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  By: Melinda J. Combs

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Online Dogging

I found true love online. Well, I found true doggy love online.
It all started when I decided to venture into another relationship after my first canine love, Chief, broke my heart. Our ten-year bond ended, not from a breakup, but when he passed away. It took me four months to start thinking about a new companion, especially because I wanted to honor Chief by giving myself time between relationships. I didn’t want a rebound dog. I’m not the kind of girl who rushes into another romance quickly. Besides, I needed enough time to allow my heart to mend as much as possible.
While walking with my friend Tess along the beach, I mentioned that it was time to start looking for another dog. “Looking” was the key word here; I wasn’t ready for another commitment, but I wanted to see what kind of dog I could find if I opened my eyes again. Opening my heart, well, that was another matter.
Tess mentioned a website that serves as a clearinghouse for homeless animals waiting to be adopted. She found her cat online, and they’ve lived happily ever since. So as soon as I got home, I did a brief search, just to “get acquainted with the website,” I told myself. Instead of being a woman looking for a man between the ages of thirty-two and thirty-eight and living within ten miles of my zip code, I was now looking for a young, female chocolate Labrador.
When I entered my zip code and hit “go,” six dogs popped up onscreen: Dottie in Redondo Beach, Miss Sable Vargas in Chatsworth, Pudding in Ontario, and so on. I viewed their photos, reviewed their personality profiles, and pondered their mixes. Was Pudding my type? Would Miss Sable Vargas and I get along? And then I started to wonder more about what wasn’t listed in these dogs’ profiles, like if Dottie would chew my shoes, or if Lady Bird liked to play too much.
Because Chief was a yellow Labrador/golden retriever mix, I convinced myself that the next dog after him must be a female chocolate Lab. If I found a girl, I would be less likely to compare her to Chief, and chocolate Labs enchanted me with those irresistible green eyes and big, soft ears. Besides, their renowned playfulness complements my extra energy.
But suddenly, I didn’t have the courage to inquire about a dog. I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t put myself out there, fall in love again, risk another heartbreak. And there wasn’t a way to send a wink, a far less risky move than an email or a phone call, to let a dog know about my interest.
I searched the website every few days, fawning and admiring but not ready to make the first move. Simultaneously, Tess emailed me pictures of available dogs she thought I would like. Her messages always read, “Hey, look at this one!” or, “Cute, huh?” One day, I received nine emails from her—talk about working hard to set me up! Of course, my friends and I exchange profiles of men we’re interested in. The dialogue is similar, just with a different species.
After too many nights of coming home to an empty house—or often just avoiding coming home altogether—I knew I could not endure the dogless life any more. I was finally ready. My first official inquiry: a chocolate Lab/American Staffordshire terrier mix named Gladys, a puppy who loved to chew and play. In fact, one of her photos showed her happily chewing on a shoe. When I called about her, nervousness struck. Would I say the right thing? What if I sounded like an idiot? When faced with phoning a potential date, I’ve been known to accidentally identify myself as the guy and ask for me. Would I now call myself Gladys? Fortunately, I didn’t. But when I learned more about Gladys and the fact that American Staffordshire terrier is the fancier name for a pit bull, I wasn’t sure if she and I would be a match. I hadn’t hit it off with a pit bull before. Besides, I wanted a chocolate Lab and didn’t want to change types.
A couple days later, I emailed about a purebred chocolate Lab named Madeline. In her photo she was running toward the camera, with big brown eyes and her pink tongue hanging out. When I called about her, again I felt anxious. What if I wasn’t good enough for such an official dog, one with papers? Was she out of my league?
The woman from the rescue shelter gently told me I had been beaten to the punch. “Madeline’s former owner will be interviewing two potential families this afternoon that want to adopt her, so I’m sure she’ll have a new home soon. Madeline’s had loads of inquiries.”
“I’m happy to hear that she’ll be in a new home soon,” I told her, disappointed.
That’s when I realized it might be a more competitive market than I had originally thought, especially for a female Lab puppy.
In the meantime, I also emailed about a few other dogs, and with some, I didn’t get any response. Had they already found someone else? If so, their profiles shouldn’t be up anymore, so that those looking for love didn’t get their hopes up. I conjured other reasons for such rejection: The rescue organizations were so busy with their work that they just couldn’t respond, or they knew the dog and I wouldn’t be a good fit, or I sent the email to the wrong address, or their email server crashed. Then I worried that I wasn’t as ready as I thought, because if I were ready the dog and I would find each other, and we’d walk off, side by side, into the sunset. Maybe somebody was trying to tell me something and I wasn’t listening. Maybe I was obsessing a little.
Still determined to find my chocolate Lab, I looked into some Labrador retriever rescue organizations, and when I emailed about Hershey Kiss, I learned I didn’t qualify because I didn’t have a back yard. The rejection crushed me. It was time for a self–pep talk: I’m an avid dog-walker, I told myself. There are plenty of dog owners who have yards but don’t walk their dogs, ever, and these rescue organizations made a great mistake by not letting me have an available dog. These dogs missed out on something great: me. But I knew plenty of other dogs existed for me. I just needed to keep looking.
I decided to broaden my search, moving beyond my typical type. After all, don’t they say love can be found in the most unexpected places? One evening after spending time online, passing profiles over because the dog was too old, too young, too big, or too small, I stumbled across a rescue shelter’s website while looking at a Lab. Once linked to the shelter’s pet list, I read every available dog’s profile. That’s when I found a teddy bear disguised as a dog. The profile listed her as an Australian shepherd/clumber spaniel mix, but the notes said, “If you can figure out her breed, please tell us. . . . If there was a breed Clown/Doll, Marley would be it.” The three photos showed off her copper body, dappled with white on her chest and toes, her white head, and one copper ear. In one photo, she wore a baseball hat backwards. With her white eyelashes and pink nose, she had me hooked.
I immediately emailed to ask if Marley was still on the market, because I didn’t want to get my hopes up only to be disappointed. Within an hour, a reply arrived: “Yes, and she’s wonderful.” I filled out an application with great trepidation: I had a simultaneous fear of rejection and commitment. Could this be the one? Was I ready? My first application didn’t arrive because of computer issues. Maybe the organization thought I was inept at that point. But I tried again, and upon review my application was deemed “flawless.” I passed! Somebody liked me, somebody really liked me!
We arranged a meeting at a pet supply store in Santa Monica. In the meantime, Marley’s profile circulated among my friends and family, who wanted to see my potential new companion.
Tess said: “Not really your type, but super cute.”
My father: “Lots of hair, so shedding may be a problem, but all of your clothes are normally covered in dog hair, so what’s the difference?”
My brother: “She needs to go on a diet. She’s got pit bull in her too.”
And my mother, aware of my tiredness of being alone: “She’s adorable.”
That Saturday, Tess and I set out on our dog-meeting adventure. First we visited a local animal shelter to look around, just to see if any dog grabbed my attention. I played with a chocolate Lab mix named Sally, but we didn’t mesh: Her hyper disposition threw me off balance, and she wouldn’t look me in the eye. Moving on, we drove an hour to Santa Monica.
Just in case, I brought a leash.
When I entered the chaotic pet store, Marley walked in behind me, returning from a brief outing with one of the volunteers. Pulling hard on the leash, she wanted back in her crate. I felt a bit disappointed that Marley didn’t say hello. But her rescuers greeted me with a hug and a, “We’re so glad you’re here to meet our girl.”
Now it was my turn to take Marley on a walk—to get to know her a little better, so to speak. She lollygagged around the pet store and basically refused to walk too far away, but the minute we turned around, she once again pulled hard on her leash to get back to the store. Apparently, she didn’t like being out of her comfort zone, and I wasn’t feeling any great connection.
Then I met with Dylan, who had pulled Marley out of the city pound, where she had been “dropped off” a few months before. As a volunteer for the rescue organization, one of Dylan’s jobs entails pulling dogs from pounds where they don’t have much of a chance. And during one of Dylan’s searches she discovered Sasquatch, whom she immediately renamed Marley because her mellowness seemed to parallel Bob Marley’s.
While sitting on the grass with Dylan, Tess, and Marley, I studied this overweight, dirty creature. Because her foster mother hadn’t had time to bathe her for the big meeting, it forced me to look beyond Marley’s appearance and take note of her personality instead. I could get her groomed and on an exercise regime in no time. That’s the easy part. It’s falling in love that’s harder.
Marley sat between us and flopped over on her back so many times I lost count. Her biggest desire? A belly rub. With her pink tongue hanging out constantly (because she has no front teeth), her different colored ears, and her need for affection, she proved hard to resist.
Dylan told us what she knew of Marley’s history: an easygoing, low-maintenance dog with a small invisible shield around her, probably from being neglected or left outside for far too long. Marley needed someone who could gently move beyond that shield, someone who could earn her trust, someone who could make her feel more secure. And she said more than once, “She’s one of our best dogs. She’s a bit of a nut because she’ll try to jump up on a car or something high, but she’s great. If I could take her, I would, but I already have four dogs.”
Before I could fully commit, though, I wanted Marley to look me in the eyes. After a few minutes of watching her intently, she made eye contact. Because Tess knew that mattered to me, she immediately enthused, “She did it! She’s looking at you! See? This could be the one!”
I didn’t feel an instant spark with Marley, but I agreed to love her anyway because I knew I could provide her with a good home, and I wanted to give her a chance—to give us a chance. Because they still needed to do a home inspection, Marley couldn’t come home with me that day. I had to wait even longer. But when I said, “Goodbye, I’ll see you in a few days” with my hand hanging onto the crate, Marley reached her paw up to touch my hand. That moment melted away my concerns. Maybe we’d be okay after all.
Now that Marley and I have been together for almost four months, I often laugh about my path to finding her. The first time I visited a shelter in search of a new companion, a volunteer told me, “Have faith. The dog will find you. It may take time.”
Isn’t that just like true love?

Copyright © 2006 by Melinda Combs from Woman's Best Friend: Women Writers on the Dogs in Their Lives, edited by Megan McMorris. Reprinted by permission of Seal Press

Photographs by Cami Johnson,