It’s been eight years since I lost Sammy to an inexplicable illness. Eight years since that fateful night when he lay in my lap, in shock, and passed on at dawn. And yet, I have never gathered the courage to write about him. I’ve eulogized people on the blog before, but I never got around to eulogizing Sammy, perhaps the most important person to have graced my life. I have often thought about why and always arrived at one probable reason – my years with Sammy were too pure to be confined in the inadequacy of words. I grew up alongside him, and a big chunk of my childhood memories has him prancing about or consoling me in my loneliest moments. Also, his loss is too difficult a time to revisit. Nothing has changed, and this post, too, isn’t about Sammy. It’s about a dog named Rin (in pic) and an important lesson he recently taught me.
Anyone who has ever lost a pet will know how utterly devastating the experience is, even though we know the eventuality the day we sign up for the role. Humans outlive dogs, generally. That is the unfortunate norm. But that doesn’t soften the blow of losing a dog. Although I don’t have a frame of reference, I’m going to go ahead and say it, it’s like losing a child. And so for the last eight years, I have been a parent without a child. The parental instincts Sammy birthed in me did not die with him. They remained dormant and triggered every time I came across an amiable animal, or a dog video, or an ad for pet adoption… basically, every day. But I refrained from adopting another, for my career choices had lent me a nomadic lifestyle. And there was never a permanent home to give a lovelorn dog. I also didn’t want to adopt someone and leave him/her behind at home for 8-10 hours a day as I worked towards a fulfilling career. But when I entered a permanent relationship this February, I knew I could finally share the responsibility and afford to provide a good life for a loving dog. So off we went, a dog lover and a reluctant accomplice who had never experienced the joy of a pet, to a shelter full of howling dogs looking for loving homes. Or so we thought.
When we first visited Canine Elite’s shelter near Qutub in Delhi, we were impressed. Not only did their revenue-making daycare centre have good facilities for dogs, their adoption shelter too pampered the furry residents. These dogs weren’t all compressed into cramped cages – a sight I’ve seen far too often at shelters. Each one had a decent-sized, clean, separate space; an individual meal chart that listed their favourites; two-hourly walks on lush grass; lots of cuddles; and even a CCTV camera to watch over them. Lest they hurt themselves or each other. What’s more, adopting from their shelter meant lifetime discounted rates of pet lodging in their daycare centre and invaluable peace of mind whenever we travelled out of the city. We were asked a bunch of questions on our living arrangements and readiness to adopt, and eventually introduced to a few indie dogs (all of their shelter dogs are desi, which is great).
This is where we met Rin. Born and rescued as part of a big litter a year ago, Rin was one of only two siblings left behind from his clan. The rest had found homes. When we met him, he was kept in quarantine, under observation for any remnant symptoms of tick fever, which I was told had already been treated a month ago. But that wasn’t the issue. The moment I entered his room, Rin reached for the farthest corner and cowered with fear. His short fur was black on the back and white on the belly, with a few brown patches thrown in for good measure. The tremble of his skin reminded me of the panic that overtook Sammy every time firecrackers rung in the air during Diwali. Rin relaxed immediately as soon as I was replaced by his caregiver, the soft-spoken Gurjeet. His sensitive and introverted nature reminded me of a young me. As a child, I was very much like Rin. I dreaded any interaction with strangers and hid behind family in social situations. But I was loyal to a fault with my best friends. And so, my mind was made. We would take Rin home. Once he got to know me, he would love me, I thought. Just like Sammy did. And I’d love him more.
We chose to take a week’s time before we brought him home. That would be enough to baby-proof the apartment and get all his supplies. Since he would still have to spend 3-4 hours alone in the apartment for about 3 days a week, we decided to foster him for a trial period of 7 days to see if he could cope. Off we went the next Saturday, documents and treats in tow. So excited was I, and dare I say the would-be first-time pet mom, that we had already bought a wine-red cushioned harness, a customized name tag that re-christened him Sirius Black, dog pads for our home, dog food, dog shampoo, dog brush… all the paraphernalia in the one week leading up to our second visit.
This time, the unfortunately-named Rin was out of isolation and back in the adoption area with the other dogs. But we wanted to meet him outside, on the green lawn, which I imagined would be his happy place. The moment a caregiver brought him out, all of my eight years of wait flashed before me. All of my heartbreaking shelter visits and volunteer work came down to this – the day I take one home. In this moment, I also realized that Rin was a handsome dog. All his colours – sparkling white belly, shiny black back, and brown patchy eyebrows beautifully blended to make a wonderful-looking doggo. I hadn’t noticed all this in the cramped, dark room where I had met him first. He was also the right size to thrive in our apartment. But one thing was amiss. The same moment I fell in love with him, he scampered away.
Rin fled back to his shelter the moment he saw two strangers had come to meet him. At first I thought it was us. So with both exit gates to the lawn closed, we let him take his time to get acquainted and see the lack of threat from us. He spent the next half an hour running between both exit gates and a few circles around the lawn. No amount of bone treats or chewy toys could lure him towards us. Eventually, they took him back to his room so he would be compelled to meet us. I knew we were cornering him again but it looked like the only option. The shelter, too, was keen to provide Rin a home. Thy had warned us he was a shy guy. If only he would let me pat him, he would know, I firmly believed. After all, I was good with dogs; they all seemed to love me. I had spent the last eight years cuddling every dog I met.
Back in the room, Rin ran out of corners and eventually retreated to one where he could see his beloved caregiver through the gate. His sibling, who had been so far separated from him by a meshed wall in the adjacent room, was also brought in for some reassurance. Spotty was even more afraid of us, if that was possible. With some help from dog biscuits and a chicken meal, I eventually got Rin to sniff my hands, eat from them, and let me pat him. But things stalled at that point.
Even though Rin let me touch him and feed him his favourite meal, he was never happy about it, always looking longingly at his caregiver and still searching for a getaway. Another round in the lawn went exactly the previous way. In all my visits to different shelters in various cities, most dogs jumped at a visitor, yearning to be lifted and given belly rubs. More often than not, I’d find myself torn between numerous wagging tails. My departure would be met with howling pleas to come back. In all these ways, Rin was the anti-dog. He barked with disdain at arrivals, ran away with fright when approached, and barked again in triumph at departure. It was clear: he didn’t want us there.
It dawned on me later that perhaps Rin knew. He had seen most of his siblings taken away by visiting strangers. Perhaps he knew that we intended to take him away- from his loving caregivers, his sister Spotty, and his cool companion dogs. He didn’t know what awaited him at our place, but he did know what he would lose. And perhaps at this shelter, it was too much to give up.
And so, after eight years of denying dogs a home, Rin denied me a dog. In doing that, he taught me a valuable lesson. One that I thought I knew. You don’t choose a dog. The dog chooses you.
Sometimes, when you want something so badly, you forget to ask, “Does it want me back?”
P.S. I intend to visit Rin and his other cool doggo friends again, to see if someone eventually chooses me. Until that day comes, I shall continue to cuddle every dog I meet on the street.