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Our New Dog Is Teaching Us About Life

Lesson 1: Just because you can doesn't mean you will.

Some people are cat crazy. We are not like them. We love dogs. But only one or two dogs at a time, thank you. Decades ago we did have three at the same time. Not by choice, however. One of them was a returned offspring we fostered for a while until one of my students fell in love with him, and adopted Teddy as her own.

The last dog we had was an outsized Sheltie who was dumped without a tag on our rural country road by someone who wanted to make her someone else's responsibility. It was November with winter coming on. Cruel. But she — we named her Rachel — was such a wonderful soul that when she passed over a decade later we couldn't imaging living with any other dog.

So we didn't try. Not for another decade until November 3, 2020. We missed Rachel too much even to talk about the possibility of having someone new in the family to walk 3-4 times a day.

But then the pandemic happened

One of us is retired. Our son was back home with us, although he is finishing up his undergraduate degree remotely at Cornell University. I haven't been able to go into my office in Chicago since we picked Gabe up in Ithaca, N.Y., back in mid-March to bring him back to our house in Wisconsin for safety's sake.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. With all of us living again under the same roof (we built our house by hand without power tools back in the late 1980s, and it's two stories but small), we began to wonder whether we shouldn't see our pandemic isolation as an opportunity to do what it takes to bring a new puppy into our lives.

Adopting Emma

John Terrell
Our new dog's arrival home on November 3, 2020
Source: John Terrell

Emma is not a puppy, not by a long shot, although she often reminds us of our son when he was a toddler. And sometimes when he was a teenager. We adopted her on November 3rd last year when she was a decidedly insecure canine foundling at the Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin in Janesville, WI.

It's apparently all but impossible to say how old a dog is once they reach adulthood. The best guess by veterinarians who have seen her is she is about 2-3 years old. She evidently had had a litter prior to when she was spayed by the humane society after she had arrived there on October 21st emaciated, flea-infested, friendly, but decidedly timid.

Just because you can ...

Craig, Hugh, ed., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Johnson's household book of nature, containing full and interesting descriptions of the animal kingdom (1880)
Source: Craig, Hugh, ed., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dogs and people have been living and working together for tens of thousands of years. People have also long been selecting what dogs mate with each other, and which offspring get to cohabitate with people, and even join the family circle around the campfire, or more recently, the breakfast table — and which are sooner or later "culled" after birth. Human needs, aesthetics, and seemingly rational judgment about "good dogs" vs. "worthless puppies" have led — mostly in recent times (although there are some truly ancient breeds) — to the creation of literally hundreds of physically recognizable dog breeds varying in their size, head shape, body contours, hairiness, physical stamina, and the like.

According to popular wisdom and countless generations of dog breeders, we humans have also succeeded in shaping not only their appearance but also the typical behavior of these many canine varieties.

Is this true?

Doesn't mean you will

Edwin Henry Landseer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
"Fighting dogs getting wind" by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1818)
Source: Edwin Henry Landseer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Judging by her physical appearance, Emma is an American Pit Bull Terrier, although saying this is not saying much since this isn't a standard, well-defined breed. Dogs looking more or less the way these often do were engineered by human selection of their bloodlines to be strong and readily trainable as combatants in dogfighting and similar blood sports that are nowadays all but universally condemned as cruel and inhumane.

For this and other reasons, dogs like Emma are often said to be untrustworthy, dangerous, vicious, and all-too-often deadly killers. Some claim this is true, some say this is a fine example of knee-jerk misunderstanding.

Who's right?

I confess that when we started looking for a new dog, the thought of adopting one looking like Emma was not part of the plan. We knew the pit bull reputation. Our house is small. Pit bulls are powerful medium-sized animals weighing anywhere from 30-85 lbs. So such dogs were not even on our radar.

The local humane society websites we looked at all had these dogs available for adoption. We had in mind, however, a companion of smaller size and frankly far less ferocious appearance.

After meeting a few dogs both in Madison, WI, and Janesville, we nonetheless asked to meet the dog that the Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin was offering on the Internet as one named Carmen. I should also confess that based on her picture at their website, I had already filed Emma (aka Carmen) mentally in the back of my mind as a dog we should see when we were in Janesville.

The rest is history. The details are not important for what I want to say now about the first of the five lessons Emma has already taught us since last November about not only what it means to be a dog, but also about what it means to be human.

Why should you care?

Unlike, say, raccoons, chipmunks, zebras, or polar bears, both dogs and people are unusual in the animal world. Both they (and we) are strikingly diverse in their physical appearance.

I am not going to tell you that taking in a 2-3 years old shelter dog who had somehow managed to survive on the streets of Janesville for an unknown length of time — certainly more than just a few days, but how many weeks, how many months? — wasn't a struggle at first. Both she and we had a lot to learn about one another. Nonetheless, the first lesson Emma has taught us is this one:

Experience is the best teacher. Don't believe everything you hear. There is no substitute for an open mind and an honest commitment to making things work out.

Lesson 2Don't judge a book by its cover, or a dog by its appearance. To find the other lessons Emma has taught us, please go here.

G. Mützel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: G. Mützel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, Karla J. Larson, , and Lisa M. Stringer have contributed to this commentary.