On a sweltering August morning in Savannah, I went on a litter pickup with my friend Stacey. It was the first pickup of our newly established group, the Savannah Trash Warriors. Since it was our first cleanup after announcing our new group and posting an event to social media, we didn’t expect anyone else to arrive. Much to our expectation – no one did. Surprisingly, it would be one of the most exciting cleanups we ever went on. 

We started the Savannah Trash Warriors by alternating between cleanups in each other’s neighborhoods. This morning, we were cleaning up in my area in downtown Savannah. We met at my apartment with our dirty grabbers and buckets and walked down towards Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, a heavily trafficked street in Savannah, whose thruway entrance sat right behind our apartment.

Since it was our first outing together, I decided to take my dog Rowan out with us. He’s the most well behaved and docile compared to Cincy, both of which are rescues. I trusted he would make an excellent emotional support dog, on what could have been an outing that could have had many new volunteers and new social interactions for my introverted self. Even though it turned out to be just me and a friend cleaning up, it’s always nice to have a dog around.

Taking Rowan on a cleanup with me. It’s hard managing a dog, and a grabber, and a trash bag all at once!

We cleaned up on MLK, pulling water-filled chip bags and crumpled receipts out of the bushes with our trash grabbers. Litter pickup can be a very relaxing thing if you’re able to distance yourself from the problems that cause it. You’re outside in what constitutes nature in an urban area, focusing on walking, looking down at the sidewalk in front of you, and your mind ventures to a meditative state where you zone out. Pick up an item, put it in the bucket. Pick up an item, put it in the bucket. It is methodical—a flow state. 

And then all of a sudden:

“Look!” Stacey said, pointing with her grabber towards the street.

In the middle of this four-lane road, a large dog was wandering around with no leash or anyone coming to chase after him, besides the semi-truck that was barreling towards him. 

We immediately started screaming.

“Hey! Come here, puppy!” we yelled, making tsking sounds to get his attention. It was at this point that I really wished I had learned how to whistle.

He heard us calling to him over the sound of air brakes and turned to look at us, panting with his thick pink tongue hanging out of his face. His eyes locked onto Rowan, who was dutifully standing next to me in his harness and leash. As soon as he saw Rowan, he started jogging over towards us and out of the street. We soon deduced that this dog wasn’t fixed yet, and probably ran away from home looking for a lady-dog to hook up with. Apparently, his senses couldn’t deduce that Rowan was a boy from this far away.

As he ran over to the sidewalk towards us, Rowan started pulling back and hiding behind my legs. He doesn’t enjoy confrontation, which he learned from his mama. As this dog started sniffing Rowan’s butt and getting all up in his face, Rowan somehow pulled free of his harness and started booking it down the street away from us. In a split second, I threw down my bag. I tossed my litter pick up supplies into the bushes, inadvertently littering myself, and started sprinting down the street towards Rowan and this dog that was now chasing him in a full sprint around the corner.

Luckily, we were only a few streets away from my house. As I ran around the corner, I saw the dogs running up the road towards our apartment. By the time I made it to my front door, Rowan was sitting there waiting to be let inside like the good boy that he is, and the other dog was panting, looking up at me like, “That was fun!”

I had thrown my bag along with my house key into the bushes, so I quickly called Matthew, who was sitting inside our apartment upstairs.

“Can you come downstairs and get Rowan? And can you bring an extra leash? There’s a stray dog down here that followed us home,” I said to Matthew, out of breath from running for the first actual reason in my adult life.

Matthew rushed downstairs to grab Rowan and hand off the leash to me. Then we were standing there with this huge dog, trying to figure out what to do with him.

We took his picture and posted it to the Lost and Found Pets group and local neighborhood groups. No one seemed to be looking for him. He was wearing a small black collar with no tags, but he also hadn’t been fixed – so it seemed like he had an owner, but one that wasn’t up to date on the importance of taking care of their animals and reducing population growth. We called the local animal control, but it didn’t open for another few hours. We finally ended up taking him into our backyard, a tiny concrete pad shared between four apartments in the complex and waited for animal control to open up so we could take him in.

Stacey had just put her dog down a few months prior, and as much as she wanted a new dog, it was too soon for her to adopt anyone else. The pain of loss was still raw. We waited to see what animal control would say. And if anyone would come and claim him in the two weeks before he would be put up for adoption at a local animal shelter if they had space for him, or if he’d be put down due to overcrowding.

As we sat in our mosquito-infested backyard on this humid August day in Savannah, we gave him water and brought him toys. He was panting profusely like he was overheating. We couldn’t bring him into the air conditioning with our other dogs because we didn’t know what his demeanor would be, or if he had any diseases that could be transmitted. We stayed in the backyard with him for the next four hours, slowly falling in love with him dumb drooling face.

Giving Him Up For His True Home

When animal control opened, we got in the car and drove over. I sat in the back seat with him, his large body pacing back and forth across my lap between the windows of our vehicle, drooling hot wet droplets onto my legs, as he waited anxiously to see where he would be taken next.

We walked inside animal control, filled out the intake paperwork, and watched them walk him down a long hallway away from us. We told them to please contact us if no one came to pick him up within the two week grace period, even though we weren’t allowed to have any other dogs in our apartment per our agreement with the landlord. But we were hopeful that whoever had lost him would come and pick him up that day. With heavy hearts, we left animal control and tried to continue with our regular lives, thinking this would be a funny anecdote we could recount of the day we found a stray and brought him to animal control to be reunited with his owners. 

It would be a love story of a pet and owner reunited.

Meeting Marty in our backyard before we took him to animal control.

It Was Not A Classic Love Story

After a week, he was still on animal control’s website. They had named him Bowser, like the arch-enemy of Mario in the Nintendo’s Mario franchise that smashes everything in his anger with his fist and spiked turtle shell. No one had come to claim him.

After two weeks, the same. No one seemed to be missing him. I monitored their Facebook page religiously, staring at the picture they had taken of him with heart-emoji eyes.

At home, we started making the pro-con lists of adoption.

Cons of adopting another dog:

  • The cost of adoption
  • The cost of treatments
  • The cost of annual vet visits
  • The cost of rabies tags
  • The cost of food for a big dog
  • The cost of added toys and bedding
  • The cost and time of training classes
  • The time commitment for a large dog
  • Managing school and work with three dogs
  • The limited amount of space we had in a small apartment
  • Will he get along with the dogs we already have?
  • If he doesn’t, will we have to return him, rehome him, and add to his stress?

Pros of adopting another dog:

  • More love in our house

That was the extent of our pro list.

And yet, at the end of two weeks, we called animal control to see if we could come and meet him again. We made an appointment. Because that is what happens when you’re an animal person: you exchange your personal freedoms to provide a home for an animal that doesn’t have a good life, even if it means a lower quality of life for you. You desperately want to provide a better experience for them. And in many cases, they will die otherwise. They will be euthanized, put into black garbage bags, and hauled to landfills around the country. Once filled with hope and joy, their puppy bodies will lie in a landfill, rotting in plastic bags. 

Maybe this is your savior complex in action, perhaps you just want to save something, for the story of it all. It would make a good story, wouldn’t it?

When we got to animal control, they walked us back to an enormous row of outdoor cages. And there he was, panting in the heat with his massive tongue hanging a foot out of his mouth, waiting for someone to come and get him. Waiting to escape this place.

Animal shelters are filled with cute dogs, but their situations are not so cute. The workers are doing the best they can, given the limited amount of resources and space they have to manage all of the animals that come through their doors. But they are stressful environments. The animals sit alone in cages, made anxious by the screeching coming from all the other dogs around them that are equally lost and alone, without a pack or a family to care for them. It is a purgatory for these animals. Especially in the south, where the hellish summer air pushes down on you, adding to the agitation and anxiety as you wait patiently for a breeze to soothe you. 

Maybe we were the breeze that could whisk him out of this place.

As we approached his cage, he was jumping and barking. Angry, excited, sweating. I had never had a big dog before, only beagles and small dogs. This was a lot to consider. They took him out of the cage for us, putting a rope leash around his neck, and let us walk him around the property. He was jumping all over the place, jumping up onto my chest, a real mess of a dog. So anxious and scared. And I was anxious and scared, too. I knew the issues we had with adopting another dog. But I wanted a love story, and no one else was coming to save him.

We paid our money at the desk, signed the paperwork, and got his rabies tag.

Drugged up, drooling on our center console.

We came back a week later to pick him up after his neuter surgery. He was still a mess, but a dopey mess. If he could talk, he could have been slurring his words in a drugged-out state, unable to operate heavy machinery. We walked him to the car as he hobbled along, swaying from side to side. In the back-seat of our vehicle, the same back-seat he had been in when we dropped him off a month ago, his tongue fell out of his face as he drooled onto our center console in his drug frenzy.

Despite our coming to Savannah so that I could get my graduate degree, I honestly believe that we were sent here to find him. Because after all the nonsense that happened next, I don’t think any other family would have kept him. And after all the madness, I still wouldn’t want any other dog but him.

an; Cincy giving the boys side-eye from the corner of the couch. Not impressed.

The Hopeful Place: Being Optimistic

We named him Martin Luther Wilking, also known as Marty, after the street that we found him on: Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The week that we adopted him, Matthew had to travel for work, so it was just me and all three dogs alone in our small apartment. Because of the agreement with our landlord, whose office was just down the block from our apartment, I felt like we were harboring a fugitive. 

We didn’t tell anyone that we had adopted him. No pictures on Facebook, no stories shared with family members or friends. When I took him on a walk, I snuck him quietly down the stairs of our apartment building – as quietly as I could because he had apparently had never encountered stairs before and was very loud about it – and made sure to stay away from their office building while we walked. Without understanding how to handle a large dog, we got him a harness that allowed him to almost pull my arm out of its socket while trying to take him on a calming walk down the street.

The first month he was living with us, he paced back and forth between the window, our bed, and the other window. He could have dug a gash in the floor with the amount of walking back and forth, back and forth. I was so worried about how his entrance into our home would impact Cincy and Rowan’s behavior and their relationship with us. I loved our family the way it was, and bringing in a new soul to your family is always a worry to how things will mesh together. It was strained at first, but by the second week, Rowan and Marty were already snuggling on the couch. I thought this might be alright.

The Dark Place: Almost Giving Up

During that week, while Matt was gone, I took my small dogs out onto our tiny balcony, which could only be accessed through our tall, historic window, so that I could brush them. Cincy sat on my lap, and I brushed her loose hair off into the street below. All of a sudden, Marty came up to the window. Anxious about being in a new place and not being allowed outside with the other dogs, he bounced up onto the window and broke the glass with his strength. Shards of glass shot out onto the balcony and our bedroom floor. With my anxiety so high because I knew he wasn’t allowed to be there, I screamed at him. I rushed through the broken window, telling him to go to his crate. As he ran to his crate and I tried to slam the door, he reached out and bit at my hand. I screamed again. I can’t imagine what our neighbors thought. But I was crying and angry at our broken window, only a few days into adopting this new dog.

I immediately called Matthew, only a few days into his business trip.

“I don’t know if we should keep him,” I cried as Matthew listened intently on the other side of the phone. “I want to get rid of him.” 

I was a wreck.

He tried to talk me off the ledge. 

I grabbed Saran wrap to tape to our window so that the bugs couldn’t get in. When Matthew got home, he helped me replace the window with plexiglass so that our landlord would never know. But for the entire time we lived there, I always worried. After everything we had been through with this dog, would they evict us? Would we be homeless? Would they make us send him back to that animal shelter? 

None of those seemed like ideal options to me.

When Things Changed

Ultimately, we decided to move to a bigger house. The next year, we moved to a rental with an actual backyard and enough space to live comfortably with three dogs. We paid our pet deposits for all of the dogs, a small exchange for the reduction in anxiety that Marty’s past fugitive existence had given me. A new life began. 

When Matthew got home, we signed Marty up for dog training classes. It was a difficult process. Our trainer tried her best to guide us, gave us tips on new harnesses to walk him, and taught us training procedures. We taught him simple tricks and basic commands, but he screamed at all the other dogs in the room and barely listened to us when we tried to calm him down. He won’t listen to any command when he sees a dog on the street and gets frustrated that he’s on a leash and can’t interact with them. 

Maybe we are bad dog owners. 

Dog training classes, where somehow Marty ended up in a class by himself with no other distractions.

But at the same time, there are aspects of our dog’s personalities that I would never want to blot out with the desensitization that comes with the training process. I don’t want to break them. I don’t want to break them and will them to my human command, which is just – if not even more so – flawed. 

Maybe this is because I had been in therapy before, and I know what it looks like to have someone else try and command how your mind works. Honestly, I love the quirks our dogs have while they are at home. But I know I can never take my dogs to a dog park, a brewery, or a calm walk downtown. It is only when we take them out in public that I worry about how they will function. 

And since Marty came into our home, with two small dogs already ruling the palace, he fell into step beside them. He doesn’t mess with Cincy, the smallest dog, and arguably the queen of the pack. He still messes with Rowan, probably because he gave him permission to on the day that met. That can never be undone.

What I’ve learned in Owning a Large, Unruly Dog

Marty is arguably the cutest thing to grace this earth. That does not mean he is always perfect, or sweet, or kind.

If we didn’t adopt him, he might have been euthanized or adopted and returned multiple times to the shelter. He is not a relaxed dog. He is terrible on walks and aggressive on a leash. He has to wear a muzzle to the vet because he turns into a different dog when he’s anxious. This is after the months of dog training we took him to.

He lived on the streets for who knows how long before we found him, living with people who didn’t get him fixed and he was over four years old when we found him, so who knows what else they did or didn’t do to him. He sat in animal control for weeks because no one came to claim him, and no one else wanted to adopt him.

When we are walking down the street, he is not your stuffed animal to squeeze. Not all dogs are here for you to pet, regardless of what Facebook and Instagram tell you. He is an animal. He doesn’t know you. He knows me – and he will protect me above all else because I take care of him, feed him, and love him every day.

We don’t know you. Don’t come up to us. If you do, he might bite you. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. If a random person on the street came up and wanted to hug you, would you let them? No. Especially not in the time of the Coronavirus.

So please, keep your distance, and we can all go on our merry way.

I would rather give my dogs a good life at home, then worry about my own social life and being able to bring my dog-candy out in public for Instagram dog-porn. 

That’s not what dog ownership is to me.

Being a dog owner is more than training. It is making sure they get their monthly flea and tick treatment, are fed well every morning and night, and get proper exercise and love. That – we can do. And will do, for all of the dogs we have now, and that come after.

I also don’t like the word ‘owner’, but that’s an issue for another time.

Since adopting Marty, he has become an invaluable part of our family. But this is only how it worked out for us, given our circumstance. I know not all dogs will fit in with certain families; I just wish more people had the opportunity to give the wounded ones a chance to have a good life.

We all deserve to have a good life, and it’s not the dogs fault that they ended up anxious and afraid. That’s what we all have to remember. It’s humans that domesticated them in the first place, and we have a moral responsibility to handle the dogs that didn’t make it through the system as well as we would have hoped.