Memoir: The Chicken-Coop Puppy

The Chicken-Coop Puppy

My first dog was a small brown and white Jack Russell terrier. She was smart, protective, and my constant companion that went everywhere with me. When I had first met my husband, it was my dog’s approval of him that made me look at him as a partner. Walking her kept me healthy and her intelligent antics kept me smiling. When she died of diabetic complications twelve years later, I mourned the loss of my friend. There was a large hole that existed in the air beside my ankles.

Months passed and my husband would ask if I could accept a new dog. I always said no. He persisted. We discussed different breeds: terriers, shelties, shepherds, and poodles. The good qualities and the cons of each breed. Through research, we discovered a breed called an Australian Shepard. Contrary to its name, the breed developed in the United States as a counterpart to the border collie. These shepherds were high energy working dogs that were intelligent companions. I thought that one of these dogs would be a good fit for our family and admitted this to my husband one night over coffee.

My husband scanned the listings at no-kill animal shelters for possible dogs, taking my idle musing for consent. He thought that if he found an adult dog that was already housebroken that I would be happier with an adoption. After all, a puppy is more difficult to come by at the shelters and we did not need the hassle of house training a baby dog.

One day, my husband found a likely adult dog on the website of a shelter a few cities away from us. It would be a ninety-minute drive to the place, but the lovely red merle Australian shepherd seemed to be perfect for us. He was the right size, housebroken, and only a few years old. I called the shelter and discovered that the dog was available. Although it was midweek, we decided that I would drive to the shelter the next morning to adopt the dog.

I called the shelter the next morning and found that “Lucky” was still available for adoption. As I drove, I tried to make peace in my heart, to tell myself that accepting a new dog into our family would be good. It was not a betrayal of the love I felt for my former companion.

The no-kill shelter was a squat cement building on a bit of acreage in the middle of nowhere. There were small fenced in areas behind the building where dogs played with the volunteers. I wondered if Lucky were one of the dogs romping in the yard.

I walked to the reception desk and introduced myself. “I called a few hours ago about the Australian Shepard named Lucky. I’d like to adopt her.”

The woman’s face fell. “I’m sorry, but Lucky was adopted around 45 minutes ago. Did you place a hold on him?”

I shook my head. “We had seen his picture on the website. I was going to fill in the paperwork today.”

“I’m sorry, but without a hold, the dog is given to the first person on its adoption list.” She paused and looked me over. “We do have many other dogs that are available for adoption. Would you like to look at them while you are here?”

I was not sure if I wanted a different dog from the shelter. I had set my heart on the beautiful Australian shepherd on the website. Lucky, true to his name, was fortunate to find a home. Would there be another dog at the shelter that would be similar? “I was hoping to find an Australian Shepard. Is there another one here?”

The woman brightened. “We do have one. She came in yesterday and hasn’t been put on the website yet.”

“Are there any holds on this dog?” I didn’t want to risk losing the animal before starting the adoption process.

“No. Not yet, but she is too young to be spayed. By law, we can’t release a dog until it is spayed or neutered. You’ll have to wait until she is old enough to undergo the procedure.”

Too young? This was a puppy. It would need to be housebroken and would chew up our shoes and furniture. I was hoping for an older dog that would not need much training. Still, I was there and it was a long journey home. I did not want to return empty-handed.

“Let me see her.”

The receptionist rang a small silver bell. One of the young volunteers led me from the reception area through a series of passageways and into a second building in the back. As we went along, I could see other dogs housed in various pens and crates along the way. “Cookie is a sweet little thing,” the girl told me as we walked, “She is submissive and would be friendly with children. Wait until you see her.”

We arrived in a box of a room with a cement floor. Off to one side was a ring of chicken coop mesh that served as a tiny fence no higher than my knee. Inside was a puppy that was hardly larger than my hand. She curled into a tight ball against the mesh and did not look up as we approached. The volunteer reached into the wire ring and scooped up the puppy, cuddling her close. The puppy opened her brown eyes and looked at the girl with no spark of recognition or emotion. She seemed dull and stupid to me.

“Adorable isn’t she?” The girl stroked the animal’s soft coat. “She is afraid of water. We can’t seem to bathe her and brushes scare her.” She handed the puppy to me and I balanced the little bundle in the crook of my arm. The puppy just lay there like a lump, her glazed over expression made me wonder if she even saw me. Her coat was soft, the short fur promising to grow long as she matured.

How could this be the replacement for my former dog? The one that protected me from strangers with a growl and cuddled at my side on the couch? Cookie was no Lucky, but she was the same breed and had similar coloring. At 6 weeks of age, the flat face and short soft fur would change into a typical Australian shepherd in only a few months. She might work out as our family dog.

“There is a hold on Cookie? I would be first in line for her?” I wanted to make certain of this before I made a commitment.

“Are you sure you want her?” My expression must have been giving away my misgivings. “There are always dogs coming in every day. You could try again.”

I handed the tiny puppy back to the girl who put her back into the chicken wire pen. The dog stood for a moment and then sank to the floor, listless. Was the animal sick? My misgivings grew, yet my logical mind had checked all the boxes and this puppy fit what we were looking for. I would simply have to accept her lack of intelligence. After all, being smart is not a pre-requisite for love.

“I want to fill out the paperwork. We’ll take her.”

“Okay. Follow me.” We walked back through the buildings to reception and I juggled a packet of forms to fill out. “You do know that there is a one hundred dollar adoption fee for the puppy? You are sure you want her?” The receptionist also must have noted my lack of enthusiasm for the puppy.

“Yes. I am sure.” The constant question of if I wanted the dog was starting to irritate me. As I filled out the forms, I wondered how I was going to tell my husband about the puppy and why I was determined to take her home.

The forms did not take long and knowing that I was first in line for the dog comforted me. I made the long drive back home. When my husband came home from work, he became upset. He had fallen in love with the dog on the website and had his heart set on him. “Cookie is similar to Lucky, just much younger. She could be his daughter for all we know.”

“I just don’t like the idea of adopting a dog that I haven’t seen. You are sure about this dog?”

I was not. All I could remember was the dull, emotionless expression and limp little body. But something inside me had awakened. I knew that I needed a dog again. That little spot at my side had been empty for too long. Cookie was the same colors and would grow to a similar size as my former companion. I would simply have to get used to her obvious stupidity and that she was a shepherd instead of a terrier.

“Give her a chance. You’ll like her.” I was not sure if I was speaking to myself or my husband. “She is pretty with the same red merle markings that Lucky had. We just have to wait until she is old enough to be spayed. They don’t do it until they are eight weeks old and she is only six weeks.”

Two days later, I received a call from the no-kill shelter. It was the receptionist I had spoken to the day I filled out the forms to put a hold on the puppy. “I wanted to ask if you would reconsider your hold on Cookie.”

“Why?”

“We have five families that are in line to adopt her after you. Most of them have children. I remember how you wanted to adopt an adult dog when you first came here. Would you be willing to give her up?”

I almost growled like a dog myself. The woman was using children to guilt me into giving up the puppy after my long drive to the shelter and losing the dog I had selected. For all her dullness, Cookie did have a cute coat and markings. I also knew that most people did prefer to adopt puppies. After what happened with Lucky, I had little hope that I would find a dog at the shelter of the proper breed if I gave up on this puppy. “No. I definitely want her. I’m just waiting for her to be spayed so I can take her home.”

“Very well,” the voice on the phone sounded annoyed. “Cookie is still yours.”

Two more days later, I got another call from the shelter. “Cookie is going to be spayed today. You can come and get her tomorrow. Are you sure you still want her? There are three more families that want to adopt her.” That made eight families trying to take the puppy away from me.

“Yes. I want the dog. Why is she being spayed this early? Isn’t she too young?” Cookie was two weeks early for her surgery and I feared for her health. The poor thing had been sleeping on cement all alone and now was going to go under the knife. I felt helpless. Despite my filling out the paperwork, would I lose this dog?

“We need to make room for more animals and there are so many people that want her.”

“I will be there tomorrow for her. Have her ready for me.” I knew I sounded cold, but at this point, I was growing angry.

That night, my anger was echoed by my husband. “What do you mean that they are spaying her now? She is too young!”

“It is out of my hands. They can do what they want. I haven’t put down any money on the puppy, just a form.”

“But I want to see her before the adoption. Can’t we get her this weekend?”

I thought about all those calls and the constant requests to give up the dog. I did not care how long the line was on Cookie’s dance card, I was going to retrieve this dog and make her my own. “I think that if I don’t go and get her tomorrow morning, she will be gone. They won’t wait.”

I made a deal with my husband. “Let me get the dog without you in the morning. You can have the honor of naming her. Deal?” My husband liked the idea of naming the puppy himself and he agreed to my plan.

I arrived in reception the next morning. “I’m here to pick up Cookie.”

The woman at the desk thumbed through the book and nodded. “She is still in surgery, but she should be done soon.” She peered up at me. “Are you sure you want the puppy?”

“I promise, the dog will be coming to a good home. Children or no children. She will be well cared for.”

“You do realize that you will need to pay $100 for her.” She paused as if I would relent at the price.

I pulled out my wallet. “Then let’s get the fees taken care of while we wait for her.” The woman stared at me with disbelief. Finally, she took my credit card and began the payment process. I was growing impatient. I had had enough of dealing with these people. I wanted my dog and to go home.

The woman spoke into the PA. “Please bring Cookie to reception.”

An older woman arrived around ten minutes later with Cookie cradled in her arms. Her little white belly had a row of red surgery scars and stitches. The animal was shivering with fear. It was no wonder. Sleeping in a tiny chicken wire coop on a cold cement floor and then going through surgery this morning without warning. It would be enough to scare anyone. The puppy was a little bigger than I remembered and seemed more alert. I reached for the dog, but the woman refused to hand her over. “I’ll carry her to your car,” she informed me.

I paused before going to the exit. “Is there a toy that the dog played with? Something that would be familiar to her?”

“Well, she did have a green ring…”

“I’d like to have it for her. I’ll pay you if you like.”

The handler and the woman at reception exchanged a glance. Then the receptionist rose to her feet. “I’ll go get it. No charge.” In a moment, she handed a rubber ring, almost as big as the puppy to me. I thanked the woman and then led the way out to the car.

“What are you going to name her?” the handler asked as we crossed the gravel parking lot.

“I’m not sure.” I was not going to discuss the arrangement I had made with my husband about the name. “Maybe Belle after Beauty and the Beast.”

The woman looked at the shivering puppy and nodded. “That seems like a pretty name.”

We came to my car and I gestured to the passenger side and opened that door. “Just put her in there.” On the front seat, folded into a neat square, was a small baby quilt that my husband’s mother had sewn for our future children.

The woman lowered the quivering dog onto the quilt and Cookie sank down several inches into the softness. The puppy’s eyes opened wider and she looked up at the woman and me. I put the green ring on the quilt near the puppy, although the animal did not look at it. I wondered if it had been her toy at all.

I shut the car door with a solid clink. “Will she be alright?” The woman seemed to search me as if looking for a criminal record.

I was growing exasperated. “She will be well cared for and loved. I promise.” I wondered if the woman would ask me for blood to seal a pact with the devil.

I went to the driver’s side of my car and got into the vehicle. Little Cookie had not moved from her spot on the quilt. She was my dog now. Stupid as she was. I reached over and gave her a gentle stroke on the head, feeling her silky soft fur. I wondered what name my husband would choose for her. I still voted for Belle. She was a real beauty.

I turned on the ignition and got the engine warmed up for our long drive home. The puppy watched me from her spot in the quilt, her eyes as large as saucers. She stood up, padding the blanket a little with her paws and sniffed the edge of the blanket.

“None of that.” I told the dog, “When we are driving you are to stay on the blanket.” My tone was firm, but kind. The puppy stopped at the sound of my voice. I reached over and gave her another stroke on her head. She settled down on the blanket again. Her shivering had stopped and she continued to watch me from her little hollow.

I began the drive home. “It is going to be a long drive,” I told the puppy, “So you might as well make yourself comfortable.” My voice was calm, conversational as if I were talking to my husband or a friend. “I hope you like the blanket, little dog. I don’t want you to wander around the car while I’m driving. What if you got under a pedal?” I continued to talk to the dog in a slow methodical way, knowing that what I said was not important, it was how I said it. I used to work in a stable and would always talk to my horses, the sound of a human voice can often calm an animal and help to build trust. I hoped that it would work with this scared little puppy. Cookie tilted her tiny head as she listened.

Cookie was too small to look out a car window, she was just a tiny handful on the car seat. Those big eyes watched me intently. A half hour into the drive, the tiny puppy curled up into a ball, tucking her nose under her tail, and sank down into the folds of the blanket. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.

When I got home, little Cookie woke up from her nap. She leaped to her feet and looked around the car with energy. I smiled at her antics. For the first time, she seemed more like a normal dog. I wrapped the blanket around her tiny body and took the entire bundle with me, dog and quilt, to the house. Cookie’s little head poked out allowing her to see where we were going. Once inside, I set the quilt on the floor and set her free.

Cookie padded off the quilt and onto the floor. She immediately started to sniff around on the carpet and nearby furniture. Back and forth she sniffed around the living room, exploring every corner of the room. Then she scampered off to the kitchen and I watched her gaze out the window of our French kitchen door that happened to be at her eye level. Her little tail wagged as she stared at the backyard and she quivered, not with fear, but in excitement.

Our elderly cat watched the new puppy from the hallway. Our cat had been close to our Jack Russell and I was hopeful that he would accept a new dog. When Cookie ambled over to him, he hissed and ran away. This was not his dog. It was going to take nurturing to introduce the elderly cat to the young puppy in our household.

I let the puppy go where she would. I decided to keep her in the house while she adjusted to her surroundings. I took a seat on the couch and settled in to watch her. The puppy stopped her sniffing and came back to me. She took up a position on the floor a few feet away and settled into a classic shepherd watching pose at my side. Exactly where my former dog would sit. That empty ache at my feet suddenly felt filled. Soon, the puppy curled up into a ball and went back to sleep. I wondered if I should put her back on the quilt, but she seemed content with her spot on the carpet.

Two hours after we came home, there was a rattle in the front door. The puppy woke up and leaped to her feet. As my husband walked into the house, the tiny puppy sprang into action. She barked and growled at my husband, putting herself between me and him.

My husband stared down at the dog and then looked at me with amusement. Our one-pound bundle of terror continued her growling. I leaned over and made comforting sounds. The puppy snuggled against me.

“She is protecting you.” My flabbergasted husband seemed pleased. “How long have you been here?”

“Barely two hours,” I looked at the tiny puppy with new respect. She was continuing to surprise me. Had I had misjudged her? This was not the dull, stupid dog from the shelter. Instead, she was vibrant with a protective instinct.

In time, our tiny puppy would grow into a gentle and beautiful Australian Shepherd. Children at the park follow us on our walks in the hope to stroke her long silky coat and look into her brown eyes. As we walk, she lifts her long tail as proud as a flag. Herding ducks back into the lake became her favorite game.

She is a proactive watchdog who guards the brown lizards in our yard as if they were a flock of sheep. She is the smartest dog that I’ve ever owned and has become as much my best friend and companion as my first dog. I had misgivings that day I picked her at the no-kill shelter, but my instinct proved correct. Our chicken-coop puppy has become the perfect family dog.

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