving as any mother.
As the years went by, Teddy was simply a part of us. He would sit next to me on the sofa while I worked from home. He would greet people returning home not with the frenetic barking and jumping of other dogs (I’m looking at you, Maya) but with a placid welcome.
He never demanded anything. He would just give a little polite scratch at the door if he wanted or needed to go outside. He loved to sun himself on our deck; otherwise, he was simply content to be wherever we were.
Age was cruel to him. His last year was tough. We pumped him full of glucosamine and some pain medication, but he slowly lost strength in his hind legs. Maybe he really was part bulldog — they have all sorts of leg and hip issues. First, we were boosting him up the stairs. Then we were carrying him up and down, just as we had to do with Murphy in her last year. We thought he had a stroke one day and was no longer able to walk, but after a couple of days using a harness, he figured out a way to stagger around like a drunken sailor, using three and a half legs to steer himself around. He was turning into one of those cartoon dogs whose chest was far bigger than his hindquarters.
In his last few weeks, he faded fast. When we last took him to the vet, he weighed less than 30 pounds, down from 45 or so at his peak. And that was after we took him off the senior dog food to control weight gain, figuring he had little time left and might as well be enjoying his food.
If you’ve read my obituaries — and yes, I’m getting too much practice with them — you know that I don’t dwell on the end. I appreciate all the sympathy I’m going to get from people who knew Teddy and people who didn’t. But I write these to remember how lucky I’ve been.
There’s a wonderful serendipity to life, and you don’t stop to appreciate it once in a while, you’re missing out. (Yes, I know Ferris Bueller said it more succinctly.) One great example: A friend and neighbor of mine recently posted a photo from her school days. She was just looking for a prom date, she said, and she wound up with a husband, with whom she now has two wonderful boys.
In our case, we walked into a Lost Dog and Cat adoption fair at a pet store one day in spring 2003 expecting very little. We walked out with the best damn companion we could have had over the next 12 1/2 years as our family grew.
So we’ll celebrate. Whatever pain and discomfort he has suffered without complaint over the last few months has ended. If there really is a “rainbow bridge” in which dogs greet their owners in heaven, we’ll see him there — probably lagging behind more athletic dogs like Maya and Murphy but waiting patiently for us to come over and say hello. In the meantime, we’ll just cherish the fact that a shy little dog came over to sniff my leg in a pet store 12 1/2 years ago, and our lives have been infinitely better since then.