Madeline started coughing this morning a little after 5, over an hour before I normally get up. This morning it was more of a wheezing cough, like bellows with a hole in them somewhere. It didn’t show signs of stopping, so I took her into the living room and laid down on the couch with her, hoping Richard could sleep. She sat there, looking at me, as I scratched her behind the ears and she wheezed. When she finally calmed down, she turned 180 degrees and settled herself onto the couch, rump nestled into my armpit.

It was Richard who first pointed out that I — we — talk to Madeline in full sentences, as if she understands us. Laying there this morning, that’s what I did, telling her the story of how she came to live with me.

My former partner, Garrett, and I had been looking for a second dog for months. His dog, Bosco, was getting old. We’d just purchased a house, and we had room for another pet. Bosco would have a friend again, and when he finally died, we wouldn’t have to face either a dogless home, or the prospect of choosing a “replacement”. We realized pretty quickly that the shelter’s rules about placement would limit the number of candidates pretty severely: any large dog or high energy dog required a home visit and a fenced in yard. More than once we saw a dog appear on the adoptions page of the shelter website, only to arrive the next day and find she was already pending adoption with another family.

So we developed a routine: I’d go to the shelter twice a week, when new dogs were up for viewing, and try to get there right around when they opened for adoptions at noon. It was on one of these visits that I first met Madeline.

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The adoption center could be a loud and cacaphonous place. A cement and cinder block building, the dog area was behind a solid door, with a few small rooms for small adult dogs, and other rooms with crates and pens along the walls for larger dogs.Where the lobby had a view to the kitten display and was often filled with children, stepping through the door to the dog area reminded you that this in an institutional setting. The smell of disinfectant, the barking, and occasional howling. The dogs were separated by size, with the smaller dogs kept in two rooms with large glass windows, right as you entered the dog area. When I walked through the door, the dogs were immediately on alert: someone new! 

I looked in the first window, and a dirty brown-black dog barked at me. She put her paws on the window sill and barked again. “Hey! I’m here! Look at me! I’m right here! Stop walking!” Her ears looked like they belonged on a Spaniel, with curly hair behind them. Her tail seemed oversized for her body, the only fluffy thing about here. And she was skinny and dirty: her chest tapered quickly into an abdomen that couldn’t have had an ounce of fat on it, and I could almost count her ribs standing four feet away. She looked like a mutt, a haphazard assembly of parts. I continued looking at the other dogs. An adorable Jack Russell mix, a Beagle, a chihuahua. All eliminated on temperament or adoption requirements.

I wandered back to the first dog I’d seen, who was still standing at attention, paws on the window sill. The card said her Kennel Name was “Shillie”. She really did look haphazardly assembled and dirty. But Shillie was the right size, didn’t have “fence” checked on her tag, and had continued to bark insistently, demanding that I notice her.

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The interaction room was a small rectangular room with a bench along one side and a drain in the middle of the concrete floor. A volunteer brought Madeline in and set her down on the floor. “Says here she was picked up in New Haven. Hmm, owner wouldn’t sign the release,” the volunteer said, puzzled. Madeline walked the perimeter of the room, tail held low, sniffing her new surroundings. I tried calling her over to me — “hey girl, come here girl” — but she continued her survey. The volunteer and I chatted about our respective dogs, and eventually Madeline made her way to me. 

She sniffed my pants leg and the back of my hand, looked up at me, and then jumped onto the bench next to me. She regarded me for a few moments, sitting next to her on the bench, before pushing her nose and head under my arm. In a matter of seconds she maneuvered herself so that she was sitting next to me, under my arm, which was sheltering her. She had chosen me.