Pursuit of Dog III: The road to canine love can be bumpy


Dagoberto Aceves, a 25-year-old web developer from Alameda, California, has been thinking about getting a dog for several months now. He’s decided it’s finally time to start looking at dogs, and he’s both excited and nervous. Unlike most new owners, he knows just how much thought and preparation should go into getting a dog.

When he started the process we offered to help, so he’s dutifully taken our Are you ready quiz, which helps prospective owners decide just that, and our Dog MatchUp, which helps people identify dogs compatible with their lifestyle and personality.

The most important things he’s learned:

  • Don’t fall in love with the first cute dog to trot by–you may fall out of love once you’ve lived together for a while.
  • You don’t need a yard to have a dog--a relief to Dago, who lives in an apartment. Regular play and exercise with their owners does dogs more good than languishing in a yard.
  • Large, low-energy dogs are a better choice for apartment dwellers than smaller, hyper dogs.
  • Smart dogs are fun but more work. Brainy canines need lots of mental exercise–training, jobs to do, games to play–just as much as physical exercise, or they can get bored and destructive.

He’s also learned what kind of dog would suit him best: an even-keeled pooch who can handle his sometimes hectic schedule; isn’t barky and gets along with humans and canines alike, since he lives in an apartment and plans to take his dog to the office. He’d also do better with a snuggler than a dog who’s happier covering lots of ground every day.

Armed with all this new information, he turns to our DogFinder, plugs in his zip code, and waits for his dream dog to appear.

Puppy love

The first dog to pop up is Hector, a Rottie mix puppy. Rottweilers are number eight on Dago’s list of recommended breeds and he takes one look and says, “I want him!” Still he can’t resist scrolling and views a gorgeous Border Collie mix puppy with lush white-and-black fur, cornflower blue eyes, and a name–Snickerdoodle. “Can you change a dog’s name?” he asks. We assure him he can.

Then there’s Fat Man Slim, an older Aussie Cattle Dog mix. Dago knows that a senior dog with a weight problem doesn’t stand much chance of finding a new home, and the portly, grizzled dog tugs at his heartstrings, but he scrolls on. The smiling face of a Lab named Bert briefly snags his attention, but he considers the energizer bunny side to many Labs, and moves on. “I don’t think I could keep up with Bert,” Dago says.

It’s Hector who Dago keeps returning to. So he emails the rescue group who’s caring for him at the moment and stops in to his apartment management office to talk with them about adopting the Rottie pup.

They deliver the first blow.

Certain breeds need not apply

Turns out Dago’s apartment allows dogs but, as with many apartments, only certain kinds. Any dog heavier than 40 pounds is out, as are several breeds, including Rottweillers and pit bulls.

Dago is crushed. He’d become emotionally attached to the picture–and idea–of Hector. “I feel like I lost a dog who could have been a great fit,” he says.

But he sits down with our DogFinder again to look for small or medium-sized dogs and finds Frisky, a lapdog-sized adult. Dago goes to visit Frisky in his foster home, and finds the dog is even cuter than his pictures suggest. The two go on a long walk together. By the time they return, Dago has already moved the energetic but attentive little dog into his heart, and home.

Then comes the second blow.

Why is it so damn hard to save a dog?

The foster mom bluntly tells Dago there’s somebody ahead of him who’s applied for Frisky. Her tone suggests Dago look elsewhere. But he decides not to take offense, fills out an application anyway–and never hears back.

Dago has no better luck with the rescue group caring for Fat Man Slim, which lets his online application and email go unanswered.

Several days later, Dago is still bewildered and angry. “I’m trying to muster up some motivation to deal with the rescue groups again,” he says. “I felt like I was sending over my hopes, and when I didn’t even get a reply…”

We take pity on Dago, and call up Kelly Dunbar, DogTime contributing editor and co-founder of Open Paw and DogStarDaily. She and her husband Ian Dunbar are known around the world for their expertise in training dogs.

Kelly agrees to meet up with us and hit the local shelters until Dago finds his dog.

Why is it so damn hard to find a dog?

Berkeley Animal Services is our first stop. We pass cage after cage of pit bulls. Some eagerly approach, tails whirring, eyes bright with hope. Others lie dejected in their crates. One lies tightly curled in a laundry basket, which, notes the card hanging on her cage, makes her feel more secure.

Dago reluctantly passes them by and stops at the only dog in the shelter who fits his landlord’s criteria: a Jack Russell Terrier. Kelly notes that he happily dances up to the gate, a sign he’s well socialized. But a shelter worker tells us the dog’s on hold. “People want him because he’s small,” she says.

We leave and head over to the Berkeley Humane society, and are stunned to find it has only one dog–a black Lab mix too big for Dago. So we pile back into the car, rethink our strategy, and start calling other shelters.

The first two have only pit bulls, but the Humane Society of Silicon Valley says it has a good collection of dogs, some of which fit Dago’s restrictions. We head onto the freeway and turn our car south, to Santa Clara.

Progress at last

It’s a sun-soaked day in Santa Clara, and as we stroll the rows of relatively spacious, well-kept pens, our hopes cautiously start to rebound.

As promised, the shelter has lots of dogs of all types, many of them small enough to squeak under Dago’s weight limit. We look at Daisy, an eight-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, but learn she can only be adopted with her longtime Daschund companion.

We view Grant, a shiny black Pomeranian mix, but Kelly decides he isn’t happy enough to see us. “You want to see the dog wiggle or shift from foot to foot in excitement,” she says. “Grant seems a little independent and aloof.”

There’s also Bennigan, an American Eskimo/Pomeranian mix, who’s got spunk and good looks. But Kelly notices he’s peed in his kennel, right next to his bed. A dog who soils his sleeping area could be a challenge to housetrain, she says.

And then we meet Maggie. She’s a three-year-old Corgi mix with the tell-tale duck feet and hotdog shape of the breed plus an abundance of red hair. Maggie lived in a family with kids, but was surrendered when they moved, according to the notes on her cage. She comes to the front of the cage and greets us with a little more warmth than Grant, which pleases Kelly.

Could she be the one?

Dago’s intrigued. So we sit down with a shelter worker to find out more. We learn that when she first arrived, Maggie was fairly cool toward her human evaluator and other dogs, but she hasn’t shown any signs of aggression. Aside from the shyness, the only really bad habits they’ve noticed is that Maggie pulls on leash and can’t resist a good cat chase.

Kelly’s a bit surprised Maggie was so standoffish when she first arrived at the shelter, but she doesn’t consider it a deal-breaker. “It’s normal for a dog to be stressed after arriving in a shelter,” she says, “and the fact that she warmed up so much in the few weeks she’s been here is a good sign.”

We decide to meet Maggie in the shelter’s greeting pen. As soon as she arrives she runs straight to Dago for a treat. Once satisfied she calmly explores the rest the pen. Although she doesn’t shower us with affection, she’s interested; when Dago sits down, she briefly climbs into his lap.

They sit together in the sun for awhile, Dago stroking her thick red fur. “She’s independent, but she’s also engaged,” says Kelly. “And after all, she’s an adult, and Corgis aren’t a people-centric breed, like a Lab or Pit.”

Not there yet

But when we head back to the office to fill out an application, we hit yet another road bump. The shelter worker spots on his application that Dago’s roommate has a dog, and says he must bring the dog down to meet Maggie before he can adopt her, to make sure the two get along. So we climb into the car without Maggie, and Dago calls his roommate to ask if he can borrow her dog first thing tomorrow morning.

After his roommate agrees, and Dago hangs up the phone, he suddenly registers what’s happening. After so many months of thinking about getting a dog, it suddenly feels as if everything is moving too quickly. He tells us he’s excited, but he’s also worried. He’s worried he might lose Maggie, but he’s also worried he might get to keep her.

Still, something about this dog feels right. “Meeting her in the pen felt exactly like a good first date,” he says. “I think from the moment I saw her, I knew I’d like her best.”