By Dustin Rhodes


If you’re reading this, I am going to assume we’re on the same page about buying animals from breeders. Specifically, that doing so is evil and that it is part of a massive problem: Between 2 and 3 million animals are still killed in shelters (just in the United States alone). That means if we really love cats and dogs—which of course we do—we must adopt, not shop.

(Steps off soapbox…)

While I am both a cat and dog person, I am completely obsessed with dogs. Big dogs. Small dogs. Dogs with attitude. Dogs with squishy faces. Old dogs. “Bad” dogs. “Good” ones, too.

My family adopted Turtle, a pug mix, two years ago. He is somewhere, now, between 8 and 10 years old. He is sweet and loving but he has an anxiety disorder, which makes him terrified of people he does not know (which we did not know about when we adopted him). It took me a whole year to be able to walk him on a leash without Turtle having full blown panic attacks every 20 feet. I still can’t walk him on busy roads and he is insistent about routine in his walks. To wit, Turtle is perfect and it is not possible for me to love him more than I do.

We’ve always thought of Turtle as an “only dog”—meaning that’s what he prefers and that a second dog would be stressful for him. But we’ve also thought—as animal lovers who want to help—that we should do more. We’ve been torn.

A friend of ours is the executive director at Asheville Humane Society—our city’s local municipal shelter. I once quipped to Tracey: “If a middle -aged or old chihuahua ever comes in who loves all people and all dogs, please let us know.”

And then he did. “Come meet Pepe,” he said.

He told us Pepe was 5 (or so) and had been transferred from an out -of- town shelter; that’s he’d already been adopted out by Asheville Humane Society, but the family returned him because an older person in the home kept tripping on him. I was intrigued.

Spontaneously, I loaded Turtle up in the car and we drove to meet Pepe. I said “yes” to Pepe less than four seconds after meeting him, which would have happened, probably, even if he and Turtle did not hit it off immediately—which they did. They spent the whole day (and every day since) chewing each other’s faces; chasing each other around the yard and on trails; giving each other endless kisses and baths; cuddling together; occasionally getting into a fight over a vegan chew bone (and then making up and playing five minutes later). “Turtle now has a ‘therapy chihuahua,’” we tell our friends.

A couple of days after I adopted Pepe, a few things did not add up: 1. Pepe wanted to play non-stop, with Turtle and any other dog he met 2. His teeth are razor-sharp. 3. He looks so young. 4. Pepe did not arrive house broken, which didn’t even occur to me because he’s five; five -year- old dogs are house broken, right?

I needed a professional opinion and brought Pepe to the vet. It took her five minutes to declare: Pepe is a maximum of 1.5 year’s old … maybe closer to a year. Look – he has six baby teeth in his mouth, which incidentally all need to be removed!

It occurred to me that many people would probably return Pepe at this point. Two weeks after adopting him, he required surgery and additional vet visits, which came to a little over $550. Plus, he was not who I thought. I wanted an older dog.

Here in Asheville—a small city of less than 100K in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina—around 800 pets are discarded at the local shelters per month (thankfully, about the same amount are adopted out). The reasons are the same just about everywhere: inconvenience. Someone had a baby. Someone died. There are vet bills someone can’t afford, or they don’t have to time to spend with them. The list goes on and on.

I would argue that a lot of people—maybe even a majority of them—don’t know what they’re getting into when they become pet owners. Their expectations are unrealistic. They aren’t prepared for the expense or the “bad behaviors.” They aren’t prepared—or willing—to learn what animals need from us and provide for them—which is the most important thing.

I was not prepared to house break a one- year- old chihuahua with a bladder the size of a bean. I actually have had to consult an animal behaviorist and a book to figure this out, and trust me, I have not figured this out yet. It’s a pain in the you-know-what. But having lived with dogs my entire adult life, I did expect there would be bumps in the road.

My point is, there is no animal that is “perfect” for us. That’s not to say there are better choices for us as individuals. But it’s better to make an informed decision and assume there will be problems—maybe even frustrating problems—which are part of the journey and part of the “reward” of living with a dog.

I remember how frustrated I was for a whole year of trying to teach Turtle to walk on a leash without being completely terrified (which included putting him on anti-anxiety medication as measure of desperation). And then I remember that feeling, on some random walk on a random day: “OMG, Turtle is just taking a walk. Almost like a normal dog.” It was a moment I will never forget.

The thing is, loving a dog—getting to know them and learning how to live together—is one of the greatest pleasures in life. If you are able and can commit to the long haul (no matter what), please consider adopting an animal in need of a home. I am pretty sure you’ll have the same experience all of us do — you end up saving each other. The peeing, pooping, biting, scratching, loving, heartache, vet bills are all worth it. And then some.


Development Director Dustin Rhodes is charge of fundraising for Friends of Animals and is a contributing writer for Action Line. He resides in Asheville, North Carolina — a progressive, animal-loving community in the Blue Ridge mountains.