Surrender: Helping Dogs is Like a Divine Appointment

Recently I picked up another dog -- unintentionally, as always. I was driving, about a block from home, when I glanced idly out of my passenger window and saw a dog standing on the corner. It was still but looked alert, expectant, like it was waiting for a taxi. It was medium-sized, golden, and white with a rounded head, black nose, and slightly stocky body.

I pulled the car over and got out. I had no idea what I was going to do after that; I only knew that I'd seen a dog that looked like it needed help, and I was going to try and help it. For me this dog assistance is like divine appointment, the one area of my life in which I go immediately and completely on faith and trust that everything will work out. And it has, over the years. Those dogs I've caught I've stowed in my garage and added them to my own pack of three (which used to be one) until I could find them new owners and homes. There have been many I haven't caught, dogs too spooked or leery of people to let them come close, let alone submit to a leash and be led anywhere. Those dogs I remember the most: the skinny German shepherd with haunted eyes and a bad back leg, the small poodle mix with hair matted down to its skin, the black Lab with half a tail who would appear, and disappear, on my block regularly. Those dogs were on the drift and I couldn't help them, or they didn't want to be helped. I had to assume -- over and over -- that "things working out" meant something for them that I couldn't provide.

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This dog was somewhere in the middle of all possible circumstances, very interested in help but circling out of instinct. As I tried to lure it with treats and whistles, it watched curiously, approached, retreated -- a little bit less every time -- but didn't surrender. After more than an hour, me and my husband (he had walked down to the corner from our house to join the latest rescue attempt) gave up. I didn't necessarily think this was the end of it, but I'd learned that sometimes you just have to let go. Our neighbor who lived across the street from where I'd spotted the dog and who had joined us in trying to rein her in conceded failure too, and went inside his house. About halfway down our block I realized that the dog was following us. She'd made a decision. Still, she didn't quite surrender; when we got to our house she circled some more, refusing to be touched. I understood. I put out a dog pillow and blankets on the front porch and went inside; when I looked out of the front window she had bedded down for the night. The garage wasn't an option. She was more secure out in the open.

I named her Cinnamon, because I always name the dog something. This always alarms my husband, who thinks the act of naming an animal means we're going to keep it. It doesn't (though yes, we've kept a couple -- but no more, really. We're at the legal limit.) It just means that all encounters are personal for me, and also it's easier to adopt out a dog if it has a name because then it has an identity, a story, maybe even a past. Cinnamon seemed to like the name. As she acclimated to my pack she came to me at every opportunity to lay her round head on my knee, and be still. She didn't want anything else, not even a pat or a stroke, though she didn't object to either. This stillness is what she'd wanted all along but that she couldn't have, not at first. It was going to take a little time, which is what she was telling me the night she followed -- at a distance -- my husband and me home.

Cinnamon got a home in a week. In the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday, in the middle of the heavy spring rainstorm that beat anything we got all winter, a family from East L.A. came to see her; I'd put the word out through friends and fellow dog lovers, and the friend of a good friend had answered the call. Of course this family loved her picture, her name, her story, or story-to-be. Cinnamon dutifully let them touch her, cuddle her. She put her considerable head in the mother's lap, then on her little boy's, testing them out, much to their delight. They were looking for a companion for their year-old German shepherd, and Cinnamon appeared perfect: well-tempered, non-demanding, quiet but assertive. There was no debate or hard questions. It was a done deal.

She was a bit reluctant to get in their car -- where am I going, she seemed to be asking. I have found my place here. My heart sank, as it always did at this particular moment of letting go. I wondered briefly if I was doing the right thing. But this dog was passing through, I told myself. They all were, whether I snagged them or not. "You be a good girl, Cinnamon," I said evenly. She relented, made another decision. They drove off under gray skies, but the rain had stopped.

The family emailed pictures afterward of Cinnamon in her new digs. In one picture she was exploring the spacious backyard, black nose to the ground, circling, not looking or waiting for help any longer. She was home.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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