Last month, I did a crazy thing.
It all started innocently enough on July 14 when my cousin shared on Facebook her local animal shelter’s post about a Mastiff-mix dog named Matteo. She commented, “Three dogs in a small house would be too much for us…but give this guy a look or a share. Love the gentle giants!”
Look at that face! What’s not to love?!
I see dozens and dozens of posts just like this one every single week on Facebook from all over the country, and this particular dog was located more than 500 miles away from me. Something in his eyes drew me completely in, though, so I took the next baby step. I commented.
If my cousin had made any other reply than the one she did, or made no reply at all, nothing would have come of it and we’d all have just gone on with our lives. But once the thing was set in motion, there was no stopping it.
On the Monday after she posted Matteo, she went to the shelter to meet him, and I followed along with her in my first-ever FaceTime conversation. Matteo was enthusiastic but not unruly, highly interactive with his visitors, and quick to sit for a treat that he took oh-so-gently. He even gave my cousin a quick kiss, which confirmed his considerable charm. I was sold. She was sold. We both so wanted this to be a love match.
On Tuesday, I made the decision to go meet Matteo and, with luck, bring him home with us, so my to-do list kicked into high gear. I had to figure out how to get there, how long it would take, how much it would cost, whether my homeowner’s insurance would allow me to have another dog, and so on. Did I have a collar and leash? A bed? A crate? Enough food to feed him? It was a 12-hour drive to get to him, and I knew he would be adopted quickly so I could not wait.
Fortunately, the shelter is closed on Wednesdays and no adoptions would take place, so I had a little time. There was a scramble trying to communicate with the shelter during their maddeningly limited telephone hours and open hours, but I was able to confirm before I left town that he was still available. So on Wednesday morning, I packed a bag, put the little dogs in the car, and off we went down the long, long road from here to there. I felt I was going on a blind date with every intention of coming home married. But I was ready, and I had the ring in my pocket in the form of Ruby’s old collar, fitted out with a shiny new tag for what I hoped would be my new big dog.
Two days of driving across four states later, I pulled up to the shelter half an hour before it opened on Thursday afternoon and waited nervously, very nervously. Matteo is so big, and my dogs are so small. We had no information about how he interacted with small dogs. I can handle a big dog and I already knew I’d love him, but the doggie meet-and-greet could go wrong in any number of ways, and that’s what was going to make or break this match. We all had to love one another or it wasn’t going to work.
The shelter is run by the city, and it is a busy, crowded, noisy place full of dogs and people in constant motion. I had a long wait and some paperwork to fill out before a volunteer finally brought Matteo out and put us together in a small yard. Just as he had with my cousin, he sat nicely for a treat and took it gently and allowed me to pet him without a single hesitation. He was frantic to be out of the kennel and out of the yard, so much so that I could not hold his attention without a treat in my hand. The shelter had named him Matteo at intake so the word meant nothing to him. There was no calling him to me or really, any interacting with him to be done at all except giving treats. I felt a chill.
Getting him together with my dogs seemed to be almost more than the shelter could accommodate. They insisted on having two handlers, one for Matteo and one for the littles, to ensure that no negative interactions occurred and that my dogs would feel no need to protect me from a strange dog. The female volunteer who took Matteo radiated anxiety about the meeting—her face seemed locked in a grimace of dread the entire time. The male volunteer who took my dogs, on the other hand, could not have been more blasé about the whole thing. He continually reassured me that all was just fine, while the female handler balked at each new iteration of interaction between the dogs. They progressed smoothly from walking past each other on leash to circling and sniffing each other on leash to moving around the yard together freely off leash to walking with me all together on leash. “That’s it, that’s as good as it’s gonna get for a first meeting,” the male handler said. “I think they’re good.”
My concern at that point was that Matteo seemed to want to interact only with the female handler and not with me or my dogs. There were no play bows, no nose-sniffs, no false charges or chasing around between the dogs, and Matteo never once initiated interaction with me. The three dogs essentially moved to separate areas of the large yard and ignored one another. I asked the female handler to leave the yard to let me see how Matteo would be with just us. With one last grimace, she walked out and closed the gate behind her. I turned to see Matteo running back and forth along the fence anxiously looking for her, and he would not return to us for the remainder of the visit.
Looking back, that’s the moment I realized Matteo was not going home with us, although it took me the whole rest of the evening to clarify that in my mind because I had invested so much time and treasure and emotion in getting there and meeting him and wanting this to work. But the fact was, no matter how I felt about him, he obviously felt no sense of connection whatsoever to me or to my dogs. He was not interested in joining our pack.
Despite all the effort expended, I chose to leave him there and drive home the next day, completing a journey of a thousand miles in 72 hours for what at first appeared to be, essentially, nothing.
It wasn’t for nothing, though.
I learned how big my heart is, and how much strength I have to do a very big, very scary thing for the right reasons. I also learned that my cousin and I make a formidable team and that I can count on her support 100%. I could not have done the thing without her.
When I got home, several people had just one question for me: “What were you thinking?!”
What I was thinking is, it’s been 9 years since I had a big dog that I felt could protect me and allow us to go places that I don’t feel safe going alone or with the little dogs. I was thinking, that absolutely beautiful boy got a raw deal by being dumped at that shelter, and I had the power to punch his ticket out to the sweet life. I was thinking, I can’t save them all, but I could save this one. I was thinking, I wanted to make a difference. And I almost did. If he had loved us back, even just a little bit, just for a moment, in that shelter yard, he’d be here with us now—probably snoring on the couch with the littles rolled up on either side to share body heat.
He was almost our dog. We were almost his family.
Matteo was adopted out the day after I got home, and I hope he now has the best life a dog could ever dream of—even better than the one I could provide. I hope he knows his name, and that he is loved, and that he is safe and happy wherever he is.