When my plane landed on Long Island, it felt like spring break had officially commenced. I was experiencing an immense craving for Rosa’s Pizza, a staple of my hometown, but the pizza was going to have to wait. My mother had been hinting at “making a stop” on the way home from the airport. I hadn’t entirely believed that we were off to Babylon Animal Shelter to adopt an elderly German Shepherd until she asked me to check Google Maps and see which PetSmart would make for a more efficient stop.
So off we went to PetSmart, where my mother, who has had German Shepherds her entire life, proceeded to ask multiple employees whether a female, senior German Shepherd would more likely need a harness in a medium or a large. When she grew dissatisfied with their answers, she consulted Google.
We bought a harness and a matching leash in a vivid pink, and my mother kept saying, “Isn’t this so Aspen?” We decided to keep the name Aspen because she’s had it for her entire life and plus, she was named after a city, just like our old dog Bismarck. So, we left PetSmart with snazzy new gear for a very old dog, and I reluctantly tagged along to the shelter. Pizza was still on the brain.
We waited at the shelter for some time, as the vet was triple-checking that everything was in order for us to take Aspen home. Then I was introduced to her in a small glass room. She was timid and clearly nervous, but sweet. While my mother went to sign final paperwork, I stood with her awkwardly, offering her treats (that she rejected) and petting her tentatively.
When we left the shelter, she seemed fairly at ease in the car, though she certainly wasn’t used to the abrupt movements. Still, she was calm enough that I was able to obtain my ravioli slice — pizza with ravioli as a topping, a Rosa’s staple — on the way home.
We arrived home and she remained calm but was more prone to nervousness than she had been in the car. She glanced around, clearly curious, but with a degree of caution, afraid of misstepping. We discovered quickly that certain movements scared her, likely due to trauma from past owners. She cowered when my mom picked up a watering can. These issues were upsetting but were to be expected, really. We knew it was likely that she had been abused for years on end before adoption papers were signed, so my family worked to cultivate a safe environment.
Yet there were parts of Aspen we had not anticipated. For example, when everyone went upstairs to go to sleep, she stayed downstairs. She lay on the carpet alone, which was devastating. My family has had many dogs in my lifetime, and they have always slept upstairs. Our dogs are part of our family.
I crept down the stairs to Aspen at one or two in the morning and just went to pet her to try to soothe her and make her more comfortable. My head was on the carpet next to hers when I realized that I was, perhaps, a little too close to a dog I did not know. I pulled away from Aspen, sitting up. When I did so, she offered me her paw. I took it and burst into tears.
I was so stunned, so captivated by the fact that this dog, who had clearly undergone years of abuse, had felt compelled to offer me her paw. When did she even learn to do that?
Over the course of the past few weeks, this has become one of her defining characteristics. She’s grown increasingly comfortable in this short time, happy to go hiking with my mother and becoming more willing to venture upstairs. Still, the paw thing hasn’t changed. I’m back in Baltimore now, but my mother says that she is still always offering her paw around the house.
Madelyn Kye is a sophomore from Long Island, N.Y. majoring in Writing Seminars and International Studies. Her column discusses people and things that have entered and exited her life, often through the lens of growing up.