Saturday, August 26, 2017

The right dog

My last post was a bit of a political rant, and I promised that my next post would not be. I promised that it would be about the best thing that happened to our family in 2016.

In the original post, I said something like "Tomorrow I will tell you about the best thing that happened to us in 2016," and when I wrote it, I fully expected that I would log in the following day and tell you the story.

That was seven months ago.

It's been that kind of year.

But, today is National Dog Day, which makes it feel like the right time to tell you about the best thing  that happened to us in 2016.

Meet Roscoe.

I know, right?

But in order to fully appreciate how good this is, let me take you back in time. Let me take you back to 2005, when Bud was five years old and terrified of dogs. His fear was overwhelming and it affected our daily lives. There were routes we couldn't take when we went for a walk, friends' homes we couldn't visit, and landmines around every corner - like a barking dog in the car next to us when we pulled into a parking lot, or dogs off-leash who greeted us on hikes as I shouted "We have a phobia here" and well-intentioned owners yelled back, "It's okay! He's friendly!," before realizing that despite their pets' friendliness, it was definitely not okay.

Flash forward twelve years, and we are in a very different place.

It was a slow progression. It started with therapy dogs at school, who through brief, frequent contact in safe environments, earned Bud's trust and became loyal allies. Over time, with his confidence bolstered, Bud was able to reach out slowly and expand his circle of canine friends, until even dogs he didn't know felt safe to approach.

Sometime around 2012, I was surprised to find myself thinking that maybe someday we could have a dog of our own. Other people jumped on the idea whenever I said it out loud, and sent me leads from vets they knew, links to ads that showed sweet puppy faces, and articles about dogs trained to work with autistic people. But my reaction was the same every time: "I just think the right dog will find us."

I had no idea how I thought it would happen - if I thought a puppy was going to fall out of the sky or something - and people often reminded me that I might actually need to try to meet some dogs in order for the right one to find us. I knew they were right, but I also knew in my heart that it would happen. Someday. When the right dog was out there.

In honesty, I always kept one eye open and I surfed the Pet Finder pages a lot. But it wasn't until after Brian and I were married that we thought maybe the time was right, and we started looking together. We thought we found the right dog once, and we brought him home for a weekend, but he made it clear almost from the start that we were not the right family for him. (He has since been adopted by his right family, so that story has a happy ending, too.)

Our weekend with the not-right dog made us realize that, though we believe strongly in adopting dogs, our complicated family dynamics would probably work best for a dog who didn't come to us with baggage - one who knew no other family but us; one who grew up with Bud and my six-year-old stepson Buster. Because there was the Bud factor - the bouts of anxiety, the episodes of dysregulation, the need we knew he would have to stroke a dog's ears and give full-body hugs - but there was also the Buster factor.

To say that Buster is high-energy is an understatement. Buster is all sound and movement, usually unpredictably so, with bursts that come out of nowhere. Bud, as you might imagine, does not always react well. We wondered about how a dog would respond to that dynamic.

We also thought a lot about the fact that Buster is not with us full-time. We didn't want our dog to be Bud's dog, and we wanted to make sure that Buster never felt like an outsider.

I knew, more than ever, that only the right dog would do.

We started contacting breeders of Golden Retrievers in our area to put out feelers and get our names on wait lists with people who had upcoming litters. After a few months, we got the email we'd been waiting for. A litter had been born and one of them was ours.

When the puppies were old enough, Brian and I went to the breeder's home to meet them. We sat in her yard with seven adorable puppies and tried to figure out which one was ours. Because we know ourselves, we'd brought a copy of "Puppies for Dummies," so we had a list of things to do with each of the puppies in order to learn more about their temperaments.

They were all adorable, but there were a few who stood out to us. There was the little guy who seemed to be the leader of his pack, climbing over his siblings, provoking them into playing with him, running and rolling, and never, ever stopping. We knew that if Buster had been with us, that was the dog he would have wanted.

There was another little guy who climbed into my lap while I was socializing with his siblings, then curled up and fell asleep. He was mellow, and sweet, and submissive. We knew that if Bud had been with us, that was the dog he would have wanted.

But we were committed to meeting all of the dogs, and running them all through our "Puppies for Dummies" activities. The book told us to pick up each dog and cradle it like a baby to see how it reacted. I cradled every one of the seven puppies. Some of them squirmed away. Some of them laid in my arms passively. Some of them engaged with me. Then there was this guy:

I picked him up and cradled him like a baby. He looked up at me and kissed me on the nose. The more I interacted with him, the more he kissed me.

I put him down and continued to cradle his siblings. He wandered around as I did my thing, but he stayed close. When I'd met all of his siblings, I scooped him up again. I cradled him like a baby and looked him in the face. He leaned forward and kissed my nose.

I said, "I think this is the one."

A man who'd been watching us as he tried to choose a puppy of his own said with a chuckle, "Ya think?"

And that was that.

We named him Roscoe and a few weeks later, we brought him home. That was just over a year ago, and it's hard to remember life without him. He is true to his breed - friendly and loving, easygoing and loyal. But, I'm telling you, this dog - THIS DOG. This dog is really something special.

We are continually amazed at how differently Roscoe interacts with each of the four of us. He doesn't play favorites, but he understands how we are different, and he knows that we each need different things from him.

Roscoe sees Brian as his BFF. Brian is the guy who'll go on road trips to the dump and let him sit in the front seat. He's the one who'll throw infinite numbers of balls to be fetched and returned. Roscoe and Brian seem to be practicing to become frisbee champions of the world - and I have to admit, they are really good.

When Brian returns from a business trip, Roscoe gives him a hero's welcome, and greets him with a low, growly noise he reserves for just that occasion. We think it means some combination of "where the heck have you been?" and "thank goodness you've come back!"

Roscoe has a very different relationship with me, and seems to see me simultaneously as the care-giver and the cared-for. When Roscoe isn't feeling well, he comes to me, pawing at my legs and looking at me with a plaintive expression that says "fix it," resting his chin on my leg and cuddling in close for comfort. At the same time, he has cast himself as my protector. One evening, while the rest of the family was upstairs in the living room, I snuck down to the TV in the basement to catch up on a recent episode of This Is Us. In that particular episode, the mom character, played by Mandy Moore, was sobbing hysterically and trying to talk through her tears. Roscoe, a flight away, heard a female voice in distress and tore down the stairs, leapt across the room and on to my lap, and kissed my face until I could hardly breathe.

He was also very concerned when I twisted my ankle and fell. He laid next to me on the ground until I was able to get up again, and then he sat and diligently held my ice pack in place.

I swear, if he'd had thumbs, he would have made me chicken soup.

As it turns out, we need not have worried that Buster would feel left out of the Roscoe dynamic. Roscoe seems to view Buster as a fellow puppy, and celebrates like it's Christmas every time Buster walks through the door. They run each other ragged, and it's hard to know which of them is having more fun.

And then, there's Bud. It was the Bud-Roscoe dynamic we were most worried about. Bud is not a fan of change, and we knew that adding Roscoe to our family would be a huge and possibly overwhelming change.

We were right to have been concerned. Bud liked Roscoe from the start, but he was not sure he wanted him there full-time. There were requests that we take him back, suggestions that we find him a new family, and threats of calls to Animal Control. But there were also silky ears, and friendly kisses, and warm puppy-breath-laden cuddles.

Ultimately, the cuddles won and you couldn't go long in our house without seeing this:

Roscoe is different with Bud - gentler, and more patient - than he is with the rest of us. He is profoundly concerned when Bud is upset. This summer, they discovered their shared disdain of thunder, and when a storm starts shaking the house, the Thunder Buddies huddle up and ride it out together.

A couple of nights ago, a thunderstorm started after Bud had gone to bed. Roscoe went to the gate that blocked him from going upstairs where Bud was sleeping, and started pacing. He came to me with purpose, and pawed at my legs insistently. His meaning was clear: "Bud needs me." Brian and I sat with Roscoe on the couch and tried to calm him down, but the more time passed, the more it became clear that he was not worried about the thunder; he was worried about leaving Bud alone to deal with it.

Before long, the thunder woke Bud and he joined us downstairs. Roscoe jumped onto his lap and kissed him, kissed him, kissed him, then sat still next to him as the storm raged outside. Bud stroked Roscoe's ears, hugged him tightly, and reminded us repeatedly "I don't like thunder," while Roscoe just sat - steady and calm. When the lateness of the hour caught up with him, Bud rested his  head on Roscoe's side, and Roscoe snuggled down, happy to provide a pillow for Bud's head.

This dog is worth his weight in gold.

So, that's our boy Roscoe, the best thing to happen to us in 2016, the best reason to celebrate on National Dog Day, and - without question - the right dog, who finally found us.