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The story of the dog who wouldn't be ours



My family and I failed in our attempt to adopt a dog from an animal shelter. We thought it would be easy, but the adoption questionnaire should have alerted me to the quagmire that lay ahead.

DogsBefore we'd even visited the shelter I had to answer reams of personal, interrogatory questions: how many family members lived in our house? How many hours per day did each one spend at home? Where would the dog sleep? Did we have a pool and, if so, how large were the gaps between the fence palings?

I hadn't even wanted a dog. We had a perfectly beautiful cat, which had come from the Animal Welfare League and which completed our neat family of two parents and three children. Though I'd grown up in a household of dogs, I wasn't particularly endeared to them. They made a noise, they made a mess, they seemed dirty. As an adult I still compulsively scrubbed my hands if I accidentally brushed against one.

But my youngest daughter was an animal lover. She gently caught the tiniest of lizards and released them safe from the cat's claws. She collected snails. She recued huntsman spiders from the bedrooms of her squirming older siblings. She cradled a wild baby rabbit all the way to the vet and sobbed violently when the injured animal died in her hands. She loved the cat but was desperate, above all, for a dog. 

Our hearts were set on Leni. He stared out at us from the shelter's website, liquid-brown eyes imploring us to take him home. On the appointed day, we arrived at the shelter excited at the prospect of leaving with a new family member.

As policy dictated, we walked Leni (and a group of other dogs) around the semi-rural neighbourhood. We warmed to him instantly: he was a timid little terrier-mix abandoned by who-knows-who and surrounded for who-knows-how-long at a shelter where around 100 other dogs waited for families to adopt them.

Leni seemed to like us, too: he looked up at us expectantly; he wagged his tail. But the shelter staff didn't approve of us. I hadn't covered our pool fence with mesh to ensure Leni wouldn't drown if he squeezed through the bars ('Do you know that more dogs drown than children?' one of the shelter staff had barked at me).

Moreover, said the shelter owner, Leni didn't like my husband. It was obvious that Leni couldn't comprehend the awful words falling from the woman's lips, for he continued to wag his little tail as my gentle-natured husband stood shocked beside him.


"I had managed to bring up three children without any of them drowning, I told the shelter in an email days later, once the shock had worn off. I was certain I could provide a dog with the same level of safety."


It was a humiliating thing, being refused adoption at an animal shelter. But it was worse knowing, in the ensuing months, that there was a little dog out there — and lots more besides him — who was being withheld from a genuinely loving family simply because they had failed to meet unreasonable demands. (I had managed to bring up three children without any of them drowning, I told the shelter in an email days later, once the shock had worn off. I was certain I could provide a dog with the same level of safety.)

We tried to find a suitable dog (one that could coexist with our cat) at other shelters, but the pickings were slim. And so we did the very thing the shelter that had refused our application railed against: we bought a puppy from a pet shop. And when she was less than a year old, we bought a second puppy, a boy, from another pet shop. They were both the last in their litters, left all alone in their respective pet shop windows, liquid brown eyes imploring passers-by to give them a home.

Though I hadn't wanted a dog, we now have two. And perhaps the shelter's weariness was appropriate, for as dog owners we've been rather useless: we have loved them too much, and now they believe they are humans. They fight for a place on my lap when I'm working (and sometimes achieve it simultaneously). They sleep in our beds, under the covers. They take me for exuberant walks — them flying ahead on their leads, me following in their wake — during which we meet the neighbourhood dogs and I pet them with nary a thought for sullied hands. They've somehow avoided falling into the pool.

It's been eight years since we were denied adoption at the shelter, and I still think of Leni, that dear little dog, sweet and timid and longing for a loving home. How I hope he found one.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Dogs, animal rescue



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Existing comments

Leni would have been so happy in your home you would have had to rename him Larry ??????

Jennifer | 15 June 2017  

Hi Catherine. Thanks for your sad story about Leni & the misguided behaviour of the so-called 'animal lovers' from the shelter. Once can only imagine the process that prospective parents of children must endure?

John Richardson | 16 June 2017  

I'm not sure of the point of this article. Animal shelters need our support. Animal shelters routinely deal with unwanted animals so it is hardly surprising that they are wary. After all adopting a dog - or any animal is a responsibility not a right.

Name | 16 June 2017  

If this tale were a parable, what would its lesson be? That legalism in a system hurts the clients whom the system is supposed to serve (Catherine Marshall, John Richardson)? That one must learn to see past a single case to the need for strong rules in a system to protect the many (Name)? It’s not hard to see how this animal shelter of eight years ago is a microcosm of various debates within the Church. But let’s not forget the solitary individual whose welfare is the reason why systems exist. I suppose we might hope that if Leni was put to sleep, it would have been (because of the rules of this particular institution) in a way that, to quote someone who was baptised a long time ago, fulfilled all righteousness, or, at least, all the righteousness that can be fulfilled in an imperfect circumstance.

Roy Chen Yee | 16 June 2017  

Lovely story, Catherine. Clearly, the animal shelter people have no training in Ignatian discernment!

Chris Gleeson | 16 June 2017  

There's a difference between being wary and paranoid ... This is not the first such story i have heard.

hilary | 16 June 2017  

I have a dog from the RSPCA, and was assessed for my capacity to meet her needs. as a person who grew up with dogs, and almost always had one, it was a shock to discover the skills required to care for a dog who has been damaged by her past experiences. I had not understood what I would need to work with. 2 years later, we have both survived, and we love each other dearly. but not easy. I feel for the workers who have to make decisions about who might be suitable for a particular dog.

Helen Kane | 16 June 2017  

Many years ago, our second rescue dog was run over just 6 weeks after we took her home. We had a fenced yard, but one morning my husband briefly left the gate ajar, when he saw our tree had been vandalised. The tiny dog shot out and went straight under a car. Who was to blame? My husband for being distracted? The kids for their vandalism? Our friend who happened to be driving past? Me for failing to warn my husband she was a real escapee? After tears all round, I think we felt it was just a tragic accident. A few months later I went back to get another dog, but came away empty handed and in tears after getting the rounds of the kitchen from the rescue manager. She later rang to apologise but I could never face the humiliation again so eventually we went to a different pound. In those days we weren't really vetted. Perhaps we should have been because the next dog killed all our chooks. (We loved her still). I'm sure the staff at shelters are doing a tough balancing act, but it might be worth remembering that nobody's perfect - whether they have two legs or four.

Laura Mooney | 16 June 2017  

Given the circumstances, I would have been tempted to revise the size of the gaps in the pool fence so the staff would be more confident the dog was not in danger of drowning. That way, if heaven forbid, the worst did happen then the staff would not be responsible, but the owner. But best-case scenario would be win-win-win (and the dog avoids a likely fate of being euthanised down the track)

AURELIUS | 17 June 2017  

Dogs are special and loving creatures. Still miss my little Stevie. Glad you gave a home to 2 dogs.

Noeline Champion | 19 June 2017  

Thanks for your story Catherine, We have an animal shelter near us which provides educational encounters for troubled youth. Its a good thing but I suspect that difficult staff encounters reveal more about that staff's personal history than the suitability of the adoptee and his/her family.

Trish Martin | 21 June 2017  

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