Chapter 1 – Find Your Voice
(Jan 31, 2001)
“Come on, Anne, this place is a dump.” I said to my girlfriend as I reluctantly pulled our vehicle into the driveway of a rundown bungalow. “Let’s turn around and wait for an ad from a different breeder.”
“We’re here now so let’s just make the best of it.” Anne hopped out of the CRV and ran up to the porch before I could protest further.
When Anne said she wanted to get a Yorkshire Terrier puppy directly from a breeder, I guess I had naive visions of visiting a cottage in the country with puppies tiptoeing through the springtime air; I never assumed we’d instead end up at some dingy home in a sketchy part of old Tampa. But Yorkie breeders back in 2001 were hard to find locally and our time frame was short — we needed one for her mother’s birthday which was fast approaching — so when this one advertised a new litter available, we decided to arrange an appointment.
We were given another chance to leave when our repeated knocks on the front door went unanswered, but then Anne claimed she heard someone call out from inside. “That must be the breeder – I think she told us to come in.”
“How can you hear anything over all that barking?” I raised my voice over the cacophony of puppy calls, yet followed her inside nonetheless.
The smell of urine and dog hair was overwhelming as we crossed the threshold and I thought my allergies would send me screaming back outside, however I vowed to make the best of it — after all, I was only one year into my relationship with Anne and since I really liked her I knew I had to play the good boyfriend role and help her with this mission. Even as I closed the door, little black and tan puffballs began to assault my legs, begging for attention. “Well, let’s get your mom a dog!” I smiled, reaching down to pick one up.
The breeder, Mrs. Robin, was a short weeble of a woman with a storm of wild gray hair. She was the one who had called out to us when we knocked at the door and was sitting in the corner of her living room on a patchwork lazy-boy that had seen its best days decades past. Like a pied piper, she was surrounded by Yorkie pups — some crawling over her, others playing with squeaky toys, still more clawing at the newspapers that lined the floor. I guessed that she was north of seventy years old and how she kept up with the business of taking care of all her dogs was beyond me, yet I could instantly see in her face that her dogs were her heart and soul. She managed a tired smile as she welcomed us into her home and invited us to look at her latest litters.
Why Anne wanted a Yorkshire Terrier for her mother I had no idea; at the time, they were not the uber popular breed they are today. I had a Great Dane (Caesar) when I was five – a regal beast of a dog who unfortunately got ‘sent to the farm’ as a victim of my allergies (don’t worry in this case it was an actual farm run by my relatives) – and later, while I was in high school, my family had adopted a Chihuahua (ChiChi) – since it was a breed which was relatively hypo-allergenic (and I think they figured that if it wasn’t I’d be gone soon enough anyway). ChiChi was a fiercely loyal (read “cantankerous”) little dog who had grown so obese from table scraps that my parents now had to carry her around in a laundry basket because her tiny legs would often collapse under her if she tried walking too far. Although I had long since moved away from my family’s home in Pennsylvania and was now living in Florida, I recalled ChiChi with fond memories to Anne and had encouraged her to get a Chihuahua for her mother since I knew the breed and since they were still all the rage — “after all, Paris Hilton has one; surely your mom would like one to carry around too,” I remember joking with her. Yet that logic didn’t work for Anne; she had her heart set on a Yorkie, and when Anne made up her mind, it could not be changed.
That being said, I still found that decision rather peculiar because it’s not like Anne was all that familiar with the Yorkie breed. I know she had a toy poodle growing up (Zsa-Zsa) – a puppy The Shaw’s adopted when Anne was only one year old and which followed her military family around the world. Zsa-Zsa lived to the ripe old age of 19 and died not from old age itself but instead from an accidental drowning when she slipped and fell into the backyard pool – unbeknownst to all until it was sadly too late. After mourning Zsa-Zsa and moving out on her own, Anne switched to raising German Shepherds – quite a change from dealing with toy poodles, and clearly different the the Yorkie she was proposing now. Nonetheless a Yorkie was Anne’s choice — “for her mom.” In addition, Anne was dead set on getting a pure-bred dog from a breeder because she felt that the animal would have less health concerns (or at least that their health would be more of a known quantity since the parents would be identifiable) and most importantly that (like Zsa-Zsa) it could potentially live a long time.
Now my only previous experience in picking a pure-bred puppy was when my family bought ChiChi from a pet shop — as she was only one of two chihuahuas in stock at the time, the only ‘choice’ we had was whether we wanted a male or a female from a sibling group. I remember that we chose the female thinking she would pee in the house less than the boy, but since ChiChi later steadfastly refused to go outside when the weather was cold and since my family lived in Pennsylvania where it was cold half the year, ChiChi’s housebreaking would eventually consist of teaching her to relieve herself on a pad of newspapers in the corner (it worked surprising well). When we first adopted ChiChi she was already six months old and I remember that we felt bad about leaving her brother behind, so about a month later we returned to the pet store hoping to adopt him too. At the time we were told that the male had grown too old so he had been ‘returned to the breeder,’ however we later learned that a neighbor had found him abandoned in a box near the dumpster of a major retailer in the pet store’s strip center! (Not only did our neighbor adopt ChiChi’s brother, but he named him ‘K-Martie’ in memory of where he was found).
Yet buying ChiChi from a pet store gave me little preparation for how to choose the right puppy from among a group of twenty or so tiny Yorkies between eight to twelve weeks old. Mrs. Robin told us about the parents of the various litters and invited us to look in her kitchen where the adults were housed. Stacks of dishes were in the sink, dog bowls with food and water lined the walls, and about ten adult Yorkies scampered around the kitchen. One of them kept up a constant barking and pawed at the plastic fence that separated the kitchen from the puppy room.
“Don’t mind her.” Mrs. Robin explained. “That’s Queen Raven, one of the mothers. She wants her pups. I’ll give her time with them again once you leave.”
“Why is that one in a cage?” I pointed to a larger dog that was in a crate on the counter, separated from the others.
“That’s Lady – she’s in heat and I have to keep her apart from the males.” Mrs. Robin smiled. “I’m not ready for another litter just yet.”
Looking at all the puppies who had yet to find homes, I could see the logic of her words. So, we got back to the business of trying to choose a puppy for Anne’s mother.
I jostled with a pair of pups that appeared healthy and sociable — they were a male and female that seemed to go everywhere together despite the maze of Yorkies all around. Perhaps one of these will do? — I thought to myself as I looked over to Anne — she was sitting on the couch and smiling at one which had quietly nuzzled up against her leg.
“What about this little one with the chicken leg?” Anne reached down to pick up the tiny creature – it was clearly the runt of the litter for it was much smaller than the rest of the puppies that surrounded us; unlike the others, this one was not barking at all, yet more curious still was the fact that its front left leg had been shaved clean, giving it the appearance of a little pink drumstick.
“Oh, I see that Sassy has found you.” Mrs. Robin said apologetically. “I’m not sure she’d be the best dog for you – her health is quite fragile.” And she pointed over to a crate off to the side, “That’s Sassy’s. See the heating pad? She sleeps on that most of the day. She was born with my 12-week litter but she’s still smaller than the 8-weekers. She almost died, you know.”
Anne’s face went white as she clutched the little Yorkie to her, “What happened? Is that why she doesn’t bark?”
“Ha, I don’t know why Sassy hasn’t bark yet,” Mrs. Robin replied, “but I’m sure she will eventually. As to what happened to her, she couldn’t keep her sugar up. It’s common with small breeds; not every pup makes it. To be honest with you, Sassy was one that probably shouldn’t have made it.”
“But why? What’s the matter with her?”
“It’s simple really, Sassy wouldn’t fight for her food against her litter mates, so she didn’t grow. There’s only so much I can do to help. A dog has to stick up for itself and get to the teet. Sassy is not aggressive, so her litter mates always pushed her off the teet. About a week after birth I found her off to the side one morning — she was barely breathing and unable to move. I tried giving her some Karo syrup but it didn’t help. I thought she was a goner when I took her to the vet — she ended up staying there for nearly two months. Her leg is shaved because that’s where the IV was in — it was the only way they could get enough nutrients in her. Lucky for Sassy, they saved her life. And lucky for me, the vet’s office fell in love with her so they didn’t charge me a dime!”
“Gee whiz, two months at the vet?” I was sure Anne would dismiss little chicken leg as an option after hearing that. “You are lucky, Mrs. Robin, because I imagine that would have been some vet bill! But if the vets loved her so much, why didn’t they adopt her?”
“Don’t know.” The breeder replied. “Lord knows I offered her to them. They almost took her, but at the last minute said they couldn’t because they already had too many other animals to care for.”
“But Sassy is OK now, right?” Anne stroked her new friend behind the ears.
Surely she’s is not considering that sickly puppy? I wondered. And before the breeder could answer I asked some practical questions of my own. “Well, even if she is ‘OK’ she’s clearly not the same fitness level as these others. I mean, what will Sassy’s future look like? Will she grow normally? Will she always be sick?”
“Is she for sale?” Anne nuzzled Sassy, who was now nearly asleep in her lap.
“Anne, come on now,” I cautioned. “Is it really a good decision to get your mom a sick dog? Look at these two I’m holding. They’re both cute and they’re both a lot bigger – relatively speaking.”
“I want to know about Sassy.” Anne was firm. “What would you sell her for, Mrs. Robin?”
“Bring her over here.” The old woman held out her arms and Anne brought her the tiny pup. Mrs. Robin held her up by the scruff and looked into Sassy’s face, “I hadn’t priced her out because I hadn’t intended to sell her. Let me think about it while you continue looking at some other pups. Check out those two your husband is holding — they are siblings from a strong blood line.”
“He’s not my husband.” Anne corrected, unsure what to do and hesitating to leave Sassy, but when the breeder shooed her again, she came over to me — wading her way through a roiling pile of puppies.
“Look at them, honey.” I smiled. “They really are cute and cuddly.” I found myself getting attached to the puffballs in my lap, and thinking back to what happened with ChiChi’s brother long ago, I was sure that I had a chance to make up for past wrong, so I offered up, “We could get one for your mom and then one for us. Then your mom won’t be lonely and you won’t feel bad about leaving her to move in with me.”
Anne smiled at the thought and sat down on the floor next to me. Puppies clawed at her from all directions — she paid a mind to each while trying to play with the two in my lap. Meanwhile the breeder kept Sassy at her side. For a brief moment, I thought I caught Sassy looking at me — with those sad puppy dog eyes that can penetrate even the most stoic of souls. It was a moment in time that caught me off guard, yet I quickly looked away — protecting my heart so I wouldn’t get tempted to play the hero role for a sick dog that I was in no position to help.
This isn’t some Hollywood movie, I told myself. It’s not our job to save her. She’s better off with the breeder than us, right? And I focused again on the healthy dogs in my lap — both of which were yipping happily as Anne tickled them.
“What do you think, honey?” I asked. “Should we get them both? The girl for your mom and the boy for us.” And sensing that Anne was on the brink of agreeing, I asked the breeder, “How much for the pair, Mrs. Robin?”
Anne was facing me, with her back to the breeder, so she didn’t see what happened when I asked that question – but I did. It was not a surprise to me to see the breeder smile at the prospect of selling two dogs. What did get to me was the glimpse I saw of Sassy suddenly fidgeting to get out from under the old woman’s grasp – it even appeared that she reached that little chicken leg over in my direction!
This is crazy. I thought. Obviously my allergies are getting to me and my mind is playing tricks on me; that dog is NOT calling out to you, Mike. And I looked up at Mrs. Robin as she answered my question.
“I was asking $1,000 a piece because of their blood lines.” She said. “But if you buy them both, I’ll give them to you for $1,800 total.”
It was a steep number to pay for a couple of dogs in my opinion, but it was the going rate for pure-bred Yorkies at the time and we knew that before we came here so it wasn’t a surprise. “Well, what do you think, Anne?” I asked. “Let’s do it!”
Picking up both of the rambunctious pups, Anne smiled at me. I was sure she was about to say ‘yes,’ when of sudden a tiny little <yip!> sounded from the breeder’s direction. I looked over to see that Sassy had somehow made her way up onto the woman’s lap. “Oh, excuse me.” Mrs. Robin put a wrinkled hand up to her mouth as if she had just hiccuped, while at the same time she maneuvered Sassy back down to her side – between her leg and the arm of the chair — and most importantly, out of sight.
Of course, by then it didn’t matter. The whole charade of adopting the brother/sister was gone, for Anne had turned around and seen Sassy again. “I want Sassy.” She stood up. “And I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, Mrs. Robin, so how much?”
And so it was that our journey with Sassy began…
Sassy’s Life Lesson #1: Find Your Voice
Remember, up until this day Sassy had never barked before. And while it’s hard to call her little yip a bark, clearly it was her attempt to speak and get our attention. It worked — that little yip was the powerful force that brought our attention back to her and sealed the deal – securing our hearts forever in the process.
And yet, let’s think about Sassy’s situation at the time – she was a runt, undernourished, living amidst a pack of other puppies all much stronger than her, she’d been sick and nearly left for dead, and in spite of overcoming those initial problems, it’s quite possible she may not have survived much longer in that environment — where the breeder had a much stronger incentive to take care of the healthier puppies instead of Sassy. Perhaps Sassy knew her situation was desperate and that we were her last hope?
This reminds me of the biblical story of a blind beggar that begins on Luke 18:35 in which a blind man was sitting in neglect by the road while a large crowd passed him by. When he found out Jesus of Nazareth was among the crowd he called out for help. The crowd kept telling him to be quiet but the blind man called all the more, desperately raising his voice to be heard, and calling attention to himself — until finally Jesus asked him what he wanted. “I want to see!” He cried. And Jesus healed him because of his boldness and his faith.
I’d venture to say that most people in the beggar’s situation would likely not even have tried to brave that large crowd, assuming that there were just too many people already around Jesus for a blind man to ever get through. (Honestly that’s probably where I would have given up). And for those that did try, I’d guess that they’d have given up after calling out a bit and being harassed by that large, scary crowd and told to ‘shut up.’ I wonder, how many people would have had the courage to continue calling out? Would you have?
Thankfully Sassy had the courage of that blind beggar and, even when the breeder tried to hold her back, Sassy found a way to raise her voice in desperation to us. That little yip, her very first, was her way of telling us, “Rescue me!” And so we did. It was an event which changed all of our lives forever.
Point to Ponder:
What’s happening in your life right now that could be changed if you found your voice?