When I arrive, the sun has not yet made it over the towering pine trees behind the shelter. Already the air is still and wet, promising another sweltering spring day in Gainesville, Fl. The boggy ground, carpeted with moss, squishes as I walk across it. I wish good morning to an orange feral cat who watches me suspiciously as I cross by his perch on top of a huge metal equipment box.
I join the group of kennel techs and volunteers who are walking the dogs that have not yet been made available for adoption. These dogs have been seized in cruelty cases, are awaiting a decision on their adoptability, have medical issues, have a stray hold, or for some other reason are in limbo. There are a couple of chihuahua-terrier types: scruffy little brown dogs with wiry ruffs down their backs. An old beagle stands nervously next to his walker, pulling away, disgusted, whenever one of the chihuahuas gets too close.
A tall, slender dark brindle dog creeps towards me, frightened but eager. Over his snout and under his chin there is a line of pure white, a scar. Perhaps he was tied up for a long time with a head halter, or perhaps some chemical was put on the halter. When he came in he was terrified, but the patient staff has brought him to this careful, hopeful mindset.
I go into the kennel room and get the next dog, a little blue momma pit with teats sagging almost to the ground. She isn’t interested in going potty. She just wants to feel my hands on her head. She closes her eyes in the deepest contentment every time that I touch her.
The next dog out has an old, open wound on a hind leg. The leg is swollen and disfigured, and the dog holds it behind her, hopping about on the remaining three as she whines and jumps to sniff noses with the other dogs and meet the other walkers with a characteristic puppy enthusiasm.
One of the techs comes out with a great bull of a dog with a massive head and wild eyes. The tech holds the dog on a short leash, out from himself, until it begins to sniff, and then he relaxes a little, but he doesn’t take his eyes off of it. “He’ll try to bite,” the tech explains.
The morning wears on. The heat settles in, raising steam and flies from the damp ground. We finish walking the dogs that need to be leash walked. I start letting adoptable dogs out of kennels. The best efforts of staff and volunteers still don’t get every dog out every day. We mark off the dogs we take out on a big whiteboard near the lobby.
I walk down the “doubles”, the aisle between the rows of adoptable dogs. On either side, the dogs bark, howl, spin, cower or whine. The noise fills my head and chest. The pounding of their bodies and their paws reverberates through my legs and trembles in my fingertips.
Something else, something intangible but nonetheless present, seeps in with the noise. It floods through me and seeks to overwhelm me. I can feel their pleas, their longing, the boundless gratitude and love that only a dog can give. If only I would open the door.
I get to the end of the row, the row that seems to go on forever, to the dogs that haven’t been out recently. The first is a tall hound who holds her head high, looking neither left nor right, as she trots down the aisle. The second is a nervous collie mix who staunchly refuses to be walked down the row. I carry her, her fluffy coat soft against my face, her little tail wiggling helplessly.
Next is a powerful bully type dog, with a big square head and short smooth coat. He is a long-time resident at the shelter. He goes down the row in a series of explosions. He knows the dogs that are going to engage him and is already snarling and lunging towards them before we come even with their pens. I keep him tight by my side, lifting his front half off the ground when he lunges.
I keep him on the lead as we enter the playpen which adjoins the pen with the hound. They meet nicely and I let him off to run along the fence with the hound. While they run, I spend some time with the nervous collie, who just wants to lean on me and be cuddled, until someone comes looking for her to be spayed.
I go into the pen with the bully dog and play tug. Playing tug with a bully is a lot of fun. They are often dedicated tuggers. I spin this dog through the air, his hind legs flying out behind him, his teeth clenched firmly on the rope, grinning from his lips to his ears. He lands and pulls back, his shoulders rippling with muscle, each shake pulsing through my arms. I relax and let the power run through me so my body is swaying to the rhythm of his tugs.
We play until he is panting and his wild energy is spent. He jumps on the bench, a signal to me that he’d like cuddles now. I sit with him and he leans against me. He breathes deeply and sighs as he closes his eyes, pushing his head into my chest. We sit like that for a little while, my arm around his back, his head on my chest.
The hound bays at us to let her into the pen. The rows of dogs bark and clamber to be let out. Somewhere behind me a kennel tech goes by, the radio squelching that an owner is here to surrender their dog and can anyone go take it?
But for this moment, this instant, amid the chaos, despair, and seeming hopelessness, this dog, this one dog, is happy. And so am I.