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Chloe Chronicles VII: Rejection Blues

All of my life, i have dreamed of having at least two dogs, but always knew I would have to wait for the right situation. For me, the “right situation” involved living in the country rather than in New York City, in a house surrounded by lots of land and with all the time in the world on my hands. Or at least, enough time to train my second dog and help him adjust to his life with Chloe and me (in our house in the country). I wanted to be able to take them hiking and give them plenty of attention, engagement, exercise and so forth. I figured that, with a second dog, my caretaking duties — meaning my supervised duties, above and beyond the care my dogs always receive — would amount to about four hours per day.

Why four hours? I wanted to adopt an English Setter.

You know how it is — we dog lovers can be partial to certain breeds or types of dogs. And, oh, the glories of mixedbreeds! Who can resist the combos? My own Chloe is some sort of Spaniel/Lab/Border Collie amalgam, and I adopted her, in part, because of my Spaniel/Setter fixation. To me, the only thing better than having a bird dog as a companion is to have two bird dogs. So the idea of adopting a second dog was always on my mind.

In 2006, I finally left New York City and moved to the Catskill Mountains full time. I had had Chloe for about a year at that point, and we had enjoyed a rich life, spending part of our time in an apartment in the city and the other part at a small cottage upstate. It was an ideal situation in many ways, but it got to be exhausting. The commutes and the changes and all that packing and backing-and-forthing was too much, especially with a large dog in tow.

So I moved to that big house with lots of land I had always dreamed about. Finally, it was time to adopt my second dog.

I was very excited at the prospect, and I knew Chloe would be too. We all know that dogs are pack animals and thus are happiest and most comfortable when they are members of a canine pack.  Chloe loved other dogs — she loved to play and romp and flirt — and she also seemed to enjoy being a mother dog. I got a kick out of watching her play with puppies at the dog park, wrangling them and letting them crawl all over her, giving them playful but very gentle swats and nips. It made me wonder if she had had puppies at some point in her young life, before I adopted her. It made me wonder if she missed them.

Therefore, I decided I would adopt a puppy this time around, rather than an adult. I had the time, after all. And I knew what raising and training a puppy would entail. I felt fully prepared to adopt my Setter pup.

And so, I began my search on Petfinder.com.

Whereas I’d searched the Internet for several months before choosing Chloe, the second-dog search took only a few weeks. I found a Setter rescue group that I liked, and they were in the midst of arranging adoptions for a litter of nine liver-and-white pups. Seven of them were male, and I knew I wanted to adopt a male. I telephoned immediately, and spoke with a kind and encouraging volunteer, who filled me in on the adoption process. We spoke for about 45 minutes — about me, their group and my potential dog — and by the end of the conversation, she told me she’d send an application. (Apparently, this group will not even send out applications until they speak to the candidates in person or on the telephone.) “You sound like an ideal candidate,” the woman said.

I must confess that I also thought I was an ideal candidate to adopt a dog. I’m not saying that I’m a perfect human specimen, or that I know every last thing there is to know about dogs, but I do work for a dog magazine, for goodness sake, and — thanks to Wallace and Chloe — have scads of experience in living with and training birdy-type dogs. Plus, I seemed to have all the right answers to all the questions on the adoption application:

• How many hours per day are you home? (Average, about 20.)

• Where will your dog sleep? (Wherever he damn well pleases — usually on the most comfortable bed in the house.)

• How much exercise will your dog get? And where? (Hours daily, at dog parks and on hiking trails.)

• What is your income? (Enough to keep the dogs, and myself, well fed, comfortably housed, healthy, impeccably groomed, constantly entertained, etc.)

• What will you feed your dog? (Bones and raw food and homemade meat/vegetable/supplement mixtures.)

• What sort of training methods will you use? (Clicker.)

• Do you have a fenced-in yard? (Um … kind of … but we have many acres of land in a low-population area with no cars.)

When I expressed concern to the volunteer about my lack of a fenced-in yard, she said that this group often made exceptions for “the right candidates.”

Can you blame me if I thought I was a shoo-in? After my application was approved (with flying colors, I might add), we arranged for a home visit. One of the volunteers from the rescue group would come the following Saturday to meet me and my dog and check out our digs.

Gleefully, I started to prepare — mentally and literally — for the arrival of my new puppy. I bought cute little toys and a memory-foam bed. I read up on puppy-specific training, and on the body language of puppies and mother dogs/ female dogs. I even picked out a name: Trinley, in honor of a Tibetan monk of whom I am particularly fond. (He said it would be all right to name a dog after him.) “Trinley’s coming,” I’d say to Chloe in a sing-song voice. “Your new little brother Trinley!” One night, I even dreamed about him; in the dream, he snuggled and squirmed in a way that seemed incredibly real. Trinley was so excited to be with us and we were so excited to be with him. When I woke, I was convinced that the dream was prophetic — that Trinley was meant to be my second dog.

Yes, the thought sometimes crossed my mind that I would not be approved, but those thoughts were fleeting. After all, I had adopted Chloe without any trouble. Millions of dogs in this country needed homes. Surely my offer to provide a home for an unwanted dog would be granted.

My evaluator, Mr. W, arrived at my house on a sunny Saturday. An older man, he was wearing khakis and a polo shirt of a distinctive color that we in the know call “Nantucket Red.” He drove a silver Volvo with a Connecticut license plate, and had a gorgeous Belton-type English Setter in tow. The dog had one of those long names I can no longer remember. “Constantine’s Westchester Amblefoot Toucan Pie” or some such thing, with the call name “Took.”

“Took,” I repeated happily, and reached into the car window to pet him. “Would you like to come meet Chloe, Took?”

The man seemed uncertain. “He doesn’t really play with other dogs. I’m not sure I should let him out of the car.” I must have looked at him perplexedly, because he added, “He’s a show dog.”

Took was now barking madly and scratching at the car window, trying to wedge his body through the small crack.

“Well, I suppose I could take him out,” Mr. W said. He then strung Took up on a choke chain and let him out of the car.

I should point out here that I Iived on 16 acres of land, much of it bordering thousands of acres of state land. Chloe is never on a leash because she does not need to be: (a) she is not a roamer, and (b) she is, as we have seen, well trained and has perfect recall. For recall, I use hand signals in addition to verbal cues, and a special whistle she can hear at great distances. She’s a terrific dog who has earned her freedom.

Now, Chloe waited for my “okay” command before she said hello to Took. She play-bowed and he play-bowed back, then he leapt forward for a romp, only to be yanked back rather cruelly by Mr. W, who had pulled sharply on the choke collar.

I winced. I hate to see dogs yelping in pain. “Do you want to let him off-leash and watch them interact?” I said. “We can watch their body language and signals, to see how Chloe interacts with other dogs.”

“I never let him off-leash,” he said. “He hasn’t been off-leash since he was six weeks old, straight from the litter. If I let him go, he’d never come back.” Do you know that for certain? I wanted to ask. But I held my tongue.

“Will you let him off leash inside the house?” I asked.

“Sure, I think that will be okay.” I wish I hadn’t asked. Once we got inside and Took was released, he began to wreak havoc. First, he peed on my sofa, then he ran into the kitchen and jumped up on all the counters, sweeping his snout across in search of food, knocking over blenders and utensil containers along the way. Finding nothing to eat, he ran into the bathroom, tipping over my little metal trashcan with a sharp rattle and digging around for used tissues. Meanwhile, Chloe followed Took with a rather perplexed look on her face, as if to say: We don’t do that around here.

“I think I’ll put him in the car,” Mr. W said. Back outside, I showed Mr. W the property. As we walked with Chloe across the meadows and around the pond, I pointed out stone walls in the distance that marked the borders, and the mountain that loomed behind us — the beginnings of the great Catskill Park.

“Chloe is boundary trained,” I said. Mr. W had never heard of this, so I explained that I had spent many hours taking Chloe along the property’s perimeter, which I’d marked with light-colored flags on various trees, and used a clicker to teach her that she was not to wander beyond those barriers. “It was time consuming, but it was worth it.”

“My dog could never be trained like that,” he said. I wanted to say, With a clicker, you can do anything, but I held back out of respect for his point of view.

I showed him Chloe’s various skills, cueing her with a mix of hand signals, verbal cues, eye movements, whistles and clicks. It felt like a circus act, but she seemed very pleased with herself, and happy to entertain our guests.

When I told her to “run to the pond,” she ran to the pond, which was quite a distance away. Then I shouted “Come” and blew the whistle, and Chloe returned, bounding happily across the grass, ears flapping.

Mr. W was impressed. He petted Chloe and praised her when she returned. “What a good dog!” he said. “I never knew dogs could do such things.” She beamed.

Then the issue of the fenced-in yard came up. I had a pool, which was fenced, but both of us knew that didn’t really count. I was banking on the fact that this particular rescue group made exceptions to the fence rule for the right candidates.

“Chloe loves to swim,” I said, pushing through the gate into the pool area. “She does laps.”

“Technically, we require six-foot fences,” Mr. W said, looking around, “and I worry about this pool.” Then he turned to me and smiled. “But I think you’re a good candidate. I’ll put in a positive recommendation.”

I was so happy that I hugged him. Chloe, sensing the mood, threw herself on her back and waved her legs in the air. We talked a bit more about bird dogs in general and Setters in particular, and then discussed the logistics of the adoption process. “I submit a report of my home visit,” he said, “and then the board meets to decide.”

All in all, I felt that this home visit had been a pleasant experience, and a successful one. As we parted ways Mr. W emphasized that Chloe seemed to have a good life here.

So imagine my shock when, a few days later, I received an email notifying me that I had been rejected. The reason? Lack of a fenced-in yard. And more: boundary training. “We cannot give our dogs to people who boundary train,” I was told.

I was crestfallen. Rejection never feels good in any situation, but this felt like an emotional, even personal, blow. I cried for days, realizing I had fallen in love with Trinley and lost him before even meeting him. You who have had your applications rejected will know what I mean.

Soon, my sorrow was replaced by anger and indignation. I complained to my off-leash and dog park friends, to my rescue friends, to my dog-writer friends. Everyone had choice things to say about this rescue group’s decision. I am not usually a back-stabber, but it helped to let off some steam.

After a few days of immature moaning, I finally had to settle into the truth that Trinley would not be coming to live with us. I like to think that I’m rational, and I always try to see both sides of the story. Thus, I reminded myself that people who work at rescue groups are well meaning. Actually, that’s an understatement. They volunteer their time and effort and heart all for the sake of rescuing and rehoming dogs. They have witnessed cases of intolerable neglect and abuse. They have seen dogs die at the hands of humans. They have rescued dogs who were emaciated, or broken-spirited, or simply confused at being separated from people who didn’t care enough to keep them. I am sure that doing this kind of work would make it hard to have faith in the human race. So I guess they didn’t have faith in me.

I must say, it took quite a while to get over their decision. In fact, I pretty much gave up on the idea of trying to adopt another dog. Years passed, and by the time I started to reconsider, Chloe was a different dog. Now she’s showing signs of arthritis, and is no longer all that patient with exuberant dogs, especially pups. She has also become — forgive the pun — quite the bitch, and doesn’t necessarily want to share her space with anyone else but me. So perhaps it was all for the best. Who knows?

I think about Trinley sometimes. I am sure he found a home; puppies always do. But I wonder about all the dogs who still do not have homes because their applicants were rejected. I do respect a rescue group’s need to err on the side of caution, but I often still wonder: What exactly is the fine line between caution and error? We look forward to hearing your responses.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 71: Sep/Oct 2012
Lee Harrington is the author of the best-selling memoir, Rex and the City: A Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog (Random House, 2006), and of the forthcoming novel, Nothing Keeps a Frenchman from His Lunch. emharrington.com

Photograph by Hedda Gjerpen

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