Last night, the foster puppy I’ve had longer than any other found what I hope will become her forever home. Kissing her goodbye was one of the most bittersweet moments of my life.
Ginger arrived in New Jersey on Saturday, June 16. She had been abandoned at a South Carolina shelter where she, her four siblings, and their mother were given just a few days to live. The puppies, believed to be a mix of German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever, were only three months old.
Lulu’s Rescue, one of the groups that helped to rescue my dog Blue, agreed to take the mom and five pups and find them homes here in the Northeast. The rescue called the pups “The Spice Girls” and listed them on Petfinder.com as Ginger, Cinnamon, Nutmeg—you get the idea. The pooches were put on an RV transport and driven to my home state of New Jersey, where, by the time they arrived, the rescue had four families approved to adopt one puppy each. When the RV’s back door slid upward and open, the families stood off to the side, eagerly clutching the brand-new leashes and collars they had bought for the newest members of their families. The transporter handed the puppies one-by-one out of their crates and into the waiting arms of the Lulu’s volunteers, who placed them on the grass as the adopters knelt down and smiled.
Four of the five puppies ran toward the adopters with kisses and love so glowing that they might as well have been a rainbow streak across a field. Each of those four puppies got a home that day.
Ginger got scared and wouldn’t let anybody pet her. She tried to run away. And she was once again left unwanted.
I had Blue with me that morning at the transport, and Ginger was willing to follow him even if she wasn’t too sure about me at first. She slept the whole hour’s ride to my home, making me think she’d been awake for at least half the night in the RV, listening to every bump in the darkness. When I let her into my large, fenced back yard, she immediately ran under the deck to hide. She barely came out for the next two days, except to sniff around Blue when he walked in the grass. I had to leave food for her in a bowl on the deck and then inch it closer and closer until I could get her into the house to eat. It took a good week before she would eat calmly with Blue in the kitchen, with me standing next to her.
It’s been more than two months since that week when Ginger first arrived in my life. Four other foster puppies have come and gone in that time, all adopted into new families through Lulu’s Rescue, lickety-split. Ginger has stayed, slowly but surely learning to trust me and feel safe. She now romps and plays with Blue all day long, rolls on her back to ask me for belly rubs, and practically pulls my arm off with her leash when we make the turn at the park that leads to the river. She’s a swimmer, absolutely gorgeous to watch as she frolics and slaps at the water, occasionally sticking her face below the surface to look for fish. She loves to ride in the car, is fully house trained, and doesn’t even need a crate anymore. She’s an old soul who has never once chewed on anything except her toys. Unlike most puppies, Ginger thinks before she acts. She’s been a pleasure to have around, and I’ve of course fallen in love with her. So has Blue. They often lie together on the deck, taking long naps in the summer sun.
Lulu’s received several applications from people who wanted to adopt Ginger these past two months, but things just never worked out for this sweet girl. One woman who applied hung up on me after I explained to her that Ginger is shy with new things, and that she would be standoffish at their first meeting. One family had five children younger than 10 years old, which the rescue and I both thought would send Ginger into an aneurysm. Another family had a kid who plays soccer and wanted to take Ginger to the local fields four days a week so that all the kids could pet her. Also a recipe for disaster with a shy dog. Yet another family with older children had a 2-year-old rescue dog who needed a playmate. When I drove 90 minutes to their home to introduce Ginger, she got so nervous that she wouldn’t let the people touch her for a half-hour. And she wouldn’t play with their dog, either, even though she usually plays beautifully with other dogs. As we sat their in their backyard, me on the ground at Ginger’s level and these nice people willing to give her a chance, Ginger hid behind me, shaking and probably wishing she were invisible. They politely withdrew their application.
After that day, Lulu’s Rescue offered to pay for Ginger to learn some confidence with strangers at Doggie Day Care. I took her to my vet to get her the required shots, and then I drove an hour round-trip to drop her off at Doggie Day Care. After all that effort, I could barely get her to walk through the front door. Her hind legs were shaking so badly with fear that the staff didn’t want to approach her at first. I again got on the ground, put Ginger in my lap, and tried to soothe her nerves. We all knew that at just five months old, Ginger could still be brought out of her shell, but they agreed it was going to take some work. When I drove back to pick her up later that day, they told me she had settled down a little bit and allowed a few people to pet her—but only after more than an hour of being bribed with chicken and cheese.
As the weeks turned into months, I tried to figure out how I could adopt Ginger and keep her myself. She felt safe with me. She felt happy in my quiet, country home. But I had two problems. First, Blue and I were about to start touring for my new book about how he was rescued. Ginger would never tolerate the stress of that schedule, and she’s not the kind of dog who tends to do well in a kennel. Second, I knew that if I adopted Ginger, there would be one less space for foster dogs who were still on death row in the shelters and waiting desperately for a place to go. As much as I adored Ginger, I felt like I had a responsibility to be a part of the big-picture solution. I’ve had 19 foster dogs in the past year. If I’d adopted the first one, then 18 other dogs would have died, including her, because the foster space in my home would have vanished.
I knew there was a dog as great as her sitting somewhere in a shelter, needing her spot in my home. I had to keep working with the rescue to find Ginger’s true family.
Then, on August 14, just one day shy of Ginger’s two-month anniversary with me, Lulu’s Rescue received an e-mail from a couple named Tim and Charmaine. They had seen Ginger on Petfinder. Their note was short but promising: “Hello Ginger, we have the perfect home for you. We have been caring for dogs for over 25 years, ours and rescue dogs. Excellent references, excellent environment. We are dog people. We live on a farm with two cats. Searching for my best friend, for unconditional love and attention.”
Tim and Charmaine drove more than an hour to my house even though I offered to meet them halfway, because they said they wanted to see Ginger wherever Ginger felt the most comfortable. They walked from my driveway into my back yard, watched Ginger scoot away, and then sat down on the grass—where they stayed for a good 15 minutes waiting for Ginger to settle down. I gave them each a handful of treats, and they gave some to Blue and some to my other foster dog, Chase, while trying to coax Ginger to come. She walked in between them at least a half-dozen times, each time getting a little closer, before finally taking a treat from Charmaine’s hand. Not once did they try to force Ginger into being a different kind of dog. Not once did they complain that they were sitting on a stranger’s lawn. They accepted her shyness and tried to let her know they loved her just the way she was. And they commented a few times on how gorgeous Ginger was in person.
Then we moved into my den. Ginger followed us inside and took more treats from Charmaine, then accepted a quick scratch on the head. Ginger wasn’t shaking or nervous—the first time I’ve ever seen her act that way with strangers. After taking a few more treats, she lay down perfectly content. I picked her up and put her on my lap, and Charmaine sat next to us on the sofa. Ginger went to her willingly while Charmaine petted her. Then Tim moved onto the sofa next to me. Ginger lay next to him, put her head on his lap, and closed her eyes.
Tim and Charmaine offered to foster-to-adopt Ginger that afternoon. They said they loved her just the way she was, and they didn’t think anything was wrong with her at all. The only reason they didn’t adopt her outright that day is that the rescue has a process of verifying references and doing a home visit to ensure that the adopters are legitimate. That process just ended yesterday, which is when I drove Ginger to their farm to say goodbye.
A mile’s worth of cornfields line the road to their 200-year-old farmhouse, which is quiet, so Ginger won’t be startled by random people or noisy traffic. They have adult children, so Ginger won’t be grabbed at by toddlers. Tim loves to kayak, so Ginger can go all the time to the river with him to swim. And they have a huge hole in their hearts from the death of their longtime dog, Heidi, whom they considered a child. I saw pictures of Heidi all over their house, and even embroidered into a quilt. Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of Heidi’s death. Tim and Charmaine spent that day honoring her. And one day later, Ginger took Heidi’s spot in their home, and in their hearts.
“I’m so glad you gave her a chance,” I told them on the first day we met, finally feeling like the rescue had found people who would be as good to Ginger as I could be myself. “Ginger is a special one. She’s just an unusual puppy.”
“She sure is,” Tim said, before adding two sentences that I will never forget: “She is smart, she is thoughtful, and she is extremely well behaved for her age. I think she just might be one in a million.”