As the pandemic took hold, the rescue shelters saw adopters storm their virtual doors. As first-time dog owners and fosters sent application after application for the various lineups of dogs, supply couldn’t keep up with demand. There were stories about empty shelters; there were also stories about failed adoptions and dogs being returned.
The life of the American dog has never seemed more compelling. Who among us hasn’t stayed awake all night scrolling through those online videos of successful rescues, continually posted by sites with names like The Dodo? Here is the one about the dog found in the Mississippi woods that now spends his time snacking on McDonald’s ice cream cones. Here is the one about the precocious tyke who persuaded her family to take a chance on a deaf puppy. In dark times, thinking about dogs — and thinking about getting a dog — was easier than tuning into the mounting stories of human disease and death.
What viewers don’t see is all the dog-adoption paperwork, the trials and tribulations of getting the right kind of dog to the right kind of home. Kathleen Marchsteiner, who has been a volunteer adoption coordinator for City Dogs Rescue & City Kitties in Washington for two years, is one of many such matchmakers. She reviews those applications that grill the potential adopters: What’s your plan for a midday break with the dog? How long can the dog expect to be alone?
“You want to make a good match,” Marchsteiner says, “But in doing so, you [sometimes] have to help the adopter realize it’s not a good fit. We would much prefer that than someone to try to fake their way through it.”
She has certainly shed tears about a dog she knows would make a great addition to a home. Lolly, a Great Pyrenees, was a lovable lug that finally got a chance after some hashing out with a hesitant adopter in the parking lot of a Starbucks.
Notably, more people wound up keeping their dogs during the pandemic. Washington’s Humane Rescue Alliance and its partner organization in New Jersey reported a 28.7 percent total decrease in surrenders (an owner returning a dog for any reason) from March 2020 to March 2021 than during the same period a year earlier.
Yet in the rush to adopt, some dogs never sniffed a chance to find a home — much less a forever home. These dogs chipped away at our fragile grasp of the meaning of time.
Consider the dog that waited out the past year.
Likes: smooching babies on the mouth; bounding into shower stall while the water is running.
Dislikes: cardboard boxes, vacuum cleaners and probably her given name.
Some call this four-legged friend Delfina, but lately, her foster mom, Michaela Blanchard, has stuck with calling her Girl.
Delfina was a stray trekking the streets of the District’s northwest side before being scooped up by the Alliance in April 2020. She wasn’t in such great shape upon arrival — severely emaciated, with lots of unchanneled energy.
Delfina waited, with all the other hopeful adoptees on the Alliance’s website, as dog after dog was scouted for desirable looks, sizes and vibes. Even as humans got put on waiting lists, awaiting more available dogs, Delfina waited, unadopted.
By all accounts, she is a good girl.
She has a glossy, light caramel coat and an adorable, wrinkly face that makes some think there could be some Shar-Pei in her mix. Just look at her pointed ears, perking up at the mere signal of incoming petting — anywhere on her body will do. Need your legs warmed? She will wriggle under tables and press herself firmly against shins, calves, you name it. Tell her to go deep with a football in your hand and she will swat away Air Bud himself to get first paw on the ball.
She loves the simple things, too. An ice cube. Playing and roughhousing with other dogs. (Blanchard notes, “She’s not your girl’s girl — definitely a tomboy.”)
Sure, her bark is loud. She’s a little heavy on the playing front. She’s a little unsure about thunder. (Aren’t we all?)
Blanchard, a small-business owner and manager of an online education platform, will gush about “Girl’s” fierce loyalty and can’t wait to one day call a dog her own again after losing a cherished canine companion, Austin, to cancer. But she’s not quite ready to commit a common sin in this world: “the foster fail,” in which fosters typically always get first dibs on a dog up for adoption. Deep down, she knows Delfina belongs to someone permanently, but that someone isn’t her right now.
It’s not anyone’s fault, really. Blanchard had sturdy, tank-like dogs her whole life, and she’s thinking life in the city might be better suited for a littler pup that fits her Northeast Washington group home. And Delfina could use a backyard. Or even more guidance than Blanchard can provide at the moment.
She has kept her fingers crossed for Delfina’s latest chance, if an apartment landlord will approve an adopter’s request to house her big girl in less than 800 square feet.
Blanchard will keep caring and searching and biding her time for the right one, and Delfina will keep vigilant about vacuum cleaners. The pandemic waned, but the waiting continues.
Dogs are inflection points on the timeline of human lives. Four paw prints marking life before and after their arrival.
Whether it’s the young lovebirds for whom dog ownership acts as a trial run for having a child, or the empty nesters, or the millions of others who just need a new friend — what better way to make you live up to that pledge to face the time of now than a dog? (A cat, comes the firm response of millions — who, in their alternative cat-universe, are reading a story about cats and time and pandemic-era adoptions.)
You want to talk about the long paths to forever homes? You want a dog that knows all about the wait?
Here is Jabali. (Swahili for “rock,” or one who is strong and steady.) Formerly known as Banjo, and sometimes still called that, depending on whom you ask. But when he first arrived on the scene, it was “Wait, that’s not Petunia.”
The network of dog shelters, alliances and rescues of North America are all little checkpoints on a map for transporters who ferry the neglected and unwanted to happier homes. City Dogs Rescue & City Kitties sent a retrieval unit to Bladen County, N.C., in January. Its destination: The home of one of those off-the-grid types, whose cabin in the woods became the hangout spot for more than a dozen homeless animals.
As the scared dogs were shepherded one by one into the van, there was one stray among the strays. It seemed Banjo was eager to travel and hopped in. Upon arriving in D.C., Banjo burst from the van, ready to explore. That’s when his rescuers checked their list and realized that he wasn’t Petunia — a similar tall and slender foxhound-type, who was supposed to have a long stretch of black fur across her body.
The volunteer foster and adoption coordinators found out that Banjo, a honey-brown dog all over, was supposed to do what some humans weren’t allowed to do during the pandemic: Go to Canada and live in a rescue shelter there. After sorting things out, it was agreed that if Banjo felt Washington was his calling, there he would stay and find a home. (For her part, Petunia was rescued on the next trip, brought to a shelter and soon snatched up by an eager adopter.)
There was a little worry about finding the right fit for Banjo; some kind of shrapnel had torn a knee ligament in his left hind leg. Like many rescues, he’s still a little wiry and underweight at 50 pounds. And they figured since it seemed like he lived a past life as a hunting dog, he would do best in family, where he could feel like part of a pack.
Enter LaKisha and LaToya Berryman and their daughters Vivian, 8, and Nova, 3, and dog Dakota, their 14-year-old, curly-haired loaf of white fur.
Banjo sauntered into their suburban split-level Alexandria home last month for a one-week trial and never left. He found a cozy spot on their basement couch and covered himself in Viv’s childhood blanket.
It’s the kind of tree-lined neighborhood where every neighbor seems to have a dog and a quick walk turns into a stop-and-gab, which is kind of a problem for Banjo since the Berrymans think he’s not really used to walks. He’s a little shy but finds comfort in a squeaky, spiked neon orange blob toy and loves to practice his downward dog.
They waited on Banjo for a while — obsessing over online videos of others finding their pandemic puppy love. They made time for shelter visits to find a dog that could keep up on LaToya’s runs. They also searched, at one point, for designer dogs.
LaToya was hospitalized in April with covid-19, and once that happened the couple realized how valuable their time was. They adopted Banjo on May 27. Then on June 4, after spending almost the past five years building a life with their adopted daughters, they got married. He even has them thinking about becoming a foster family for a human teenager.
The family still hopes the name Jabali sticks. They’re still not quite sure what breed he is — City Dogs says foxhound but their groomer says Azawakh, a tall, slim West African breed. His medical history is a little spotty since they’ve done tests on him — some say he’s heartworm positive and others say negative. In fact, they don’t even know how old he is. The vet says he’s older than 6, but their dog-walker believes he’s younger than 3.
But after the year dog and family have been through? Their sense of time and waiting has changed, and, perhaps, so has the dog’s. There’s a lot of that going around.