We sometimes get preachy about things, set ourselves up as all knowing and wise. To listen to me rant about irresponsible dog people and advertising campaigns, you might think I have all the answers, or at least suppose that I think I do. Even my confessional about not picking up after Curly Jean can be attributed to the folly of youth with the wink of an eye. Sometimes, we just get so wrapped up in our holier than thou selves (and I’m pointing the finger at myself here), that we forget we are all human and prone to mistakes.
The story I share here cannot be passed off to the folly and inexperience of youth. Nor can I hide behind a defense of “good intentions,” because those are not enough when it really counts.
It was the early ’80s. I was a couple of years into my first really good teaching position as an instructor of communication at Western Carolina University. We were living in faculty housing just across the valley from the school and had adopted two cats, Pepper and Safron, from the local animal protection society.
Near the middle of my third year, the local animal protection society completed the building of the Jackson County Animal Shelter very close to the location of the photo of my daughter looking over my old pal Sterling’s final resting place. The shelter is three-tenths of a mile to her right.
The shelter was the culmination of the work of lot of good people in the county who wished to confront the rampant problem of stray pets in Jackson County in a humane and responsible manner. Coincidentally, I decided we needed a dog or, more precisely, that I needed a dog. And why not? The cats were primarily for my wife. Not that I didn’t like cats, but at the time I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself a true cat person.
In my hopelessly optimistic brain, I figured a dog would complete my life. The dog would be my companion. A buddy to take for walks and to occasionally take with me to the office as I had seen so many others do. How naive I was.
Nikki was a medium-size dog with at least some Border Collie blood in her. Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of her to share (you’ll understand why shortly). This stock photo is the closest I’ve found to how I remember Nikki.
She was energetic and affectionate. At the shelter she won our hearts immediately, and we were soon filling out the necessary paperwork. The people at the shelter did their due diligence by asking all the right questions, and I gave all the right answers. I was employed. I had a pet-friendly place to live and the means to care for a pet. We had already successfully adopted two cats from the grassroots organization, which had worked to make the Jackson County Animal Shelter a reality. On paper, the adoption was a lock, but in reality, the adoption was doomed from the start.
I did have a good job, but it included an erratic schedule to supervise production labs. My wife was a graduate student at the university with a similarly erratic schedule. Pepper and Safron could pretty much take care of themselves as their human parents came and went as dictated by their crazy schedules. As for Nikki? Not so much. My plan to take Nikki to the office with me was particularly misguided. She was already energetic, and the confined space (with students coming and going along with me jumping up to help my students) was a bad environment for Nikki. One of the first things she did was poop on the floor. I’ll give myself some credit for not punishing her and realizing I was asking too much of her too soon, but it began to dawn on me that adopting Nikki had not been a particularly wise decision.
Dogs demand time and thrive on interaction with their humans. Within days I found myself overwhelmed by the responsibility. Getting her regular exercise and attention proved to be either beyond the limitations of my schedule or the willingness of my heart to make the necessary changes. Nikki’s desperate need for interaction and attention only increased her energy, and that soon morphed into nervousness. One afternoon while playing in the large shared yard of the apartments, she snapped at one of the neighbor children. No harm was done, but only days into being the parent of a bright and affectionate dog, the human shortcomings were becoming all too apparent.
Today, having spent years as part of the Dogster community reading articles written by professionals and the stories shared by members, I realize Nikki had never been properly socialized. At the time, however, what dawned on me quite emphatically was that I was not doing Nikki any favors. After only a little more than a week, we worked with the folks at the Jackson County Animal Shelter to find Nikki a new home, a family with a small farm.
The No. 1 lesson for me? It’s not enough to “want a dog.” No. 2: It’s not enough to have the means to care for a dog. No. 3: It’s not enough to live in housing that is pet-friendly, whether an apartment or house. No. 4: It is not enough to have successfully adopted other pets. No. 5: You need the right heart and mindset to have a dog.
I scored four out of five — a solid 80 percent — but I still flunked because item five trumps them all: the right heart and mindset. I would even wager that had I possessed the right heart and mindset, I could have overcome shortcomings in the other areas. You see it all the time. People who can’t afford a dog or don’t have the best physical environment for a dog somehow manage to create loving, happy homes.
What an idiot I was! Twenty-nine years old, a promising career as a college professor, living in the Cullowhee Valley (as close to dog heaven as you will find), and dumb as a doornail about what it takes to create a proper home for a dog.
Well, that’s my skeleton. That it turned out okay for Nikki in the long run is little consolation. I have some additional thoughts on the subject. I’ll share those in my next column, and I’ll also reveal a different sort of mistake I made when providing a foster home for a dog.
For now, let’s see what you have to say about my mistake, or perhaps any mistakes you have made yourselves. Go ahead — you’re in a good place.