Scruffy wasn’t the kind of dog we’d asked for.
The moment he was released from his kennel, it was like the Running of the Bulls. His 20-pound frame bounded around the room, his gait more bounce than run. When I scooped him up, he squirmed and barked until his four oversized paws were back on the ground. He alternated between nibbling on and humping everything. He was wild.
What was most notable about him was his hair ― shaggy and so voluminous it bounced with every step. If you’ve ever seen a bald eagle starting to morph from its brown juvenile feathers to the distinct white feathers of adulthood, that’s kind of what Scruffy’s coloring looked like, crossed with the erratic styling of Bernie Sanders. His name was fitting.
A few days earlier, after being suddenly laid off from a restaurant serving gig due to the coronavirus pandemic and feeling guilty about the longing looks our 6-year-old Labrador, Luna, was casting out the window at other dogs, I decided to apply to foster a dog.
I needed a distraction from the emotionally draining news cycle, so this would be a win-win, I thought. I’d be at home writing so I had the time, and Luna would have a four-legged friend to chum around with while we were socially distancing.
My partner, Shaun, and I specifically asked for a senior dog that would match Luna’s energy levels. A real couch buddy. But when we went to pick up our foster, we were handed an energetic 3-month-old shepadoodle (apparently what you call a German shepherd/poodle mix).
“He’s super adoptable,” the rescue group worker said, trying to ease our obvious reservations. “I don’t think you’ll have him for long.”
Calling me a dog person would be an understatement. There’s been no point in my life when I didn’t have one. However, the dogs I’ve known were almost always older and at the very least potty trained. My partner isn’t so much a dog person as he is a Luna person. She was his first real experience with pets and she made it simple. She was an exceedingly calm and well-adjusted adult when we met ― it was easy to love her.
Scruffy was beyond our scope.
The first night with Scruffy was spent Googling (how to potty train a puppy, how much to feed a puppy, how to get a puppy to stop using our hands as teething toys) and bargaining (Shaun was ready to send him back somewhere between the third puddle and the seventh barking fit).
All the while, Luna looked on, clearly apprehensive about this dust bowl-hued tornado. She was most displeased by his puppy energy, how he delighted in chomping on her velvet-soft ears, and the cuddles his exuberance was netting him.
I didn’t want to admit it to Shaun, but within minutes of coming home, I thought I’d made a mistake leaving the rescue group with Scruffy.
“Let’s give it a day,” I told Shaun. “He probably just needs to settle in.”
The next day was (a little) easier and every day that followed went better than the last ― though I don’t know how people who aren’t home all day are able to raise a puppy. It’s a full-time job in itself.
Scruffy was like the consummate classroom troublemaker. Despite having a spectrum of colorful teething toys, he delighted in destroying toilet paper rolls ― a particularly horrifying move as the two-ply had become important social currency that week.
Keeping up with him was exhausting.
Though Scruffy liked my partner, he took to me much more quickly. When Luna and I went out for our afternoon run, Shaun said Scruffy sat by the door and waited for our return. When I got in the shower, Scruffy put his paws on the side of the tub and repeatedly peered around the curtain to make sure I was still there.
Scruffy was a firehose of affection. He desperately wanted to dispense love and, trapped at home, facing an uncertain future, we desperately needed it.
Pandemics are hard. But slowly, his presence made everything more tolerable.
The first few days of social distancing, pre-Scruffy, were characterized by overwhelming anxiety about life going forward. The soundtrack in my mind seemed to be an unending cadence of “DOOM, DOOM, DOOM.”
But Scruffy helped me get through the early weeks of the pandemic in an unexpected way. His need for frequent bathroom breaks gave structure to my day, helped with planning and warded off listlessness. Obsessively scrolling through news cycles gave way to constant tug of war. Crippling anxiety was lessened by laughing at Scruffy’s floppy puppy antics.
He was so deliriously happy all of the time. He perpetually looked like a guy excitedly greeting a buddy he hadn’t seen in a while: “Oh what, you’re here, too?” His buoyancy lightened the emotional load I carried as this quarantine crossed into double-digit days.
He became my constant shadow, trailing me through the house as I worked or did chores or cooked. It made me feel special and needed. I knew I’d fallen for him when I set to work trimming the little dreadlocks that inexplicably formed on his rump every other day.
One night he seemed to be feeling playful during our pre-bedtime walk, so I decided to see if he might be a good running buddy. We took off at a slow jog down the sidewalk. Every few feet he’d look back to make sure I was still there with him. His tongue lolled out and he grinned. We’d found our stride. It was then I could feel the first hairline fractures of heartbreak. The thought of him leaving hurt.
Ultimately I knew we couldn’t keep him. He would be the perfect dog ... for someone else. We had the time and patience to help more dogs find their people.
It didn’t make saying goodbye to him any easier. When the rescue group finally texted to say they wanted to arrange a meet-and-greet with a potential family, I wept.
Scruffy taught us myriad lessons ranging from unless you want your laptop chewed on, don’t leave it out, to how to accept things you can’t really control. He helped remind us to take it one day (or more appropriately, one potty break) at a time.
When he met his would-be adopters, it was obvious within seconds they were smitten. They’d lost a dog earlier in the year that could have been his twin. They needed each other.
After the paperwork had been signed, I carried Scruffy out to their car and placed him in the lap of his new dad in the passenger seat. Scruffy nestled into his chest and I closed the door, both to the car and on our time together.
I still get updates on him via Facebook ― he’s being a good boy. Now we’re fostering a 3-year-old Lab named Sheila. She’s picked up where Scruffy left off on our pandemic education with important life lessons of her own.
Sheila’s lucky ― she knows she’s going back to a loving home. She flew into town from a remote village to have puppies and as soon as she’s healed from being spayed, she’ll return to a family who can’t wait to have her back. Knowing that makes it easier to accept we’ll be saying goodbye to her soon, too.
And while we can’t control much of what’s happening in the world right now, we can welcome another dog into our pack and continue to help each other through it.
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