In the 1990s, I had two Golden Retrievers that I took over from my mother. She’d found that they needed too much exercise and she didn’t have the energy for them, and besides, one had been my father’s before he moved out. They were named Mick and Bonny. They were funny and gentle, sweet and playful. They greeted most people rambunctiously, carrying their toys and making attempts to jump up, but kids or people who were older or hesitant with dogs got a much quieter reception. On vacations they rode happily in the car, and when we got somewhere—like the mountains of Colorado—they ran around joyfully. They were good with other dogs and loved all people and were the best dogs I ever had.
They both died young around 2000, and I ended up with two Cocker Spaniels. I’d had a Cocker when I was growing up, because my mother had one when she was growing up. She knew and loved the breed, as did I. I have no idea why I didn’t think of going to the pound at that point. I was, I suppose, uneducated. I simply had grown up with purchased dogs, specific retrieving breeds, and that’s what I knew. Of course these two Cockers were my beloveds, too, but they were challenging: one didn’t like other dogs, so he lunged and barked when he saw them on walks; and the other was shy with people, so I had to train her over years by having new people give her treats.
Somewhere over the course of my spaniels’ 15+ year lives, the issue of rescue dogs came onto my radar. Eventually, I knew that I wanted to rescue a dog when the time next came. It was longer than I’d thought, because I’d also ended up with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that I inherited when my mother died.
But I still loved Golden Retrievers. I gravitated towards them at the dog park, where they were the rare adults dogs who stopped to be petted. Their look—sure, that was part of it, I suppose. I love the longer-haired breeds and their softness. Their size and shape, yes—healthy and big enough not to be stepped on, but not giant like my sister’s Great Pyrenees or the gorgeous but goofy Great Danes. But mostly, I loved their personalities—eternally puppyish, sweet and people-oriented, playful and gentle. They don’t focus so intently on their owners that other people don’t exist, like German Shepherds; they don’t herd like collies and sheepdogs; they don’t bark a lot like many small dog breeds (including Cocker Spaniels); they aren’t protectors or particularly prey-oriented like terriers; they’re not intellectuals like Standard Poodles or Border Collies. They’re just fun-loving, goofy, cuddly dogs. They fit what I want in a dog. They make me happy.
So I found what I thought was the perfect solution: a local Golden Retriever rescue. My husband and I applied, had the telephone interview, the home visit, and were approved for a Golden when the right one came along.
And then my sister was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.
We still had one dog—a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that I had inherited when my mother died. She was 15. I knew I’d want to spend a lot of time in Illinois with my sister, a six hour drive away. I didn’t want to be wrangling two dogs into the car and driving up there, then spending a week or so at a time in a small-ish house with six dogs (my sister has four). And my husband and I were going to England to see his family for three weeks. So we notified the Golden Retriever rescue that we were putting our adoption on hold, and would get back to them when we were ready.
My sister started chemo while I was in England, and it was difficult not to be with her, but she insisted I stick with my vacation. When I got back, I was concerned with her—we went to see another specialist in Chicago, talked to different doctors, worried about meds, alternative treatments, etc. Finally, after a few days back in the States, I noticed that I had a message on my phone. It was from the Golden Retriever rescue, asking if we were interested in the perfect dog: she’d been raised with cats (we have two), was a purebred, only two years old, loved dogs and people. Unfortunately, the message was nearly two weeks old: my phone doesn’t work in England because it costs too much. After talking with my sister, who was eager to have me get a dog and not let her illness interfere with my happiness (that’s my sister for you), I called back. The perfect dog had already been adopted by someone else.
After that, I gradually decided that I did, after all, want that Golden now. I kept checking the website with available Goldens. Finally my husband picked out one that he loved the look of. This dog hadn’t been tested with cats, but it was a Golden mix, so we weren’t too worried. Goldens are known for their gentleness, their soft mouths. It might chase the cats, but not hurt them. We waited until this dog became available—the poor boy had to be treated for heartworm first—and then inquired about meeting him.
It turned out that we could foster him for a few days because his foster had to go out of town. That was better than a meeting—it was a real trial run. As soon as he came in, I knew he wasn’t “the” dog. It’s sort of inexplicable, that feeling, but nonetheless real. Still, he was sweet and we showered him with love and kept our minds open, just in case.
And then on the 2nd day we had him, we had a tragedy. Our two-year-old cat, who had grown up with the senior Cavalier spaniel, was terrified of the new foster dog. We thought she’d perhaps hide under the bed—we kept our bedroom off-limits, except at night when the foster dog was in a crate. But on Monday morning, when my husband had to go to work, we couldn’t find our young cat. We looked everywhere, including the garage, where the litter boxes could be reached through a cat flap. We looked for two hours, including under the hood of both cars and in the wheel wells.
Finally, my husband just had to get to work. I stood in the driveway, in case our scared cat was in the garage after all and made a run for it when the garage door went up. I cannot bring myself to describe exactly what happened next, but my poor husband was driving, and I was watching, and our poor, wonderful, sweet calico cat—our first “baby” together—died at the age of two. We both blamed ourselves: me for wanting the dog, my husband for not looking carefully enough (though he did!). I know it sounds like a small trauma, but it was one nevertheless, and we are still dealing with it.
We didn’t adopt that dog. Who knows if we would have if that hadn’t happened, though I doubt it.
My husband is the one who adores cats. He loves all animals, but cats are his favorite. Within a couple of weeks, we had another cat—a timid kitten who chose my husband, as animals do, at the Humane Society. We were told they didn’t get to handle her much, she was so shy. But when we held her, she purred and purred.
At home, she hid under the sink in the guest bathroom. My senior spaniel ignored her—she was going down into kidney failure at that point, and would pass away in a few days. That was two of our animals who had died within 10 days. And my sister with her diagnosis and advancing disease, always in the background. My emotions were raw and bruised, and I was heading towards depression.
So I took to checking the Golden Retriever rescue website several times a day, looking for new dogs that were cat-friendly. I contacted the poor adoption coordinator from that organization regularly, asking about this or that dog. It wasn’t fully rational, this driving need for a new dog. I was trying to fill the holes of loss and trauma and future loss and I knew it. But I couldn’t stop. Eventually, the intake of Golden Retrievers in need was too slow for me. None of the dogs were appropriate for us, and with our new kitten being so timid, we really needed a cat-savvy dog. I started looking on Petfinder for other breeds that fit our criteria: medium/large dogs, preferably with retrieving breeds in them, that were good with cats, dogs, and people.
I tried every configuration of search I could. I looked for specific breeds, and took out all filters. Sometimes a dog marked “cat friendly” would turn out, in the description, to need a home without cats. Or they’d like cats but not other dogs, and with my sister’s pack, I really need a dog that’s good with other dogs. I looked for weeks, also constantly checking the Golden rescue website. I worried that I was being too selective about breeds, but the vast majority were pit bull mixes. I have nothing against pit bulls—I love petting them at the dog park—but I’m not the kind of person who can stand hostility and argument. I don’t want anyone to be afraid of my dog. And there are stories of people in my city being harassed, their dogs even shot at, simply because they’re pit bull mixes. Then there were the herding mixes, the mixes with high prey drives, the mixes who were one-person dogs. Nothing was right. And when I contacted fosters, I was often told that “they chased the cats but they were outside cats so they could get away” or “the cats just smacked them and they learned.” I had timid cats. I had a cat who had died. I was paranoid. I was grieving. I felt out of control and helpless.
Then the one dog at the Golden rescue that I’d been interested in since the beginning of her rescue, one who was known to be good with cats and dogs, was coming close to being available. But when I inquired about her, I was told that someone else “ahead of me” was interested in her. I understand that rescues must prioritize those who have fostered for them, but I still felt put off. I felt like the process of adoption was opaque. It mirrored the lack of clarity in my sister’s experiences with the medical community.
So I finally looked into Golden Retriever puppies. I figured a puppy would be little threat to even our shy kitten, and they could grow up together. We just wouldn’t have to worry about the dog and cats getting along. And it would be a Golden, raised to our own preferences and quirks. It would be the perfect dog, and I could control exactly when and how we would get it. I found a good breeder—not the very best, whose puppies go for over $2000, but still a good breeder with indoor pups and a love for their dogs—whose puppies will be available at the right time, at the end of October, when my husband and I will be back from various trips out of town. I inquired and had reserved the puppy all within an hour. After months of searching and waiting, I would have a dog I really wanted.
And then the guilt set in. I heard from a couple more of the places I had queried about their dogs. I still had a Petfinder email for my search. I follow happy stories of adopted dogs on Instagram, and each one hit me like a punch: I wasn’t going to be one of those stories. I had caved. I had bought a dog. I would be one of those people I myself had judged in the past. I still want to justify myself—thus this very long post! I will get another dog at some point, and I want it to be a rescue dog.
But for now, my sister is excited about the puppy. She herself has only rescue dogs, but she doesn’t judge me. She wants to celebrate with me, with the puppy, for as long as she has. We don’t know how long that will be. I think that unknown—the big unknown—is what finally broke me down. I wanted a certainty, and I have it: on October 30th, I will pick up my new puppy. She will be a reddish Golden Retriever. She will be 8 weeks old. She will be loved very much, and she will bring joy.