Puppy came from a bad neighborhood. My neighborhood. The first time I met Puppy was shortly after a shooting that occurred just up the block from my house. The sirens and shouting must have piqued his curiosity as he roamed, and he trotted up to a crowd that was loitering in the street. It was four years ago, on a bleak December day—damp, chilly, and gray. A man had been critically injured and rushed to the hospital, and policemen lingered in the wake of the ambulance. Puppy, a fluffy, long-legged adolescent of ambiguous breed, was oblivious to the grim mood of the group. He wanted to play. He carefully soft-pawed up to one stone-faced cop after another and then, getting their attention, hopped back, inviting them to frolic. Most of the officers, disarmed by Puppy’s persistence, finally smiled and patted him on the head.
Puppy had no collar or tags, and I saw him running loose nearly every day after that, which isn’t unusual in inner-city Indianapolis. Renters routinely leave pets behind when they move, and even “owned” dogs are often allowed to wander freely, maybe finding, if they’re lucky, a dirty bowl of Alpo and a drafty, broken-down doghouse when they go home. Whenever I took walks in the park with my own dog, a pampered basset hound named Roscoe, Puppy would run out of an alley or from between two houses, then prance along beside us. I liked to believe that when it got dark and the night turned cold, he went back to wherever he was supposed to be, and someone there let him inside.
Sometime in January, though, I got home from work late, and Roscoe and I didn’t get out for our walk until well after 9 p.m. It was dark, and a hard, icy snow covered the ground. The weather forecast called for an overnight low temperature near zero degrees. And here came Puppy, bounding out to meet us.
I knocked on the front door of a friendly neighbor on the next block, from whose yard I’d seen Puppy emerge several times. She told me he had shown up a few weeks ago, and they had put a box on their front porch for him to sleep in. But no, he was not “theirs.” I thanked her and walked back to the sidewalk. I looked down at Puppy. He looked up at me.
I am ashamed to admit that I was reluctant to help Puppy. That night, I lured him into the garage, laid out some old sleeping bags, put down food and water, and plugged in a space heater. When I checked on him the next morning, the window was broken out and he was gone. (Puppy was, as I would soon learn, a first-rate escape artist.) Roscoe and I took a walk again that evening, and, again, Puppy ran out to greet us. This time, my girlfriend and I brought Puppy inside the house. We called him “Puppy,” afraid that giving him a real name would impart some kind of permanence on the arrangement. And I printed up flyers, hoping that someone might be looking for him. No one was.
Just as I feared, Puppy turned our sedentary domestic life upside down. In addition to having a playful spirit, he was also keenly, devilishly intelligent. Which meant that whenever he got bored, which was often, he would sneak off, find something he knew we didn’t want him to have—like, say, a pair of favorite old slippers—then parade it front of us, a dare. Taking a nap meant waking up to find a book, magazine, or newspaper chewed to tiny pieces, or the contents of a trashcan strewn across the floor, or both. He routinely scrambled over the chest-high fence that encloses our postage-stamp yard, no matter how much chicken wire I added to reinforce it, and then, once free, liked to stay an infuriating 10 feet ahead of me in the ensuing pursuit (what fun!). Suffice it to say, I yelled at Puppy a lot.
I didn’t want to drop him off at a shelter—all too full already. So I sent desperate e-mails to local animal groups, including the Alliance for Responsible Pet Ownership—ARPO—an all-volunteer organization that arranges foster homes and adoption events for unwanted dogs and cats. A woman named Carrie finally took pity and cut me a deal. ARPO would enroll Puppy, as long as I agreed to house him and bring him to the Castleton PetSmart every Saturday. I agreed.
After several months, about the time I started losing hope that Puppy would ever be adopted, I skipped one of the Saturday events. An e-mail arrived from ARPO later that afternoon. “Today a couple came into PetSmart to see and adopt Puppy,” it read. “They have seen him a couple times at PetSmart in the past.” I didn’t remember them, but as with so many adopting families, this particular mutt had caught their eye, even though they weren’t looking for a pet, and they couldn’t shake the feeling that he was meant to be their dog.
The girlfriend and I packed up Puppy’s meager belongings—a few slimy plush toys and half-chewed rawhides—and took him to the couple’s home for a visit. Charlie and Diane lived in a quiet, leafy subdivision in Castleton. Puppy reminded them of a dog they used to have named Arnie, and they had been grieving the loss of another companion, Sylvester, for two-and-a-half years. They liked to hike and run. They had a big, grassy yard with a 6-foot privacy fence. Somehow, Puppy had found the perfect home—or rather, the perfect home had found Puppy. We said goodbye, the girlfriend bawled, and we drove back to the neighborhood where Puppy had once wandered, lonely and cold, without him.
That was more than three years ago. I never stopped thinking about Puppy. So recently I decided to drop his adoptive family an e-mail to see how he was doing.
“Buddy is doing great,” came Diane’s reply. Puppy had a new name. “He is so lovable and sweet. He has been a blessing to us.” She said I was welcome to come for a visit.
When I arrived, Buddy greeted me at the door, gave me a good sniff, and let me scratch his head. He looked remarkable—broad-chested and strong, clear-eyed and white-toothed, his handsome, brindle coat gleaming with good care. Charlie and Diane explained that, despite my fair warning that he was “spirited” and difficult to fence in, their first few months with Buddy had been particularly trying ones. They had considered giving him back. But then it occurred to Diane that maybe he just needed more affection. So she decided to start coming home from work during the day to check on him. On that first afternoon, he sat there on the floor, looking up at her. She knelt down and gave him a big, warm hug, and, she says, “He just melted in my arms.”
From then on, things got better. They went to training, and Buddy eventually became such a gentleman that he earned a Canine Good Citizen certificate from the American Kennel Club. Earlier this year, he started taking classes to learn how to be a therapy dog, and he recently visited a nursing home. Charlie told me that Buddy’s unconditional friendliness to strangers and other dogs has given him an example to follow in his own life, one of acceptance and love, even for those with different backgrounds and beliefs. “And I really think he has improved our marriage,” Charlie said.
As I drove home, I thought about everything Buddy had accomplished since we parted ways. He gave the girlfriend and me confidence to continue fostering animals, which has led to better lives for a dozen other homeless dogs. He spread joy among the elderly and brought a kindly couple closer together.
And it occurred to me that although Puppy was just a stray mutt from a bad neighborhood, someone had been looking for him after all. They just didn’t realize it. And they needed a little help from a stranger to find him.
ARPO pets are available for adoption every Saturday at the PetSmart locations in Castleton, 5151 E. 82nd St., and Washington Square, 9749 E. Washington St. For more information call 317-774-8292 or visit adoptarpo.org.
WANT TO HELP?
Other Central Indiana pet shelters and rescue groups that need volunteers:
Indianapolis Animal Care & Control, 317-327-1397, indygov.org
Humane Society of Indianapolis, 317-872-5650, indyhumane.org
Southside Animal Shelter, Indianapolis, 317-710-2831, ssasi.org
Friends of Indianapolis Dogs Outside (FIDO), 317-221-1314, fidoindy.org
Indy Feral (cats), 317-638-3223, indyferal.org
Humane Society for Hamilton County, Noblesville, 317-773-4974, hamiltonhumane.com
Humane Society for Boone County Indiana, Lebanon, 877-473-6722, hsforbc.org
Greenfield/Hancock County Animal Management, 317-477-4367, greenfieldin.org
Hancock County Humane Society, Greenfield, 317-462-5404, hancockhumane.blogspot.com
Shelbyville/Shelby County Animal Shelter, 317-392-5127, cityofshelbyvillein.com
Humane Society of Johnson County, Franklin, 317-535-6626, hsjc.org
Morgan County Humane Society, Martinsville, 765-349-9177, mchumanesoc.org
Hendricks County Animal Control/Shelter, Danville, 317-745-9250, co.hendricks.in.us
Misty Eyes Animal Shelter & Learning Center, Brownsburg, 317-858-8022, mistyeyes.org
For more great volunteer opportunities and information about Indianapolis charities, check out The Give Guide in IM's December 2013 issue.